Toyota’s Highlander will be saying sayonara to its V6 for 2023, and hello to the same 2.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder currently found in Lexus’ NX 350 and other performance-oriented compacts from the Japanese luxury brand. Lexus announced the same engine swap for its larger mid-size 2023 RX 350 as well, so it’s quite possible we’re witnessing the dying days of Toyota’s venerable 3.5-litre “GR” V6.
In Lexus tune, the 2.4-litre puts out 275 horsepower and 317 lb-ft of torque, which is 20 hp less and 50 lb-ft stronger than the outgoing RX’ V6, a fair trade-off that should satisfy the majority of customers when fuel economy savings are factored in. The new Highlander version loses 10 horsepower from the Lexus, understandably, but just eight lb-ft of torque, for maximum thrust and twist numbers of 265 and 309 respectively.
Likewise, the new 2023 Highlander is down on horsepower when compared to the 2022 model’s V6, albeit the former is a significant 30-hp less. Fortunately, torque is up by 17 percent and 46 lb-ft, so therefore, with the right gearing it should perform similarly to the 900 cc larger lump. In a press release, Toyota is saying the new engine’s increased torque actually makes for “better everyday responsiveness,” “especially when taking advantage of the Highlander’s 7- or 8-person seating and generous cargo capacity,” while the updated model’s tailpipe emissions are also cleaner, with more than a 50-percent reduction in NOx and NMOG, plus less CO2.
Fuel economy should cause most 2023 Highlander buyers to smile
Aside from Highlander owners who love the outgoing model’s 295 horsepower and are willing to pay more despite today’s unprecedented fuel prices, most consumers will be happy to hear about an estimated rating of 9.8 L/100km combined city/highway. This compares well against the current V6-powered model’s 10.3 L/100km rating, while also using standard auto idle stop/start to minimize fuel use and reduce emissions when at standstill.
The new engine is once again joined up to Toyota’s eight-speed automatic transmission and standard all-wheel drive, a combination that provides ample efficiency and smooth daily operation with performance-focused gear changes when pushed hard, plus excellent traction in the majority of road conditions, plus most light-duty off-road situations.
Towing capacity remains a Highlander strong point
All the extra torque doesn’t translate into more towing capacity, but the 2023 Highlander will still haul up to 5,000 lbs (2,268 kg) of trailer, making it ideal for a small boat or camper. It features standard Trailer Sway Control (TSC) too, which utilizes Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) to minimize side-to-side trailer movement.
Of course, the Highlander’s best pump gains will be from its carryover hybrid powertrain, which continues forward with the current 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine and dual electric motor-generator set-up. Toyota hasn’t mentioned any 2023 fuel economy estimates for the Highlander Hybrid, but it will likely be similar if not identical to the 2022 model’s rating of 6.7 L/100km combined city/highway, while its trailering capacity is reduced to 3,500 lbs (1,588 kg).
Of note, Lexus will be introducing the new RX 450h+ later this year, the plus referring to a new plug-in hybrid version of Toyota’s well-proven electrified drivetrain, so it only makes sense that a version of this powertrain will eventually find its way over to the Highlander, making it capable of going up against the Hyundai Santa Fe Plug-in Hybrid and Kia Sorento Plug-in Hybrid, amongst others.
Dual 12.3-inch displays come standard in 2023 Limited and Platinum trims
While the Highlander’s engine is getting smaller, the standard infotainment touchscreen in upper-crust Limited and Platinum trims will grow by more than four inches for 2023. These models adopt the previously optional, and Platinum-exclusive 12.3-inch display, which is a move up from the regular 8.0-inch colour touchscreen that remains the only centre display available in LE and XLE trims.
Toyota also promises quicker response times to infotainment system inputs and a more intuitive interface layout, with more features as well, such as an intelligent voice assistant, a number of cloud-based functions and services, over-the-air software updates, plus the ability to pair two different smartphones via Bluetooth simultaneously, while content reportedly utilizes the entire 12.3-inch screen, unlike the outgoing version.
Wireless smartphone integration makes better use of improved wireless charging
Additionally, the updated infotainment system allows for wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which means the available Qi-compatible wireless charging tray (currently standard on XSE and above) can now be used together with full smartphone integration. Toyota also made the intelligent decision to move that wireless charging pad from the lower centre console to a device shelf that’s long been a clever addition to the Highlander’s instrument panel.
Refocusing ahead of the driver, Toyota will be doing away with the 2022 base Highlander LE’s remedial 4.2-inch multi-information display when the 2023 model arrives, and replacing it with the 7.0-inch display currently available in XLE and XSE trims. Even better, Limited and Platinum trims will now get a fully digital 12.3-inch driver display as standard equipment, with four visual themes no less, including Casual, Smart, Tough and Sporty.
Additional upgrades round out the 2023 improvements
Other upgrades include a standard foot-actuated hands-free power liftgate for XLE models and above, while the sportiest XSE trim now boasts black-painted 20-inch alloy rims inside 235/55R20 all-season rubber, these bolted to the same sport-tuned suspension system from the 2022 model, which still features high-rate springs and a stiffer rear stabilizer bar plus low-friction dampers working together with a specially-tuned electric power steering system.
Once again, the sporty XSE receives an exclusive front fascia design, incorporating a unique grille, an air splitter down below, and modified headlamp clusters, while a special set of rocker panels add more flair to the Highlander’s sweptback look. Blackened mirror caps, window moldings and roof rails add to the XSE’s performance-first appearance, while the rear design is capped off with dual exhaust tips.
XSE trim also adds a sportier theme inside, where black SofTex seat surfaces with cloth inserts combine with carbon-fibre-look inlays and cool ambient lighting. Additionally, Toyota makes an even more performance-oriented two-tone red and black leather-trimmed cabin available at no additional cost, featuring a red-stitched instrument panel bolster.
Hybrid Bronze Edition makes a return with exclusive Cement paint
Moving up through the 2023 Highlander line, Limited and Platinum models will receive power-folding side mirrors for 2023, and lastly new Cypress green exterior paint will be available, as will Harvest Beige and Glazed Caramel interior colour themes that now feature Black as the accent colour, instead of Noble Brown.
Last year’s XLE Hybrid Bronze Edition makes a return to the electrified Highlander for 2023, along with exclusive Cement, and Wind Chill Pearl exterior colours. The Bronze Edition gets special bronze-coloured accents from front to back, as well as bronze-tone 18-inch alloy wheels. Inside, the Bronze Edition features “mid-century modern-inspired” SofTex-trimmed seats with fabric inserts and bronze-coloured stitching that Toyota says are “like something from a concept car,” which is “amplified by the Captain’s Chair’s layout.” Illuminated bronze door sills and special floor and cargo mats embroidered with a unique bronze-stitched logo enhance the “designer look.”
Bronze Edition upgrades include rain-sensing wipers, two 120V/1,500-watt power outlets, a hands-free power liftgate, and the list goes on.
New updates should keep the Highlander number one in its mid-size SUV class
Toyota Canada will release 2023 Toyota Highlander and 2023 Highlander Hybrid pricing closer to the model’s availability this fall, at which point the order books will be open. Due to its many improvements, it should remain as Canada’s most popular mid-size SUV.
It’s held the position of best-selling three-row mid-size SUV for six year running as well, which is an impressive feat considering just how competitive its market segment is. Last year Toyota sold 19,885 Highlanders in Canada, resulting in its best year by a long shot, improving on its second-best sales year of 2020 by almost 21 percent.
The next-best selling Ford Explorer didn’t achieve anywhere near the same year-over-year (YoY) growth with sales of just 16,388 units in 2021, while Volkswagen’s Atlas came third with 13,491 deliveries last year, although this number also included the German automaker’s new five-seat Atlas Cross Sport model, which would be the equivalent of combining Highlander and Venza sales into one, that number being 26,134 units for an even more impressive total.
Competition is heated in the mid-size three-row SUV category
To be fair to Ford, its Explorer and Edge twosome combine for yet more mid-size SUV deliveries at 28,218 units, so the blue oval isn’t exactly hurting, and that tally doesn’t even include new Bronco sales that totaled 10,204 units last year, compared to 8,293 deliveries for Toyota’s increasingly popular 4Runner, which incidentally saw a YoY bump of six percent after its best-ever calendar year.
Three-row SUV alternatives keep getting added to the mix
On that note, the Grand Wagoneer and its less luxurious Wagoneer sibling are much larger utilities based on the full-size Ram 1500 pickup truck, so maybe shouldn’t be included on this list. Either way, it will be interesting to see how these big three-row prospects fare, not to mention the Jeep Grand Cherokee L, plus the new extended Wagoneer L/Grand Wagoneer L models, just introduced for 2023 a couple of months ago.
The just-noted Jeeps more directly go up against Toyota’s Sequoia and Chevy’s Tahoe/Suburban, et al, but Toyota is reportedly preparing a larger Grand Highlander to slot in between the current model and just-noted Sequoia, which should more directly take on Hyundai and Kia’s respective Palisade and Telluride models. Stay tuned for an update on this new model when Toyota reveals its plans.
Lastly, it should be noted that Dodge’s Canadian division sold off its final allotment of 2020 Journey crossovers last year too, that total being 90 units. We can expect something new from Dodge in the mid-size crossover categories soon, not to mention all of the Stellantis brands not yet mentioned, all of which will take their bites out of the total market. Certainly, Toyota’s Highlander should continue to do well, but staying number is no easy feat and hardly happens by chance.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann
Photo credits: Toyota
Think back to 2008. It’s not a year everyone will remember fondly, due to the housing crisis that was followed up by a short-erm financial freeze, plus numerous banking bailouts, and reasonable fear…
Think back to 2008. It’s not a year everyone will remember fondly, due to the housing crisis that was followed up by a short-erm financial freeze, plus numerous banking bailouts, and reasonable fear of economic woes ahead, but on the positive it was also an Summer Olympic year, held in Beijing, China (déjà vu all over again), and while that subject might be too political for some to dwell upon in an automotive story, 2008 was also the year that Conservative leader Stephen Harper eked out a minority up here in Canada, and Barack Obama was victorious south of the 49th. Even more momentous, it would take another month for Bitcoin to be introduced in January of 2009.
Why all the references to a past that’s now hardly recognizable from today’s world? Because that’s when Toyota’s full-size Sequoia SUV received its last major update. The first-generation Sequoia lasted a rather lengthy seven years, incidentally, and received its redesign with the advent of the second-gen Tundra, but today’s model, which will be replaced later this year, needed to wait a lot longer for its redesigned Tundra donor platform to arrive.
Amazingly, the first-generation Venza was new that year too, as was the tiny Scion iQ (remember Scion?). The iQ’s been off the market for seven years already, and, after a three-year hiatus the Venza was wholly renewed for 2020, but the Sequoia soldiered on unchanged. It’ll be 14 years old when it arrives later this year as a 2023 model, but from what we can see here, the long wait has not been in vain.
After all, it looks similar to the new Tundra that’s received plenty of praise for its brash, bold styling, or at least its headlamps and the basic outline of its grille do. The new Sequoia’s grille is more restrained, and I think the better for it. It pulls cues from the Tacoma, of course, as well as the latest RAV4, no bad thing either, while sharing visual ties to the Highlander and new Corolla Cross as well. We can guess this look hints at the new 4Runner’s design approach too, an even more important SUV from a sales perspective, and one we’ll see in redesigned form soon.
This said there’s nothing radically unexpected about the new Sequoia’s styling. It appears rugged and tough, yet clean and refined, while all the time being respectful of Toyota’s SUV lineage. The hood domes nicely at centre, and either features cool looking matte plastic, vent-like garnishes on its outer rear edges when upgraded to “TRD PRO” trim, complete with trim designation, or gets a smaller chromed “i FORCE MAX” engine plaque in the same spot for other models. Additional visual separation includes some chrome embellishment down each side of the new top-tier Capstone trim line, brightening the new Sequoia’s deeply sculpted flanks, while the SUV’s upright rear design certainly shouldn’t offend any traditional SUV lover’s tastes.
Speaking of the trims, a total of five include TRD Off-Road, Limited, Platinum, TRD Pro and just-noted Capstone, the latter initially introduced with the new Tundra, and representing a more luxurious level above Platinum. First, congrats to Toyota for coming up with something more original than Limited and Platinum to designate fanciest trim, and second, this model really does appear to deliver on its near-premium promise.
The Sequoia Capstone provides a black and white motif inside, with plenty of higher-quality semi-aniline leather throughout, while Toyota has even improved soundproofing. Those familiar with the outgoing Sequoia will already know its most luxurious Platinum variant lacked some its rivals’ refinements, especially for an SUV in the $80k range. Pampering won’t be a problem in the new 2023 version, however, even in lesser trims that will likely go up in price from their current model’s $70k starting point.
In the U.S., this new Sequoia effectively replaces the full-size Land Cruiser that was discontinued, so it had better deliver at a high level and be fully capable off-road. Certainly, Lexus’ redesigned LX, which once again is based on the Land Cruiser, will toe the line as far as full-size luxury utes go, but just like some wristwatch buyers would rather wear a dive watch bearing the famed Seiko name than lesser-known Grand Seiko (which is respected more for dressier timepieces), yet still want similar levels of finishing and movement accuracy/quality and are willing to pay premium prices for it, there are SUV buyers who’d more proudly own a Toyota-badged utility than one gussied up in Lexus duds. To that end, the off-road-oriented SUV industry is as much about heritage and respect as it is utility, but isn’t necessarily turned on by premium badging.
The i-Force Max engine noted a moment ago was also introduced with the Tundra, but in the pickup truck it’s an option, and with the Sequoia it comes standard. Interestingly, it’s a 3.5-litre V6 hybrid drivetrain, so, just like Toyota did with the aforementioned Venza and their newest Sienna minivan, it’s hybrid or the highway, so to speak. Of course, there may be additional options moving forward, but more likely a pure electric variant than anything without electrification. As it is, the Sequoia’s mill makes a substantive 437 horsepower and 583 lb-ft of torque, and feeds its power down to all four wheels through a 10-speed automatic transmission, which includes the usual Eco, Normal and Sport drive modes.
The actual hybrid component is a generator motor positioned between the internal combustion portion of the drivetrain and gearbox, a tried and tested solution, so we should expect much improved fuel economy along with Toyota’s already legendary hybrid reliability and longevity.
With each trim basically set up with the same drivetrain capabilities, performance differences will come down to suspension options, whether optimized for handling and comfort or off-road prowess. All should provide enough stability and manoeuvrability to keep the engine power in check on fast-paced curving roadways, however, achievable via a combination of improved chassis design and rigidity, plus a new independent front suspension design and new rack-mounted electronic power steering system, which is said to enhance feel. A more advanced multi-link rear suspension has also been added to the mix, plus Sequoia owners can option their rigs out with an adaptive variable suspension setup, which adds Comfort, Sport S, Sport S+ and Custom settings to the Drive Mode Select system’s menu, and a height-adjustable air suspension with load leveling, which is especially helpful when lifting heavy items into the cargo area.
Also impressive is the new Sequoia’s 9,000-lb (4,080-kg) towing capacity. This is almost 22-percent more than the current model, and therefore allows for much larger camp trailers and boats, which is a key reason that buyers buck up for larger utilities in the first place. Along with its upgraded tow rating, the Sequoia will utilize features shown first with the new Tundra when choosing its Tow Tech Package, such as Trailer Backup Guide that makes it easier to reverse with a trailer, and Straight Path Assist that, via the steering system, helps keep the trailer straight when backing up. Additionally, the power mirrors now include automatic extensions for seeing around the sides of wider loads.
Some additional features include standard heated front seats and a standard heatable steering wheel rim, Toyota’s proprietary breathable Softex leatherette, a panoramic sunroof, 18-inch wheels, and the TSS 2.5 suite of convenience and safety features.
An available 14-inch centre touchscreen improves the Sequoia’s digital experience, including a Panoramic View Monitor that makes parking easier, especially with a trailer, while a digital display rearview mirror is also available, as is a fully digital and very colourful driver’s display.
As for the Sequoia’s cabin layout, it comes with three rows including a bench for the second row, but can be optioned with second-row captain’s chairs. Additionally, the third row can slide back and forth up to 150 mm (6.0 in), plus provides reclining backrests, while Toyota provides a unique parcel shelf in the cargo area that covers those seatbacks when folded down, resulting in a totally flat load floor. For hauling taller items, the parcel shelf can be fitted back into the floor, or alternatively it can be raised higher to act as a cargo cover. Smart.
While it might take some time for the new Sequoia to catch on, Toyota is probably looking to its loyal 4Runner, Highlander, and to some extent, Tacoma owner base to fill order books. While news about the new 2023 Sequoia will create some excitement, the nameplate isn’t strong enough to pull many conquest buyers away from the big three, despite having been around since 2001. Toyota just hasn’t updated it enough to create any kind of long-term growth, and certainly hasn’t marketed much, other than featuring it on its retail website.
The result has been slow, but steady sales. The 418 units sold into Canada through 2021 was less than half of its all-time Canadian high of 912 deliveries in 2010. The numbers remained just above or just below 700 per year until 2018, before dipping downward over the last few years. In case you were wondering, the Nissan Armada, which is the Sequoia’s most obvious challenger, only sold 413 units in 2010, yet, due to a major second-generation redesign (that’s really a global-market Patrol, the full-size Land Cruiser’s main rival in other markets), saw its deliveries rise to a high of 1,435 units in 2018, before falling down to Sequoia levels for the last three years.
Of course, neither set of numbers would cause a carmaker to invest the necessary money to develop and market an all-new model, which should make us Canadians grateful to our friends south of the border that have 10 times the purchasing pool. To be clear, while we were selling just over 400 Sequoias here in Canada, the U.S. market delivered 22,815. Even that number would have to increase to make a business case viable, but there’s a lot of potential upside when looking at the rest of the full-size SUV market.
Last year it totaled 21,999 units in Canada and 388,294 in the U.S., and General Motors walked away with almost three quarters of Canada’s full-size SUV deliveries, at 15,307 units, plus a staggering 275,421 new buyers in the States. GMC’s Yukon was number one in Canada’s market with 8,338 examples sold, its two body-style line beating both the Chevy Tahoe (4,590) and Suburban (2,379) by a wide margin, while Ford’s Expedition ended up second from a model perspective, with 4,878 individual deliveries. While all this is good for GM and Ford, the new Sequoia could slice off a larger section from that lucrative pie.
Helping Toyota’s cause is the highest retained value in the Canadian Black Book’s “Full-size Crossover-SUV” category, plus the top podium in the “Large SUV/Crossover” category for Vincentric’s Best Value in Canada Awards. The Sequoia also topped J.D. Power and Associate’s 2021 Initial Quality Study, which doesn’t hurt matters. It almost makes a person want to buy the outgoing Sequoia, which is still available with factory leasing and financing rates from 2.99 percent. Check out CarCostCanada for details, plus find out how accessing dealer invoice pricing could you save thousands off retail, plus remember to download their free app from the Apple Store or Google Play Store.
The new Sequoia will be available this summer, with orders starting sooner. Contact your local Toyota dealer for more info.
2023 Toyota Sequoia Overview | Toyota (7:07):
2023 Toyota Sequoia | Undeniable Capability, Unmistakable Presence | Toyota (2:17):
Story credit: Trevor Hofmann
Photo credits: Toyota
Let’s get this right out in the open: Toyota needs to build a production version of the Compact Cruiser EV Concept as soon as possible. This thing would sell like avocado toast, even if it’s not capable…
Let’s get this right out in the open: Toyota needs to build a production version of the Compact Cruiser EV Concept as soon as possible. This thing would sell like avocado toast, even if it’s not capable of wandering off-pavement, but of course, plenty of automakers, such as Rivian with its new R1S SUV and R1T pickup truck, plus GMC with its reborn Hummer EV line (that will soon offer both body styles as well), are proving that electrics are very capable off-road, so there’d be no reason to worry about being relegated to tarmac when behind the wheel of this tiny Toyota.
Dimensions in mind, or at least those visibility apparent being that Toyota has given us very little to go on so far, the Compact Cruiser EV Concept might have more in common with Suzuki’s original Samurai or that brand’s more recent subcompact Jimny SUV than the near mid-size FJ Cruiser or the original FJ40 it’s spiritually emulating. We do know that it doesn’t share the FJ Cruiser’s body-on-frame chassis or anything else from that go-anywhere utility, other than some styling cues, a version of the original FJ40’s (and FJ Cruiser’s) Sky Blue exterior paint, and the “TOYOTA” lettering on the similarly narrow grille.
Where the 2006–present (discontinued in North America after 2014) FJ Cruiser may have preceded a number of would-be peers, particularly Ford’s reinvented Bronco (and Bronco Sport) and Land Rover’s completely reimagined Defender, the Compact Cruiser EV Concept appears destined to electrify its retro off-roading class if produced. Unfortunately, however, we can lump Compact Cruiser EV Concept electric motor and battery specs into our zero-knowledge base.
As far as we can tell, this SUV is more of a design study, but being that today’s Toyota rarely misses out on an opportunity to cash in on a good idea (unlike General Motors that sadly chose to apply its legendary Blazer nameplate to a two-row, mid-size grocery getter instead of a retrospective K5-style Blazer that could’ve easily been built off the back of its full-size Tahoe, the tiny Land Cruiser-like BEV will most certainly get the green light.
It’s part of Toyota’s new “Battery EV” strategy, introduced online on December 14, 2021 (see the video below), in which “Toyota wants to prepare as many options as possible for” their “customers around the world,” stated the automaker’s president, Akio Toyoda during the presentation.
The namesake brand introduced 17 concepts as part of the program, of which most body styles and capabilities currently available with traditional internal combustion power were represented, from crossover-like family haulers to sports cars, SUVs, a pickup truck, and vans, the wide spectrum of potential offerings showing that Toyota isn’t about to give up any market share, or brand heritage, in its quest to go electric.
Likewise, the presentation showed off seven Lexus EVs in various shapes and sizes (see the gallery for more), and hinted at six more hidden behind in the shadows. Altogether, the Japanese automaker plans to “offer 30 BEV models across the Toyota and Lexus brands, globally” by 2030, “with more on the way” after that. Due to so many models in the planning stages, and a promise to provide “BEVs in all segments, including sedans, SUVs, K-Cars, commercial vehicles and other segments,” there’s certainly a place for this Compact Cruiser EV Concept.
The little SUV is all angles and edges, with obvious styling cues pulled from classic FJs and the more recently updated FJ Cruiser, plus a number of design details from other Toyota models, including the current RAV4 TRD Off-Road (available in a similar Cavalry Blue for 2022 and even closer Blue Flame colour in 2021), the 4Runner TRD Pro (available in a cool Voodoo Blue back in 2019), the Tacoma TRD Pro (unfortunately no longer available in Cavalry Blue), and the new 2022 Tundra pickup truck (with a colour palette that offers nothing even remotely similar, but the old one did).
While the hood scoop appears inspired by similar ones on the FJ Cruiser or recent Tacoma/Tundra TRD Pro models, the rectangular LED headlamps are closer to the new 2022 Tundra, whereas the chunky C-shaped driving lights are more distinctive still, at least to Toyota. The tiny concept also takes everything that previously made the FJ Cruiser look rugged up a notch, with a beefier front skid plate embellished by blazing red tow hooks, plus four of the most aggressive matte-black fender flares ever imagined for this size of 4×4. Toyota’s FT-4X Concept was a recent example of similar styling, and was no doubt inspiration for this new BEV as well.
Fortunately, the Compact Cruiser EV Concept’s designers were more practical with its body style than those behind the FJ Cruiser, with full-size, traditionally front-hinged rear doors for easier to the back seat, while the cargo area appears to be nice and upright, which is ideal for loading in as much gear as possible.
As it is, Toyota hasn’t revealed a single rear exterior image or any photos of the interior either, so therefore details about the powertrain, and the platform underpinning this new SUV, are unknown as well.
Media Briefing on Battery EV Strategies (Presentation / with subtitles) (25:51):
Story credit: Trevor Hofmann
Photo credits: Toyota / Lexus
There’s no hotter segment in today’s car market than the compact crossover SUV. Having started in 1994 with the Toyota RAV4, a model that was joined by Honda’s CR-V the following year, and Subaru’s…
There’s no hotter segment in today’s car market than the compact crossover SUV. Having started in 1994 with the Toyota RAV4, a model that was joined by Honda’s CR-V the following year, and Subaru’s Forester in 1997, this category has been bulging at the seams ever since.
Not long ago, Honda’s CR-V owned this segment, but Toyota’s RAV4 has ruled supreme since introducing its hybrid variant in 2015 as a 2016 model. This allowed Toyota to stay just ahead of the popular Honda, although introduction of the latest fifth-generation RAV4 in 2018, which now even comes in an ultra-quick plug-in RAV4 Prime variant, has helped to push the roomy RAV4 right over the top.
With deliveries of 67,977 examples in 2020, the RAV4’s sales dwarfed those of the next-best-selling CR-V by 17,842 units, plus it more than doubled the rest of the top-five contenders’ tallies last year.
Interesting as well, Toyota was one of only three models out of 14 compact crossover SUV competitors to post positive gains in 2020, with total deliveries up 4.18 percent compared to those in 2019.
Without doubt, the new RAV4’s tough, rugged, Tacoma-inspired styling is playing a big role in its success, not to mention duo-tone paint schemes that cue memories of the dearly departed FJ Cruiser. Likewise, beefier new off-road trims play their part too, as well as plenty of advanced electronics inside, a particularly spacious cabin, class-leading non-hybrid AWD fuel economy of 8.0 L/100km combined when upgrading to idle start/stop technology (the regular AWD model is good for a claimed 8.4 L/100km combined), and nearly the best fuel economy amongst available hybrids in this segment at 6.0 L/100km combined (not including PHEVs).
Another feather in the RAV4’s cap is top spot in J.D. Power’s 2021 Canada ALG Residual Value Awards for the “Compact Utility Vehicle” category, meaning you’ll hold on to more of your money if you choose a RAV4 than any other SUV on this list.
This feat is backed up by a 2020 Best Retained Value Award from the Canadian Black Book (CBB) too, although to clarify the Jeep Wrangler actually won the title in CBB’s “Compact SUV” category, with the runners up being the Subaru Crosstrek and RAV4. The fact that these three SUVs don’t actually compete in the real world gives the RAV4 title to CBB’s Best Retained Value in the compact crossover SUV category, if the third-party analytical firm actually had one.
The RAV4 was also runner-up in the latest 2021 J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS) in the “Compact SUV” class, while the RAV4 Hybrid earned the highest podium in Vincentric’s most recent Best Value in Canada Awards, in the Consumer section of its “Hybrid SUV/Crossover” category, plus the same award program gave the RAV4 Prime plug-in a best-in-class ranking in the Fleet section of its “Electric/Plug-In Hybrid SUV/Crossover” segment.
The 2021 Toyota RAV4 starts at $28,590 (plus freight and fees) in LE FWD trim, while the most affordable RAV4 Hybrid can be had for $32,950 in LE AWD trim. Lastly, the top-tier RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid starts at $44,990 in SE AWD trim. To learn about other trims, features, options and pricing, plus available manufacturer financing/leasing rates and other available rebates and/or dealer invoice pricing, check out the CarCostCanada 2021 Toyota RAV4 Canada Prices page and the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime Canada Prices page.
Honda claims a solid second-place with its recently refreshed CR-V
Lagging behind arch-rival Toyota in this important segment no doubt irks those in Honda Canada’s Markham, Ontario headquarters, but 50,135 units in what can only be considered a tumultuous year is impressive just the same.
This said, experiencing erosion of 10.42 percent over the first full year after receiving a mid-cycle upgrade can’t be all that confidence boosting for those overseeing the CR-V’s success.
Too little, too late? You’ll need to be the judge of that, but the CR-V’s design changes were subtle to say the least, albeit modifications to the front fascia effectively toughened up its look in a market segment that, as mentioned a moment ago, has started to look more traditionally SUV-like in recent years.
Of note, the CR-V took top honours in AutoPacific’s 2020 Ideal Vehicle Awards in the “Mid-Size Crossover SUV” category, not that it actually falls into this class. Still, it’s a win that Honda deserves.
The CR-V is also second-most fuel-efficient in this class when comparing AWD trims at 8.1 L/100km combined, although the Japanese automaker has chosen not to bring the model’s hybrid variant to Canada due to a price point it believes would be too high. Hopefully Honda will figure out a way to make its hybrid models more competitor north of the 49th, as an electrified CR-V would likely help it find more buyers.
The 2021 Honda CR-V starts at $29,970 in base LX 2WD trim, while the top-line Black Edition AWD model can be had for $43,570 (plus freight and fees). To find out about all the other trims, features, options and more in between, not to mention manufacturer rebates/discounts and dealer invoice pricing, go to the 2021 Honda CR-V Canada Prices page at CarCostCanada.
Mazda and its CX-5 continue to hang onto third in the segment
With 30,583 sales to its credit in 2020, Mazda’s CX-5 remains one of the most popular SUVs in Canada. What’s more, it was one of the three SUV’s in the class to post positive growth in 2020, with an upsurge of 10.42 percent.
Additionally, these gains occurred despite this second-generation CX-5 having been available without a major update for nearly five years (the already available 2021.5 model sees a new infotainment system). This said, Mazda has refined its best-selling model over the years, with top-line Signature trim (and this year’s 100th Anniversary model) receiving plush Nappa leather, genuine rosewood trim, and yet more luxury touches.
Its Top Safety Pick Plus ranking from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) probably helped keep it near the top, an award that gives the CX-5 a leg up on the RAV4 and CR-V that only qualify for Top Safety Pick (without the Plus) status.
At 9.3 L/100km combined in its most basic AWD trim, fuel economy is not the CX-5’s strongest suit, but Mazda offers cylinder-deactivation that drops its city/highway rating to 9.0 flat.
The CX-5’s sleek, car-like lines buck the just-noted new trend toward truck-like ruggedness, while, as noted, its interior is arguably one of the most upscale in the segment, and overall performance very strong, especially with its top-tier 227 horsepower turbocharged engine that makes a commendable 310 lb-ft of torque.
The 2021 Mazda CX-5 is available from $28,600 in base GX FWD trim, whereas top-level 2021 100th Anniversary AWD trim starts at $43,550 (plus freight and fees), and the just-released top-line 2021.5 Signature AWD trim can be had for $42,750. To learn more about all the trims, features, options and prices in between, plus available no-haggle discounts and average member discounts thanks to their ability to access dealer invoice pricing before negotiating their best price, check out the CarCostCanada 2021 Mazda CX-5 Canada Prices page.
Hyundai holds onto fourth place despite slight downturn
With 28,444 units sold during the 12 months of 2020, Hyundai is so close behind Mazda in this category that its Tucson might as well be tailgating, and that’s despite losing 5.42 percent from last years near all-time-high of 30,075 deliveries.
Sales of the totally redesigned 2022 Tucson have only just started, however, so we’ll need to wait and see how well it catches on. Fortunately for Hyundai fans, and anyone else who appreciates things electrified, a Tucson Hybrid joins the fray in order to duel it out with Toyota’s mid-range RAV4 Hybrid.
This last point is important, as the conventionally-powered 2022 Tucson AWD is only capable of 9.0 L/100km combined, making the Tucson Hybrid the go-to model for those who want to save at the pump thanks to 6.4 L/100km. Of note, a new 2022 Tucson Plug-in Hybrid is now the fourth PHEV in this segment.
The 2022 Hyundai Tucson starts at $27,799 in its most basic Essential FWD trim, while the conventionally powered model’s top-level N Line AWD trim is available from $37,099. Moving up to the 2022 Tucson Hybrid will set you back a minimum of $38,899 (plus freight and fees, before discount), while this model is substitutes the conventionally-powered N Line option for Ultimate trim, starting at $41,599. The model’s actual ultimate 2022 Tucson Plug-in Hybrid trim starts at $43,499 in Luxury AWD trim, while that SUV’s top-level Ultimate trim costs $46,199. To find out about all the trims, features, options, prices, discounts/rebates, dealer invoice pricing, etcetera for each of these models go to CarCostCanada’s 2022 Hyundai Tucson Canada Prices page, 2022 Hyundai Tucson Hybrid Canada Prices page, and 2022 Hyundai Tucson Plug-In Hybrid Canada Prices page.
Nissan Rogue sees one of the biggest sales losses in the segment for 2020
While top-five placement from 25,998 sales in 2020 is nothing to sneeze at, Nissan’s Rogue is a regular top-three finisher in the U.S., and used to do just as well up here as well.
The last full calendar year of a longer-than-average six-year run saw the second-generation Rogue’s sales peter out in 2020, resulting in a year-over-year plunge of 30.73 percent. In fact, the only rival to fare worse was the Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross that lost 40.66 percent from the year prior, and that sportier model isn’t exactly a direct competitor due to its coupe-crossover-like profile. On the positive, that unique Japanese crossover earned best in its Compact XSUV class in AutoPacific’s 2021 Vehicle Satisfaction Awards, which is something Mitsubishi should be celebrating from the rooftops.
Fortunately, an all-new 2021 Rogue is already upon us, and was doing extremely well over the first half of this year, with Q2 sales placing it in third. That model provides compact SUV buyers a massive jump in competitiveness over its predecessor, especially styling, interior refinement, ride and handling, electronics, plus ride and handling, while its fuel economy is now rated at 8.1 L/100km with AWD.
The new Rogue’s overall goodness was recently recognized by the Automobile Journalist’s Association of Canada (AJAC) that just named it “Best Mid-Size Utility Vehicle in Canada for 2021”, even though it falls within the compact camp.
For those who just need to know, sixth in this compact crossover SUV segment is Ford’s Escape at 23,747 unit-sales, although deliveries crashed by a staggering 39.89 percent from 2019 to 2020, and that’s after a 9.37-percent loss from the year before, and another 9.0 percent tumble from the 12 months prior. Back in calendar year 2017, the Escape was third in the segment, but for reasons that are clearly not related to the Escape Hybrid’s best-in-class fuel economy of 5.9 L/100km combined, the Escape Plug-in Hybrid’s even more miserly functionality, or for that matter the industry’s recent lack of microchips that seem to have crippled Ford more than most other automakers, the blue-oval brand is losing fans in this class at a shocking rate.
And yes, that last point needs to be underlined, there can be many reasons for a given model’s slow-down in sales, from the just-noted chip shortage, as well as the health crisis that hampered much of 2020, to reliability issues and the age of a given model’s lifecycle, while styling is always a key factor in purchasing decisions.
All said, Volkswagen’s Tiguan sits seventh in the compact SUV category with 14,240 units sold in 2020, representing a 26.02-percent drop in year-over-year deliveries, while the aforementioned Forester was eighth with 13,134 deliveries over the same 12-month period. Chevrolet’s Equinox was ninth with 12,502 sales after plummeting 32.43 percent in popularity, whereas Kia’s Sportage capped off 2020’s top 10 list with 11,789 units down Canadian roads after a 6.71-percent downturn.
Continuing on, GMC’s Terrain was 11th with 9,848 deliveries and an 18.09-percent loss, Jeep’s Cherokee was 12th with 9,544 sales and a 30.27-percent dive, Mitsubishi’s Outlander (which also comes in PHEV form) was 13th with 7,444 units sold due to a 30.43-percent decline, and finally the same Japanese brand’s Eclipse Cross was 14th and last in the segment with 3,027 units sold and, as mentioned earlier, a sizeable 40.66-percent thrashing by Canadian compact SUV buyers.
Ford’s Bronco Sport newcomer already making big gains
The Rogue wasn’t the only SUV to shake up the compact SUV class during the first six months of 2021, incidentally, with the second honour going to the Bronco Sport that’s already outselling Jeep’s Cherokee at 2,772 units to 2,072, the Cherokee being the SUV the smaller Bronco most specifically targets thanks to both models’ serious off-road capability.
The Bronco Sport was actually ranking eighth overall when this year’s Q2 closed, beating out the Sportage (which will soon arrive in dramatically redesigned form) despite its two-position move up the charts, this displacing the Forester (which dropped a couple of pegs) and the Equinox (that’s currently ahead of the Forester).
The Cherokee, in fact, moves up a place due to sluggish GMC Terrain sales, but to be fair to General Motors, both its Chevy and GMC models (which are actually the same under the skin) would be positioned in eighth place overall if we were to count them as one SUV, while the Hyundai–Kia pairing (also the same below the surface) would rank third overall.
Make sure to check out the gallery for multiple photos of each and every compact crossover SUV mentioned in this Top 5 overview, plus use the linked model names of each SUV above to find out about available trims, features, options, pricing, discounts (when available), rebates (when available), financing and leasing rates (when available), plus dealer invoice pricing (always available) that could save you thousands on your next new vehicle purchase.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann
Photo credits: Manufacturer supplied photos
If I loved Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid any more, it would be a Hyundai Palisade hybrid. I jest, of course, because I really like the Highlander. In fact, if I had to choose, it would be difficult to…
If I loved Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid any more, it would be a Hyundai Palisade hybrid. I jest, of course, because I really like the Highlander. In fact, if I had to choose, it would be difficult to decide between this time-tested Toyota and either the Palisade or Kia’s equally good Telluride, which have both been lauded as two of the best in their class right now by almost everyone in the automotive press, although neither can be had with a fuel-sipping electrified drivetrain.
That matters a lot, especially with the average price for a litre of regular fuel hovering around $1.70 per litre in my area. Most anyone buying into the family hauler sector is constrained by a budget, so saving at the pump can be the difference of buying little Liam and Emma brand new runners or making a detour to the thrift store just in case they have something “pre-loved” available in the right sizes, or maybe buyers in this $40-$50k class can relate more to a choice between purchasing bulk chicken legs and rib eye steaks for Sunday’s BBQ. Either way, my point is clear, especially at a time when all types of meats have become much more expensive due to run-away government spending and the resultant inflationary problems, amongst other issues driving up the prices of foods and consumer items.
Toyota’s three-row antidote to this reality check equals 6.6 L/100km in the city, 6.8 on the highway and 6.7 combined for the Highlander Hybrid, while Hyundai and Kia alternatively claim 12.3, 9.6, and 11.1, or 12.6, 9.7 and 11.3 for the equivalent all-wheel drive versions of the Palisade or Telluride respectively. Based on these numbers, the South Korean-sourced three-row competitors are almost twice as expensive on fuel, and while it would be fairer to compare them to the conventional V6-powered Highlander, which is still easier on the wallet at 11.8 city, 8.6 highway and 10.3 combined, that’s not the SUV I drove for this particular test week.
There’s really nothing that compares with the Highlander Hybrid. Certainly, other automakers produce electrified SUVs in the mid-size class, the Ford Explorer Hybrid being one that also features three rows of passenger capacity, but nevertheless the much newer blue-oval entry only targets a rather so-so fuel economy rating of 10.1 L/100km city, 9.0 highway and 9.6 combined, which is way off the mark set by Toyota. To put that into perspective, Kia’s new Sorento is capable of almost the same fuel economy without the complexity of a hybrid-electric powertrain, its claimed rating a respective 10.1, 9.2 and 9.7 in base form, or 11.1, 8.4 and 9.9 with its potent turbo-four, and this Korean comes in hybrid form in the U.S. (hopefully soon in Canada).
Speaking of the Korean competition, Canada’s car market does include the electrified Hyundai Santa Fe that gets a better rating than Ford’s mid-size hybrid at 7.1 L/100km city, 7.9 highway and 7.4 combined, but due to only having two rows of seats it’s not a direct competitor to either the Explorer Hybrid or Highlander Hybrid being reviewed here, so it will only matter to those that don’t really need the extra rear row of seats and extended cargo capacity. The only other HEV in the mid-size SUV class is Toyota’s own Venza, which is more or less a shortened, lighter version of the Highlander Hybrid under a very different skin, which is why it gets class-leading fuel economy at 5.9 city, 6.4 highway, and 6.1 combined.
If fuel efficiency were the only reason to choose a Venza or Highlander Hybrid I could understand why so many buyers do, but as you may have guessed there’s so much more that make these two SUVs worthy of your consideration that I’d be remiss to stop writing here. Of course, I’ll leave any more comments about the Venza to a future review, and instead solely focus on the Highlander Hybrid in its as-tested top-line $54,150 Limited form, which is one of three trim levels that also include the $45,950 base LE and $48,450 mid-range XLE.
On an interesting note, when it debuted in 2000 the Highlander became the first mid-size car-based crossover SUV ever created, other than Subaru’s smaller two-row Outback, which continues to be more of a classic station wagon-type crossover than anything resembling a conventional sport utility. Toyota was also first with a hybridized SUV, the Highlander Hybrid having arrived on the scene way back in 2005 in a refreshed version of the original body style.
Two model years later, Toyota once again added a hybrid option to the second-generation Highlander from 2008 through 2013, after which they didn’t skip an electronic beat when the Highlander moved into its third and fourth generations, right up until today’s model. With such longevity in the hybrid sector, it’s no wonder Toyota achieves the mid-size SUV segment’s best fuel economy ratings, not to mention one of the more enviable of reliability ratings and resale value rankings.
In the most recent 2021 J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study, the Highlander came in second behind Kia’s Sorento, which is impressive for both considering the 23 unique models that contest in this class, not including the three new 2022 Jeeps (Grand Cherokee L, Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer) and one discontinued Dodge (Journey). The Kia and Toyota brands place third and fourth overall in this study, incidentally, plus first and second amongst mainstream volume brands (Lexus and Porsche are first and second overall), again, an extremely impressive result, albeit not unusual for the two Japanese brands.
Similarly, the Highlander placed third behind the Sorento and Dodge Durango in the same analytical firm’s 2020 Initial Quality Study, while even more interesting (and useful), Dashboard-Light.com gave the Highlander an “Exceptional” reliability score of 94.2, which amongst mid-size SUVs is only beaten by (once again) the FJ Cruiser at 98 (the 4Runner only scored 89 for third), this study combining the scores of models over a 20-year period, with the most reliable Highlanders actually being the most recent two generations, each scoring perfect 100s.
What about all-important resale/residual values? These say more about what you’ll actually end up paying for a vehicle over the duration of ownership than its initial price, so the fact the Highlander placed second to Toyota’s 4Runner in Canadian Black Book’s 2020 and 2019 Best Retained Value Awards, plus third in 2018 and 2017, the latter only because Toyota’s FJ Cruiser pushed the 4Runner and Highlander down a notch each, means you’ll likely retain more of your initial investment in a Highlander than any other crossover SUV.
This testament to its value proposition is further backed up by J.D. Power’s 2021 ALG Residual Value Awards, in which the Highlander earned highest retained value in its “Midsize Utility Vehicle—3rd Row Seating” category. Additionally, Vincentric’s 2021 Best Value in America Awards placed the Highlander Hybrid on top of its “Hybrid SUV/Crossover” category, while the RAV4 Hybrid won this sector in Canada.
Styling plays a part in holding resale values, and to that end most Highlanders have benefited from attractive designs that still look good after years and even decades. I’ve recently seen first-generation models fixed up to look like off-roaders thanks to much more interest in off-grid living and camping, which of course necessitates all types of 4x4s for exploring the wild unknown. Overlanding, as it’s now called, has even caused Lexus to create a dedicated off-road variant of its Land Cruiser Prado-based GX 460, the one-off exercise named GXOR Concept, and while sales of this impressive yet unpopular model would likely double or triple if they actually built something similar (Lexus Canada had only sold 161 GX 460s up to the halfway mark of this year), it’s probably not in the cards.
What is very real indeed, is a fourth-generation Highlander that’s returned to more of a rugged, classic SUV design, pulling more visual cues up from my personal favourite 2014–2016 third-generation variant than that model’s 2017–2019 refresh, which featured one of the largest grilles ever offered on a Toyota vehicle, seemingly inspired by the just-noted Lexus brand. This move should help prop up aforementioned residual values of early third-gen models too, although this probably wasn’t part of Toyota’s plan, making that Highlander a good long-term used car bet, if the current chip shortage hasn’t made it impossible to still get one for a decent price.
Suffice to say, the Highlander is one of my favourite new SUVs from a styling standpoint, and if sales are anything to go by (and they usually are), I’m not alone in my admiration. The Highlander was the only mid-size SUV in Canada to surpass five figures over the first six months of 2021, with 10,403 sales to its credit, followed by the perennial best-selling Ford Explorer with 8,359 deliveries over the same two quarters.
Even more impressive, Toyota sold 144,380 Highlanders by the year’s halfway mark in the U.S., while the second-best-selling Explorer only managed 118,241 units. There’s no way for us to easily tell how many of these sales (or lack thereof) were affected by the chip shortage, with Ford having been particularly hard hit in this crisis thus far. Recent news of Toyota preparing to halt up to 40 percent of its new vehicle production in September, for the same reason, will no doubt impact Q3 totals, and may be a reason for you to act quickly if you want to purchase a new Highlander.
The Explorer outsold the Highlander in the U.S. last year, with 226,215 units to 212,276, which still left them one and two in the segment, but Toyota was ahead in Canada last year at 16,457 units to 15,283 Explorers, leaving them second and fourth, with both being outsold by Jeep’s current Cherokee and Hyundai’s Santa Fe that managed third (of course, the Highlander and Explorer were still one and two amongst three-row mid-size SUVs).
There are a lot reasons why the Highlander earns such loyalty year in and year out, many of which I’ve already covered, but the model’s interior execution certainly took a big leap forward when the third-generation arrived, which no doubt kept owners happy long after its new car smell faded away. That older model featured such niceties as fabric-wrapped A-pillars and a soft-touch dash top and door uppers, plus more pliable composite surfaces elsewhere, as well as additional features like perforated leather upholstery, a heatable steering wheel, three-way heated and cooled front seats, an 8.0-inch centre touchscreen (large for the time), tri-zone automatic climate control with a separate rear control interface, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a HomeLink transceiver, dynamic cruise control, clearance and backup sensors, LED ambient interior lighting, a panoramic glass sunroof, rear window sunshades, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, rear cross traffic alert, a pre-collision system, and much more, these items becoming more commonplace in this segment now, but not as much back then.
Of course, the 2021 Highlander Hybrid Limited comes with all of the above and more. For starters, its interior touchpoints use improved-quality materials and an even more upscale design, my tester’s including rich chocolate brown across the dash top, door uppers and lower dash and door panels, plus a cream-coloured hue for a padded mid-dash bolster, as well as the door inserts and armrests, the padded centre console edges that keep inner knees from chafing, the centre armrest, and the seats. Additionally, the former brown colour features copper-coloured contrast stitching, while the latter creamy tone uses a contrasting dark brown thread (except the seats).
My 2014 Highlander Hybrid Limited included some chocolate brown elements too, but these were mostly hard plastic highlights, while the rest of its mostly tan leather interior was complemented by the usual chrome- and satin-finish metallic accents, plus medium-tone woodgrain in a nice matte finish. My 2021 example, on the other hand, boasted even more faux metal, albeit in a satiny titanium finish, with the most notable application of this treatment being a large section that spanned the dash ahead of the front passenger before forking off to surround the main touchscreen. It’s a dramatic design statement for sure, while Toyota’s choice of woodgrain looked like more of a light brownish/grey ash with a gloss finish, covering most of the lower console and trimming the tops of each door.
Updated Highlander Hybrid Limited features now include LED low/high beam headlamps with automatic high beams, LED fog lights, LED mirror-mounted turn signals, LED puddle lamps that project a “Highlander” logo onto the road below, and LED taillights, plus 20-inch alloys instead of 19s, an electromechanical parking brake in place of the old foot-operated one, a much more vibrant primary gauge cluster featuring a large 7.0-inch colour TFT multi-information display instead of the old vertically rectangular unit that was really more of a colourful trip computer, a higher resolution glossy centre display with updated (albeit mostly monochromatic) graphics, which still only measures 8.0 inches and continues to benefit from two rows of physical buttons down each side for quick access to key functions, plus dials for power/volume and tuning/scrolling, while inside that infotainment system is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration.
There are now three USB ports located in a cubby at the base of the centre stack, instead of just one, and they still feed up through a slot to a mid-dash shelf, although now that shelf is split into two, including a separate one for the front passenger. A rubberized tray just below the USB chargers is large enough for most any smartphone, but I kept mine in a wireless charger found on a flip-up tray in the storage bin under the centre armrest. I’ve heard some folks complain that the wireless charging tray is too small for their devices, and being that it fit my Samsung S9 perfectly with its case on probably means that any of the larger plus-sized phones won’t fit. Toyota will want to address problem, because most people I know have larger phones than my aging S9.
Two more USB ports can be found on the backside of the front console for rear passengers, incidentally, while there’s also a three-prong household-style plug for charging laptops, external DVD players, game consoles, etcetera. If you want second-row seat warmers in back, you’ll need to move up to the Highlander Hybrid’s Platinum package, which increases the price by $2,300, but provides a lot of extra features that I’ll mention in a minute.
If you want to communicate with those in back, Toyota now includes Driver Easy Speak together with a conversation mirror that doubles as a sunglasses holder in the overhead console, similar to the one found in the old model. Also new, a Rear Seat Reminder lets you know if you’ve left something or someone in the back seat when leaving the vehicle.
Additional advanced driver safety and convenience features standard in top-line Limited trim include Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Front-to-Front Risk Detection, Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection and Bicycle Detection, Intelligent Clearance Sonar with Rear Cross Traffic Brake, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Left Turn Intersection Support, Risk Avoidance (Semi-Automated Emergency Steering to Avoid Pedestrian, Bicyclist or Vehicle), and Lane Tracing Assist.
The biggest change in this latest Highlander Hybrid, however, is found behind its sportier new winged grille, because Toyota smartly chose to say goodbye to its more potent 3.5-litre V6-powered Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which made a net 280-horsepower from its dual electric motor-assisted drivetrain, and hello to a much more fuel-friendly 2.5-litre-powered alternative that once again uses two electric motors, including a separate one in the rear for eAWD. The electric motor now powering the front wheels is more capable thanks to 19 additional horsepower, resulting in a maximum of 186, although the rear one is down 14 horsepower for a total of 54, leaving the new model’s net horsepower at 243.
In the end, Toyota managed to squeeze the aforementioned 6.6 L/100km in the city, 6.8 on the highway and 6.7 combined out of the new power unit, compared to 6.8 city, 7.2 highway and 7.0 combined in the old one. And yes, that does seem like a lot of reconfiguring for just a few L/100km difference, but more importantly this drivetrain is now being used in the two-row mid-size Venza and the Sienna minivan, which are no longer available with conventional powertrains. Additionally, the decision to focus the Highlander Hybrid more on fuel economy leaves the V6-powered hybrid drivetrain to Lexus’ more premium RX 450h, which now benefits from stronger performance than its Toyota-badged equivalent.
As you can probably appreciate, the new powertrain doesn’t have quite the same amount of punch off the line as the old one, but its performance deficiency isn’t all that noticeable, while it’s electronically-controlled CVT is still as smooth as ever. Smooth is the ideal descriptor of the Highlander Hybrid’s ride quality and overall refinement as well, a quality that likely lines up with most buyers in this class. This in mind, there are no paddle shifters on the steering wheel, but Sport mode really does make a difference off the line, and fast-paced handling is plenty good for this class, the Limited model’s 235/55R20 all-season tires no doubt making a difference when it comes to road-holding.
As good as the hybrid is, the conventionally-powered Highlander will be the go-to model for those wanting more performance, as it provides a standard 3.5-litre V6 with 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, plus its quick-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission is a real joy to put through its paces. This said, we’re back at the big six-cylinder’s fuel economy that’s nowhere near as efficient at 10.3 L/100km combined, so stepping up to the hybrid makes perfect sense, especially in my part of Canada where a recent temporary low of $1.65 per litre for regular unleaded had me peeling off the road in order to top up my 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe tester, after waiting in a line of likeminded consumers to do so (more on that SUV in a future review).
The 2021 Highlander Hybrid’s premium over its solely internal combustion-powered equivalent is just $2,000, or at least that’s the case when comparing the base Hybrid LE AWD ($45,950) to the regular LE AWD ($43,950), although there’s still a less expensive V6-powered L trim that brings the Highlander’s actual base price down to $40,450 plus freight and fees (interestingly, the 2014 base Highlander Hybrid was more expensive at $43,720). The same $2,000 price gap is found amongst conventionally-powered and hybridized Limited trims.
I’d certainly be willing to pay another $2,300 for the Highlander’s aforementioned Platinum package, which incidentally includes second-row captain’s chairs to go along with the rear butt warmers, plus reverse auto-tilting side mirrors, a head-up display, rain-sensing wipers, a 360-degree bird’s eye surround parking camera, a larger 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen, a digital display system for the rearview mirror (you can use either the regular or digital version by flicking a switch), and a number of styling tweaks, all for $56,450, but I also wish Toyota included a couple useful extras like auto-dimming side mirrors, a powered tilt and telescopic steering column (the worked with memory), and four-way powered lumbar support for the front seats, features many rivals provide.
The driver’s seat was nevertheless extremely comfortable, other than its two-way powered lumbar support hitting the small of my back slightly high. Others might find it too low, and being that it only moves in and out, it’s always going to be a hit or miss affair. Otherwise, most body types should find the front seats more than adequate, while the non-powered tilt and telescopic steering wheel provides plenty of rearward reach, which meant my long-legged, short-torso frame was both comfortable and in full control.
Second-row roominess is about as good as this class gets too, with seats that could only be made more comfortable if the regular Highlander’s heatable captain’s chairs were offered, but they easily flip forward and out of the way for accessing the rearmost third row, which I found quite spacious and comfortable for the class, albeit missing USB charging ports.
There’s a total of 453 litres of dedicated cargo space behind that rear row, by the way, or 1,370 litres behind the second row when the third row’s 60/40-split backrests are folded forward, while 2,387 litres of space can be had behind the first row when the 60/40-split second row is lowered. That’s a lot of cargo capacity, but I would’ve liked to see Toyota utilize the 40/20/40-configured second-row seat from Lexus’ RX instead of this one, as it would allow for longer items, such as skis, to be stowed down the middle while second-row passengers were more comfortably positioned to either side.
So, while Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid Limited is not perfect, it’s easily one of the best available in its three-row mid-size crossover segment. Factoring in its enviable dependability and best-in-class residual value, it’s hard to argue against it, and therefore would be my choice, despite how good the two aforementioned Korean upstarts are. Now it’s just a matter of locating one before the chip shortage dries up availability.