2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid


I never really took notice of the benchmark status of Highlander until recent new model introduction events held by competitor automakers. More and more I heard the name “Highlander” included in their marketing and technical presentations when reciting segment target data.

Highlander first saw the light of day in 2001 followed by some updates and the addition of a third row in 2004. The following year Toyota added a hybrid powertrain to the Highlander lineup and then last year gave the model a complete makeover.

The newest Highlander is all-new from the ground up, with the exception of the hybrid synergy drive powertrain in hybrid models. As RAV4 approached each of Highlanders’ technical specs recently, Toyota had to push Highlander further up the scale in the midsize crossover utility vehicle class.

Originally lumped into the SUV family, Highlander is a car-based platform (shared with Camry/Avalon) making it fit more accurately into the booming CUV segment.
Power is up and weight is up but fuel economy is roughly the same even when taking into consideration the government’s stricter new rating methodology.

The gas engine is a 270hp 3.5-liter V-6 with variable valve timing with lift and intelligence (VVTL-i) and backed by a smooth five-speed automatic with sport shift manual mode. This setup is good for 248 lb. ft. of torque in either front- or full-time four-wheel-drive running gear.

Highlander Hybrid models feature a drive system that pairs a 3.3-liter V-6 gasoline engine to an electric drive motor for a combined total of 270hp, and while total torque of the synergy drive system is difficult to measure, driving experience has shown us that actual power is significantly higher than the gas-only models.

Braking and steering systems have been upgraded giving all 2008 Highlanders four-wheel vented disc brakes and new electronic power steering. We found the brakes to need quite a bit of prodding before they really took hold but once they did they were very powerful. The new steering on the other hand was quite effortless and somewhat boring for drivers who like a lot of feedback from their vehicles.

Our most recent test model Highlander came to us as a 2009 Hybrid model with 4WD-i (intelligent four-wheel-drive) that we drove during the coldest week of the season (which, by the way, only started the day the Toyota arrived). We found the Highlander to be quite comfortable and a solid performer in all types of mixed driving, especially the slick roadways that proved no match for Toyota’s Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system.

The new Hybrid models enjoy a couple of features not found on previous generation Highlanders. A silent “EV” mode allows for electric-only driving at low speeds and the new “Economy” mode reduces throttle and power response by about 20 percent when selected.
Occupants of the newest Highlander models will enjoy increased seating space in all three rows, and a unique interchangeable second-row center section offers added flexibility.

For those of you drivers who have a problem of running into pedestrians (which apparently is an issue), Toyota engineers have added extra crush space to front end components allowing for more “give” when the moment of impact occurs.

Toyota includes all of its latest safety, comfort and convenience technologies in the new Highlander models with designers following a new “everything counts” philosophy.

Pricing for the 2009 Highlander Hybrid with 4WD-i begins at $34,700. Our tester came loaded with a few extra goodies including power rear liftgate, XM Satellite radio, auto rear air conditioning and a “special color” of blizzard white (ironic as it arrived on the first day of winter). All of this brought final sticker pricing to $41,020.
Fuel economy ratings for the Hybrid Highlander is 27 mpg city and 25 mpg highway.

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About the Author

David Goodspeed
David was editor of AutoworldToday at Today Newspapers in the Dallas suburbs until its closing in 2009. He was also webmaster and photographer/videographer. He got started doing photography for the newspaper while working as a firefighter/paramedic in one of his towns, and began working for the newspaper group full-time in 1992. David entered automotive journalism in 1998 and became AutoworldToday editor in 2002. On the average, he drives some 100 new vehicles each year. He enjoys the great outdoors and as an avid fly fisherman, as is his spouse Tish. He especially enjoys nature photography and is inspired by the works of Ansel Adams.

10 Comments on "2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid"

  1. Love the occasional car reviews. But sadly people are often bought into the idea that hybrids actually save them money at the pump. It does, but not enough to justify the costs of buying the “hybrid” version. I think Car and Driver did this test already, and it took a new 2008 Camry Hybrid more than four years to BREAK EVEN the costs of buying it in terms of fuel savings versus a gasoline Camry (because they hybrid was thousands more). This doesn’t make sense, especially if you lease your car for four or three years. You just lose money for driving a hybrid version (Prius excluded).

  2. I bought a Highlander Hybrid in 2006, and – ARRGGGHHH!!! – I am getting so sick of people reminding me that it will not save me money. I know that! I knew that going in!

    I bought the hybrid because:

    – it uses less gasoline; it spews less exhaust. Even if it costs me more long run, it was worth it, to us.

    – it is a better vehicle than the base Highlander; it has better features standard, and they are features that are not available to the gas-only Highlanders.

    – not only that, it performs better than the gas-only Highlander, so when I want to make that uphill pass on the highway, I can do it, and then some.

    – we do not lease vehicles; we tend to keep them for 8 to 12 years.

    – and, by the way, since gasoline prices turned out to be far higher over the last three years than we thought they were going to be starting out, we actually are getting closer to break even anyway.

    So, stop trying to argue that I am not making sense, because I *AM* making sense.

  3. Doogald,

    I respect your desire to save the planet, and that’s well and good. However, up until we had the run up in gas prices last year, 90% of the people who bought hybrids did so for environmental reasons (even though the jury is out considering how much waste the dead batteries create and there is still no true non-political consensus on global warming)

    Now that gas is around $1.50 here, there is no economically good reason to buy a hybrid, Prius included considering you can buy a car with a little worse gas mileage for many thousands less. Thus the real uptick in hybrids isn’t going to happen unless the financial equation makes sense and most Americans don’t have the disposable income to buy based on environmental reasons. If they are forced to by their new government, those elected officials won’t get re-elected.

    Besides, that the amount of CO2 emitted by the private jets flying to the inauguration is going to require 3,500 hybrid car purchases with 4 years of use each to make up for this weeks emissions. So now you can make that 3,499. Steven Spielberg thanks you for the offset contribution.

  4. I got my Prius for environmental reasons too. It was the highest MPG car that could take my family of 4 around town. High MPG = low CO2 and low gasoline usage.

    Gas is around $2.09 in my neighborhood this week. I was half smiling when gas was near $5.00, and I was filling up for less than $30 (partial tank of course). My wife’s minivan was more than double.

  5. Speaking of minivan, I have a family of 6. (some like that crazy woman in the UK who got herself sterilized to minimize her “carbon footprint”, might say I’m already bad for the environment because of the big family)

    My Toyota Sienna gets about 20mpg. But since it seats 7 with more leg, shoulder and luggage room for all passangers than a 4 seat Prius, means I get 140mpg/person whereas a prius gets 160. Not much of a difference. A loaded Prius costs almost as much as my much bigger feature laden minivan with all-wheel drive.

    A new article showed that the cost per mile (without taking into account the number of passangers, so assume the worst case of 1) is lower for a Sienna than a Prius because insuring the Prius costs substantially more. This is because parts are expensive, and the risk of injury in what amounts to a very small light car, is much higher than a minivan in an accident.

  6. “However, up until we had the run up in gas prices last year, 90% of the people who bought hybrids did so for environmental reasons”

    I’m from Missouri on this one. I know that when we bought our Highlander in January, 2006, the price of gas was around 2.15. I did find an article about another survey, though:

    “What’s the number one reason for the success of the Toyota Prius? According to a new survey by CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., owners said, ‘It makes a statement about me.’

    More than half of the respondents cited self-righteousness and smugness about their green credentials—far outnumbering those who chose higher fuel economy, lower emissions, styling or other factors such as tax incentives. The survey formed the backbone of a front-page article that ran in the New York Times on July 4, 2007. In the article, one owner is quoted: ‘I really want people to know that I care about the environment.'”

    If you think that gasoline prices will remain low forever, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to see you.

    As for the minivan, we owned one of those before we bought the Hybrid Highlander. The Highlander also seats seven (and is also all wheel drive, with an electric motor ob both axles), with an average of 27 mpg (we get as much as 30 in the summer, though), so we have your gassy minivan trumped.

    I know a few people with Priuses, and almost everybody bought them for environmental reasons. I’d love to see evidence that 90% of Prius owners since the model arrived here have bought for fuel savings reasons.

  7. I was looking at the Civic Hybrid to be more stealthy about my green-ness, but it did not have a hatchback. Also its MPG was slightly lower. I don’t have a need to show off my green-ness. Some of those people really are smug and self-righteous – probably why my Prius got keyed last month. 🙁

  8. Doogald,

    I looked at the Highlander (and a few similar SUV’s) and even some of the “monster” SUV’s like the Expedition, or Suburban.

    Forgetting the “stigma” of a Minivan which I know is not easy to do as many people won’t “be caught dead” driving a minivan.

    When you compare the 7 passanger SUV to the minivan (Sienna in particular) you see VERY few advantages for the SUV beyond the stigma. Assuming a non-hybrid for comparison purposes:

    The two advantagse of the SUV is that it has higher road clearance so if you go offroad you have the ground clearance. But 99% of the people are afraid to just get road salt on their SUV and you usually have to pay extra for off-road protective plates etc, which eat heavily into gas mileage.

    The other one is usually has greater towing capacity if you tow a boat or motorhome. This varies greatly depending on the “truckyness” of the SUV. The more refined the suv’s handling and ride, the less it can usually tow.

    Beyond that, here are the minivan advantages:

    1) Generally get better gas mileage than their SUV counterpart
    2) With the 3rd row up, the Minivan has FAR more usable luggage volume than an SUV. Both depth and height. Many of the non “monster” suv’s like the Grand Cherokee or Highlander, have a mere few inches between your 3rd row passanger and somebody rear-ending you at 30+ mph
    3) SUV’s don’t need to meet the same safety standards in many ways. For example, they don’t need a 5mph bumper so even the slightest parking lot ding is a VERY expensive repair. This is why the SUV’s have far higher insurance premiums than equivelent minivan
    4) The minivan is far easier to get in and out since you don’t have to high up or literally climb up on a set of running boards into your seat. Kids 5 and under have an aweful time climbing into many of the 7 passanger SUV’s and god help them if they fall getting out. It’s a long way down
    5) The power sliding doors are awesome. Just press the key on the FOB as your walking to your car, the doors slide open and the crew piles in. In the large SUV’s, the doors are often too heavy for smaller kids to open, and inevitably when they do, they bash them into the car next to you, damaging your paint and potentially getting your butt kicked by the guy sitting in his car next to you. I can get into any tight parking space and not worry about the kids destroying the doors.
    6) If you have kids in baby carriers, you’ll get a hernia getting them in and out of an SUV due to the stretch and angle. Especially if you put them in the middle seat where safety experts say is the safest.
    7) The third road in most is basically “emergency” seating. You can’t get into the row without literally climbing over the 2nd row, even if the seat back folds forward or climbing through the hatch. When seated, the seats are basically on the floor pan and have on a few inches of leg room and no shoulder room as usually the large suv tires and associated wheel wells impinge on the width of the hatch area. Kids between 6 and 10 are ok, but smaller and larger will be unhappy. Some 6 seat SUV’s get around this by allowing you to create a very small isle between the seats int he 2nd row.

    The 3rd row in the minivan is almost as luxurious as the 2nd row in the suv in terms of room and features. Because the floor is so much lower but the roofline is the same, you can literally walk back into your seats instead of crawl and climb. Each row has independent AC/Heating vents. The 2nd and third row has independent digital HVAC controls. 2nd and 3rd row have side impact curtain airbags and both rows have a 110v outlet for things like DS’s and PSP’s as well as video inputs into the overhead video display.

    8) The minivan has a separate fan blower and condenser for 2nd and 3rd row airconditioning. Rather than sweating waiting for the meager airflow to make it 3 rows back, there is an artic chiller back there that between the 2 units gets the van hot or cool in a very big hurry.

    9) The 2nd Row leather seats are as luxurious as the driver and passanger seats with captains chairs, independent armrests, and tiltable seat backs with massive legroom.

    10) Because of the relatively square opening and the 2 rows of foldown or quick removable seats, you can get pickup truck utility out of a minivan. Most SUV’s due to all the offroad hardware that you never use, have very little height between their massive liftover gate and their ceiling opening. I rolled a 34″ snowblower fully assembled into the back of my minivan. Don’t even think about that even in a suburban which has half the interior height. Even without removing the 2nd row seats, when you fold down the 3rd row which fold completely flat in seconds, you have a massive amount of volume. Far more than any SUV and with a much lower liftover gate.

    11) Minivans have a lower center of gravity than an SUV so they are much less likely to rollover.


    If you have a small family of 1 or 2 children and don’t haul much more than the groceries, an SUV is a very comfortable vehicle that doesn’t make you feel crammed in like smaller cars, especially a Prius.

    If you have 3 or more (I have 4) kids, forget about your SUV days. The minivan is more practical, safe and efficient in just about every way.

  9. One other thing I forgot. If to get into your SUV’s 3rd row, and you need to tilt the seatback of the 2nd row, the kids you seat in the 2nd row better be like 10 and older. Otherwise when you have car seats or even boosters installed, you aren’t going to be folding those seats down very often.

  10. Ok, but if you are going to compare your minivan’s MPG times people carried to a Prius, why be so defensive when I do the same with my car to yours?

    You buy the best vehicle for your needs. Nobody who needs a Prius is going to buy a minivan, or vice versa. I have two kids, both teenagers, and we carry their friends every once in a while. We also travel as a family quite often, 50-250 miles per trip. Our car suits us. (Our other car is a Forester, 7 years old, which we’ll trade this year or next for another. Perhaps a Prius or another hybrid, perhaps a turbodiesel; we’ve got time to decide. I won’t make that decision solely based on how much money I’ll spend over time, that’s for sure, because I don’t feel like driving the cheapest tin can I can buy.)

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