A 4 Wheel Drive Hybrid: The 2011 Toyota Highlander

Even with the extensive and fairly high quality road systems available to most drivers (as least in the U.S.) there is still a big need for vehicles with traction capabilities superior to the normal front wheel drive compact or mid-size car. In the current environment of rising fuel prices there is also considerable demand for more fuel efficient vehicles that can traverse less than ideal roadways with confidence while still getting a decent number of miles on the odometer for every gallon of fuel used. For some people this is where 4 wheel drive hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Highlander Hybrid come in.


In the old days asking for a combination of 4 wheel drive, 7 passenger seating and mid-size car fuel mileage was laughable but fortunately for drivers today there has been considerable innovation in the auto industry and there isn’t much comparing the options now to those of a few decades ago. The Highlander Hybrid is just one 4 wheel drive SUV out of a number that, at minimum, can transport 7 people while maintaining superior traction. In the case of the Highlander you can achieve respectable fuel mileage numbers at the same time.


Toyota’s Highlander crossover type SUV was first introduced in 2000 and become available in the North American market in early 2001. The gas/electric hybrid model we are interested in started life in the 2006 model year. It has since received an update for the 2008 model year and again (though more minor) in the 2011 model year.


For 2011 the Highlander Hybrid features:


  • A 3.5L V6 gas engine putting out 231HP and 215 lb-ft of torque
  • A 167 HP electric motor for the front end and 68 HP unit for the rear axle
  • Continuously Variable Transmission
  • Electrically operated 4WD system
  • A Nickel Metal Hydride type battery providing the sole power up to 15 mph
  • Third row seating (seats 7 passengers total)
  • EPA fuel economy estimates of 28 city / 28 highway (some owners report ~31 mpg figures)


To get a quick overview of the features and see the interior of the 2011 Highlander Hybrid Limited check out the brief video review from DriveTime below:



The real area of advantage for 4 wheel drive hybrid SUVs (and hybrids in general for that matter) is in urban driving where the vehicle can spend much of the time driving on battery power and recharging via regenerative braking. On the open highway the benefits of hybrid systems are diminished and gas or diesel powered models like Ford’s 28 MPG rated, 4 cylinder EcoBoost equipped Explorer and VW’s 28 MPG rated Touareg TDI, catch up. Despite the 28 MPG EPA rating some Touareg owners report 36MPG trips which is probably more than Highlander Hybrid drivers should expect for expressway use.


Another thing to keep in mind when considering the Highlander Hybrid is that if your needs call for a serious 4WD system this is probably not what you are looking for. While it does have the capability to motivate all four wheels the rear wheels are driven, when deemed necessary, solely by the 68HP, 96 lb-ft/torque electric motor. If your poor traction situation is very serious at all it is likely that you’ll draw down the electric power available to the rear axle and end up with essentially a front wheel drive SUV until battery power is back up to sufficient levels to provide real thrust. Think of it more like rear wheel assistance for little slip-ups and you’ll have a lot more realistic expectations of the system.


In the pricing arena the base MSRP for the entry level model is about $38,000 while the Limited model comes in at $44,000. Keep in mind the Highlander has been around since the 2006 model year so if you’d like a 4 wheel drive hybrid model the pre-owned market likely has a great model for you at a big discount off new sticker price.

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