Toyota are calling the 2011 Highlander changes a mid-cycle refresh, something every manufacturer does to vehicles that have been on the market for a while, to spark some life and interest into them to once again. However, the sheer amount of work that has gone into the 2011 Highlander could easily qualify as an all-new model redesign, with heavy cosmetic and aerodynamic changes to the body, increased capacity and winter heating has been built into the hybrid system while an entirely new engine now powers the V-6 powered Highlanders. While most mid-cycle changes usually consist of new trim levels, or minor fascia work, Toyota’s all out assault on the Highlander has changed the entire character of this mid-sized crossover.
Lets start with the most obvious changes, the new look. is refreshing, and has now confirmed the Highlander is the younger brother of the 4Runner gaining a similar family appearance. The new menacingly styled headlights and grille is refreshing bit of spice to Toyota’s usual mass appeal design recipe. Matched with slightly massaged front and rear bumpers, the new Highlander barely resembles the timid creature that we’ve become used to. Along with these changes, the rocker panels and front sheet metal have also been redesigned to channel air more efficiently around the vehicle in a never ending battle to lower the aerodynamic co-efficient.
There are also big changes under the skin. Gone is the 3.3L V-6 that was normally found in the Highlander, replaced by a quite useful 270-horsepower 3.5L V-6. The Hybrid features upgraded Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive technology built around a Atkinson cycle version of the 3.5L V-6 and an enhanced electrical motor/generator system, both of which deliver 10% better fuel efficiency. With this addition of three electric motors (one for charging, one powering front wheels, one powering rear wheels) the Highlander Hybrid now boasts a combined horsepower rating of 280, with push button electric-only drive capability, providing the batteries are well charged.
New this year, Toyota has added an Exhaust Gas Re-circulation and Exhaust Heat Recovery systems to the hybrid. The first re-circulates spent exhaust gasses to lower exhaust gas temperatures, which in turn minimizes the need for fuel enrichment. The benefit is a significant reduction of fuel consumption, especially during high-load driving and improved fuel efficiency. The Heat Recovery System recovers exhaust heat to quickly raise coolant temperature during warm-up. This allows the engine to warm up faster thereby, allowing it to shut off for EV driving a full 15-minutes sooner; a handy feature for short winter commutes.
Inside, the dash and door panels are still a sea of hard plastic and don’t possess the most inspiring of designs, however a strip of felt on the door panel did add a small touch of luxury. While the materials may seem cheap, the controls are very simple and easy to use as well as the dash layout. Knobs and buttons have a good solid feel and are extra large just incase you forget where they are. Both the steering and seats have a good range of adjustability to find the optimal position for just about any size.
Toyota have done a masterful packaging job with the back of this SUV, as personal space should be taken up by fold flat seating, fuel tanks, full size spare, and those extra batteries that need to go somewhere. This year every Highlander comes standard with 7-passenger seating thanks to a 50/50 split pop-up third row, so space should be hard to find. Now with many mid-sized utes, these seats are all but useless to anyone north of a toddlers size anyways, and while at first I thought the same of the Highlanders third row, I quickly changed my tune after crawling back there. There is ample headspace for average sized adults and with the second row pushed forwards slightly, legroom is also kind for short trips. However, if there is only five coming along, the rear passengers are treated to a massive amount of space with the 3rd row folded flat.
On the road, the Hybrid drove straight and true, however steering is very light and void of any real feel for the road. Like most Toyota’s, the Highlander is engineered for a soft smooth ride, however, despite the AWD system, it’s not likely many of these will ever see off-road duty, so I’d personally like to see the suspension firmed up a bit to give a better feel of the road and help the noticeable body roll. What did get me excited was the vehicles fuel efficiency. The Hybrid Synergy Drive worked wonders on the highway, scoring an incredible 7.1L/100km fuel efficiency rating on a 165-km drive, a number besting several compact cars, not to mention Toyota’s own numbers as its rated at 7.3L/100km. However I was not able to get much urban driving in, but Toyota rates the Hybrid at 6.6/100km, an easy figure to match with the help of the EV mode. For the non-hybrid Highlander, expect to see a highway rating of 7.3L/100km, and 10.4L/100km in the city.
All in all, the 2011 Highlander was a pleasant surprise as both the use of interior space and incredible fuel efficiency topped any expectations I previously held for the vehicle. While I’m not a supporter of SUV or CUV vehicles, the new Highlander will surely make prospective station wagon buyers think twice. As of time of writing, Toyota has not yet revealed pricing on the Highlanders, so check out Toyota.ca to get the latest.
Base Price (MSRP): TBA
Price as Tested: TBA
Type: 7-passenger Crossover
Layout: Front engine, AWD, Hybrid assist
Engine: 3.5L V-6 with Electric assist
Horsepower: 280 combined
Torque: 215 combined
Transmission: Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT)
Brakes: Four-wheel discs with regenerative braking
Cargo Capacity: 2,660L seats folded, 290L all seats up
Fuel Economy (L/100km): 6.6L city, 7.3L highway