2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid: This Transformer Can Do It All For A Reasonable Price

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Photo: Toyota

When they gave me the keys to a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, I expected practicality.

I assumed I would be driving what a sensible, earth loving, safety-conscious middle school counselor would purchase. Not too fast, not too showy, and a nice enough stereo for some easy listening. I’m not often wrong about things, but I was very wrong about this vehicle.

They call it a crossover, but they should call the Toyota Highlander Hybrid a transformer. It has everything you would find in a giant luxury SUV folded into a sporty looking body. Oh, and the gas mileage? It’s like it creates its own energy out of the thin air as you drive.

Related: 2020 Toyota Highlander 3-Row SUV: It Starts with 35 Amazing Hybrid Miles Per Gallon and Then, Gets Better

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Photo: Kim-Marie Evans

The Gas Mileage Is Unreal

I picked the Highlander up at JFK airport in New York City and had to quickly adjust to its zip. This is the first hybrid I’ve ever driven, and just because you can’t hear the engine doesn’t mean you don’t have power under the hood. While in a traditional fully-gas powered vehicle you hit the pedal and a second later you feel the power, there is no lag in a hybrid. Careful: it’s easy to speed.

From JFK in Queens I drove to Connecticut and ran around town for a day. I then drove to Allentown, Pennsylvania, crossing through New York and New Jersey. From there I drove into Philadelphia. From Philadelphia, I drove back through New Jersey, then New York and back to Connecticut.

Then I put gas in the Highlander for the first time.

You heard that right. That was the first time I gassed up. I drove over 400 miles before I filled up the tank, which cost me $30.

I drove 400 miles on $30 worth of gas

After years of filling up a Cadillac Escalade, oh so frequently and to the tune of $100, I was literally dumbfounded at the gas mileage of the Highlander. You could almost cover the cost of a lease with the gas savings alone.

This car has a 4-cylinder 2.5-liter 243-hp engine, which is responsible for the zip. It earns an estimated 36 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. With a 17.1-gallon fuel tank, you could theoretically get up to almost 600 miles per tank. How’s that for fuel economy?

Related: A Comfortable Indiana Road Trip Thanks to Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Photo: Kim-Marie Evans

A Car With Many Purposes

Like my boys’ favorite childhood toy, the Transformer, a car that can be reconfigured into a robot, the Highlander is many cars in one body.

It’s sporty. There’s zip under the pedal. It would to get up to 80mph if you aren’t paying attention. It’s sleek, the sound system cranks, the extra-large sunroof brings the outside in, and the leather seats hug you while it makes the tight turns. Because it sits lower to the ground you don’t get the feeling you might roll over like you do in an SUV with a higher center of gravity.

It’s a car that looks as nice as it drives, which can be rare in a big, bulky SUV. The Highlander Hybrid can do it all.

Related: 2020 Toyota Highlander 3-Row SUV: It Starts with 35 Amazing Hybrid Miles Per Gallon and Then, Gets Better

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Photo: Kim-Marie Evans

This Thing Hauls

I’m not talking about speed. I’m talking about stuff. The third row drops forward with the pull of two latches. Boom: In seconds, you have enough space for a serious Costco run. I needed to move furniture for my daughter, and I did not expect to do it in a crossover hybrid. The first day I kept the second-row captain’s seats in place and just packed into every corner of the interior.

Then I figured out the transformer like interior. Scoot the second-row captain’s seats forward and drop them, and suddenly there’s enough room for a six-foot-long wooden bench, floor lamp and multiple boxes. And if you have your hands full—which I always do—you just need to have the key fob in your pocket before you kick underneath the rear bumper. The liftgate will rise on its own. More helpful than my children.

You can also really haul if you need to. The Highlander has enough torque to pull up to 3,500 pounds behind you, which is enough for a boat and trailer. And with all-wheel drive, it can actually own the title of sport utility vehicle. Like I said: this thing is a Transformer. It can do it all.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Photo: Kim-Marie Evans

Safety Is Key

I love the safety options and technology packed into the Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

  • The heads-up display on the windshield helps you keep your eye on the road while also paying attention to your speed and direction.
  • Having a compass at eye level is everything for those of us who are directionally challenged.
  • The blind spot assist lights up on the side mirrors, making lane changes much easier and safer.
  • It not only has a back-up camera but a bird’s eye view which made parallel parking in Philly almost effortless.
  • The car knows you’re about to hit something before you do, and the emergency braking system will engage if you don’t.
2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Photo: Kim-Marie Evans

The Luxurious Stuff

It’s luxurious. I know, I can’t believe I wrote that either. But it is. The premium packages come with leather seats that can be heated or cooled (this is my favorite feature in any car), woodgrain dash, a gorgeous 12.3-inch touchscreen infotainment, available second-row captain’s seats that can also be heated or cooled, and even swanky exterior lighting.

And that’s not all I loved:

  • Storage and charging for everyone
  • The car can turn into a wi-fi hotspot
  • There are five USB ports, two 12V outlets, and a Q1 compatible wireless charger
  • Enabling Apple CarPlay is effortless
  • The center console has multiple compartments for tucking away everything from devices to a small handbag
  • The space behind the console is spacious and easy to reach to store a bigger handbag
  • Six trim options—L, LE, Hybrid, XLE, XSE, Limited, Platinum—helps you find the right features at your pice point
  • The second row has miles of space for tall passengers and/or piles of stuff you need to keep behind you
2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Photo: Kim-Marie Evans

Short Girl Friendly

Unlike many, many SUVs, this Highlander is actually sports friendly. It comes with available crossbars that aren’t just for show. And you can reach the top of the car! What good is having racks for boards, skis, or other equipment if the car sits so far off the ground you can’t reach the top?

Wonder what it looks like when a 5’3” woman has to remove a broken Thule carrier from the top of a Cadillac Escalade?

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Photo: Kim-Marie Evans

It looks like this. You have to climb up the windshield and get in the Thule like a roadside coffin to deal with things.

I only want SUVs where I (and any other reasonably small human) can reach the roof since I am either toting a board, skis, or a bike at almost all times. The Toyota Highlander is 68” high versus a Subaru Outback at 66”. I need to stand on my toes, but I don’t need to climb the windshield to use the Highlander for actual sporting purposes. That’s a game changer.

Why I Would buy the Toyota Highland Hybrid:

  • Price: The MSRP on the new vehicle is under $40k
  • Mileage:  It defies physics how far this vehicle goes on one tank
  • Luxury: It has every bell and whistle that matters
  • Space: It’s comfortable for teen boys and can also haul extra kids
  • Versatility: It can be used for sports, moving, or comfortable driving

Full disclosure: Toyota provided the Highlander Hybrid for me to review. All opinions are my own.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Photo: Kim-Marie Evans