USED: Hitting the High Road to Rio in the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Toyota Highlander
Amy and Pierre in front of the Toyota Highlander hybrid; Photo: Scotty Reiss

Training for the Paralympics takes special talent. The 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid has it.

“You’re going to put all THAT in THERE?” were the first words out of my good friend Scotty Reiss’s mouth when she greeted my us at the Westchester Airport. Pierre and I had just returned from a race in Canada, complete with an ungodly amount of paratriathlon racing equipment. The poor airport porter sweated and heaved a bag of racing wheels onto his shoulder, and shook his head in disbelief. Pierre and I are both athletes racing and training towards the Rio Paralympics as triathletes: Pierre is a wheelchair athlete (PT1 classification) for Team Canada and I am a Visually Impaired (PT5) athlete representing the United States. With his racing chair, his hand chair, my tandem racing bike, his day chair, extra wheels, tools and luggage, we don’t travel light.

So when we arranged a test drive for a good all-around SUV, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid was a natural choice. My carbon fiber racing bike is an 8-foot long Calfee Tandem bike, the ‘Ferrari’ of tandem, and travels in a large hard plastic case on wheels when I fly. Pierre has his racing wheelchair which is approximately 5 feet long, and his handcycle is almost as long as my tandem. For each piece of equipment, Pierre has two sets of wheels for training and racing, as do I for my bike. These travel in separate large padded wheel bags.

When it comes to cargo space, we require a lot!

Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Packing the Toyota Highlander hybrid was pretty easy due to its height and open cargo space

When we travel, we need a lot of cargo room, an adjustable interior configuration, sturdy floor and cargo mats, and a roof rack (just in case!) and the Toyota Highlander Hybrid neatly fit the bill. Sleek for such a large SUV, it wowed us from the curb as we began the loading of our ridiculous amount of gear. The brilliant gleam of the royal blue exterior was complemented by the crisp tan leather interior that seemed to be endless.

Pierre’s incredible Tetris skills made getting all our gear into the car a solvable puzzle; the Highlander’s running boards made it easy for Scotty to climb up to secure a few items on the roof rack. We had the car packed within 20 minutes, much to the shock of the airport porter, who still stood shaking his head. At one point Scotty contemplated calling her husband for backup and a second vehicle, but the Highlander had all the right nooks, crannies and a roof rack to fit every wetsuit, bike, wheel and piece of luggage, with room for the three of us and a healthy cup of coffee too!

Toyota Highlander Hybrid

A more normal use for the Highlander’s cargo space: Groceries and Pierre’s day chair, which he could easily get into the car before maneuvering into the driver’s seat

Pierre and I shared our week’s agenda with Scotty, which involved a ton of appointments for me to monitor my aggressive glaucoma, and lots of trips to see family and friends that we hadn’t seen all summer due to our intense race schedule. We were mostly excited to hit the track and the beach to go for training runs with Pierre’s racing wheelchair, as it would fit easily with room for my Guiding Eyes Guide Dog, my yellow Labrador Elvis.

Climate controls: canine approved

Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Elvis enjoyed having all the space to himself on that rare moment when the car wasn’t filled with our gear; the rear climate control kept him comfy, too; Photo: Amy Dixon

The tan interior and sturdy rubber mats made transporting Elvis a breeze and hid his shedding hair nicely. Plus, the rear seats are smartly coated with rubber matting, which made us a little less nervous about bike grease getting on the pretty clean interior or leather seats. The separate rear climate control also kept Elvis comfortable during a particularly warm trip to watch our visually impaired friend Susan compete in her first triathlon upstate. However, the climate control for the driver and passenger was not intuitive and took a few days to figure out properly. I recommend taking the time to check out the owner’s manual to get the low down so you’re not fumbling on the road to get it adjusted.

Toyota Highlander

The shelf under the console was great for storing important things like power bars and sunglasses; the USB port is right underneath and was a bit of a challenge to reach; Photo: Amy Dixon

One cool bonus feature were the heated and air conditioned front seats, a nice surprise after a tough run at the beach in the mid-day sun. And it dries soggy athletic gear rather quickly in a pinch!

His eyes, my ears and some key tools: How disabled athletes drive a regular car

There are some tricks to driving car if you’re disabled; and no, not every car has to be specially configured or outfitted for disabled drivers: between gadgets designed to help out disabled drivers and in-car technology, the average car is much more accessible these days. Pierre drives his own car with a hand driving control tool, which lets him control the gas and brake with his right hand. We also found the voice commands on the Toyota Highlander to be a great feature for us; I gave voice commands to set navigation, set music and make phone calls while he drove. Pierre’s adaptive hand-driving controls fit the vehicle easily, especially with the extreme adjustability of the driver’s seat. Very para-friendly for sure.

Technology assisted visibility helped us out helps us out of a tight spot

Toyota Highlander

The Highlander’s large size made parking a trick; we had to be sure the spot measured up. Luckily it fit in my spot in the parking garage; Photo: Amy Dixon

While the lateral visibility of the Highlander was fair (the side windows offer a narrow view and the rear headrests obstructed the view even further), the rear window had a significant blind spot and made changing lanes on a busy highway more challenging than expected. But the rear-view camera and blind spot monitors were especially helpful when leaving a late evening BBQ from a crowded driveway lined with cars on both sides.

For longer trips, we found the headrests uncomfortable; they put my head way too forward, despite multiple attempts at adjustment. We got incredibly uncomfortable after a few hour’s drive.

We also found the center console between driver and front passenger to be too large for us, obstructing the driver’s right arm from making wide turns. But the sheer volume of cup-holders for two thirsty, well-hydrated athletes, as well as the deep center console that is big enough to hold a handbag, was much-appreciated.

This hybrid is both powerful and fuel efficient

Toyota Highlander

The fully empty cargo space with the third row folded down is open and easy to load; Photo: Amy Dixon

Performance-wise, Pierre loved the responsiveness of the handling for an SUV, and it had a surprising amount of power for a hybrid. We only had to fuel up once during the week, and we had to check a few times after turning the vehicle on to be sure the engine was running, as it’s incredibly silent. The only drawback of this SUV is that it is wide for a standard parking spot (hence all the cargo space), so we had to take care to find spots away from other cars to be sure the doors didn’t get dinged by careless neighbors.

Toyota Highlander

The height and wide open rear loading area made  it easy to get our gear into the Toyota Highlander hybrid; Photo: Scotty Reiss

What we loved

  • The sleek, polished exterior and cargo and pet-friendly interior
  • The sporty handling and acceleration of this hybrid SUV
  • Air conditioned seats!
  • Easy to use voice commands
  • Automatic lift gate made loading and unloading wheelchairs and bikes a snap
  • Easy-to-fold seats and ample cargo room for bikes and wheelchairs
  • Tons of cup holders
  • Lots of passenger leg room, even with a Labrador on the ground in between them

What you need to know

  • Base price: $47,750; price for the model we drove, with rear seat entertainment package, running boards, and those useful cargo mats: $50,818
  • 27 mpg in the city, 28 mpg on the highway
  • Takes regular gasoline
  • Rear and side visibility could be better
  • Head rests for driver and passenger were not comfortable
  • Large center console between driver and passenger can restrict mobility of the driver
  • Climate control took time to learn to use
  • USB ports, tucked into the bottom of the center console, were not easily accessible for charging devices
Toyota Highlander

The 2015 Toyota Highlander hybrid Monroney

Disclosure: Toyota loaned us the Highlander Hybrid for our review; opinions expressed here are all my own. 
Written By Guest Contributor: Amy Dixon

Amy Dixon is an elite paratriathlete from Greenwich, Connecticut, in training to make the final team for the Rio... More about Amy Dixon