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2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is more fun than you’d think — and more fun than that, too

List three "fun vehicle" words and the most unlikely would be Toyota, Highlander, and hybrid. But the company has put together a winning combination for 2021 with that very combination.

The 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid carries on with the 2021 redesign. It's turned into a bit more fun, for a three-row SUV.
The 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid carries on with the 2021 redesign. It's turned into a bit more fun, for a three-row SUV.Read moreToyota

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Platinum L4 AWD: Just another efficient people mover?

Price: $52,033 as tested. Floor mats, $318; paint protection film, $395.

Marketer’s pitch: “Do it all in style.”

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver liked the “unrivaled fuel-economy ratings, impressive range between fill-ups, truly refined road manners,” but not that the “third row isn’t very comfy, non-hybrid Highlander tows more, aggravating center-console-bin design.”

Reality: When you want some fun with your family-hauling efficiency.

What’s new: The Highlander Hybrid continues on with the ground-up redesign from the 2020 model year, when it made the Hybrid available in both all-wheel drive (tested) and front-wheel-drive models.

Up to speed: The 2.5-liter four married to the electronic on-demand all-wheel-drive system gives the vehicle at total of 243 horsepower and motivates the three-row SUV nicely. It gets to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds, according to Car and Driver.

On the road: Well, well. Toyota does read my columns. How else would the company have known how bulky and unsettling its trucks used to be and work these problems right out?

The Highlander is one of a series of large Toyotas that have shown great improvement in handling on country roads and curves. It’s still a big, three-row SUV, but the handling is much nicer. The only place I found the Highlander to be a less-than-enthusiastic companion was on country roads with sharp drops and dips; there it would want to bottom out like a 1974 Chevrolet Caprice.

Sport mode makes the driving really nice, but even in normal or eco things are not too bad.

A Trail setting also offers something for the off-road buyers.

Shiftless: The CVT offers no gears but performs admirably. It does sound rather like a golf cart under hard acceleration, but other than that it did what was asked of it.

Driver’s Seat: Driver and second-row passengers all enjoy some delightful accommodations, in captain’s chairs trimmed in leather as well as heated. The front row is ventilated, as well. The seats are roomy and offer the right blend of support and cushion. Sturgis Kid 4.0 had no complaints about the second row, either.

For drivers, gauges and controls are easy to see and logically placed.

Friends and stuff: Though second-row passengers get nice accommodations, woe betide anyone facing a visit to Mr. Third Row. It’s not the worst I’ve seen, but it’s getting there. The thin, uncomfortable leather seat might help distract passengers there from the absence of legroom, foot room or headroom, but it’s doubtful. Even with the middle row set to snug for 5-foot-10 me — an easy prospect because it does sit low to the floor — the rear seat remains an unpleasant home.

For a smallish three-row SUV, though, the Highlander really offers plenty of storage options up front. Two long trays help keep phones and other small items in place, and a large console also features lots of smaller trays for assorted items as needed.

Cargo space is 16 cubic feet in the rear; 48.4 behind the second row and 83.4 behind the first, fairly large for the class.

Play some tunes: Further proof that Toyota reads Mr. Driver’s Seat: It has taken all the suck out of its stereos, as well. Well, out of the higher-end stereos, at least.

The premium audio with 11 JBL speakers, subwoofer and amplifier makes for delightful sound, about an A-. Its only downside is that the range is clear only when the volume is cranked if not to 11, at least to 6 or 7. If you’re trying to save your ears or half-listen to a conversation, the joy can be stolen away.

Operation is also simple, with big dials for tuning and volume and a clear and easy 12.3-inch touchscreen taking you everywhere else.

Keeping warm and cool: Here’s a bit of downside. Buttons control all the functions that can be controlled outside the touchscreen — temperature and even defrost. But anything more complex requires a visit to the touchscreen, and finding this function is not easy. A column of small buttons on the right includes icons for seat heaters, HVAC, music and more. Took me a while. Let’s hope no one needs to try something new on the fly.

Fuel economy: The Highlander Hybrid was averaging a high-for-the-category 33 mpg before I got my mitts on it. It dropped a little with my heavy-footed driving. Feed the Toyota whatever.

Where it’s built: Princeton, Ind.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts the Highlander gas and hybrid models together to garner a 4 out of 5 for reliability.

In the end: The addition of fun to fuel economy and family hauling turns this Toyota into a fun family ride — unless you’re in the back.