Test drive: Is the 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid the one?

The Toyota Highlander Hybrid is the most fuel-efficient 3-row SUV that you don't plug in

There can be only one!

Best-selling three-row SUV, that is, and Toyota is hoping the Highlander will be it again.

(Toyota​​​​​)

After taking the top spot in 2019, it fell behind the Ford Explorer through the first, very challenging half of 2020 as Toyota rolled out a new version as production was taking a hit. But now things are starting to get back to normal and the supply of Highlanders is increasing, including Toyota’s not-so-secret weapon.

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The Highlander Hybrid is the most efficient vehicle in its class with a 36 mpg EPA combined fuel economy rating for front-wheel-drive models and 35 mpg with all-wheel-drive. The Highlander’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motors put out a combined 243 hp, which compares to 295 hp for the conventional 3.5-liter V6-powered model and 318 for the Explorer Hybrid that is the only other hybrid in the segment and gets 28 mpg.

(Toyota)

Like the smaller Rav4 Hybrid, which is the best-selling hybrid vehicle overall, the all-wheel-drive Highlander uses an electric motor to drive the rear wheels that has no mechanical connection to the hybrid unit under the hood that powers the front wheels.

(Toyota)

The styling isn’t too dramatic, but it is curvy and features a distinctive “swage” line on the sides that -- I kid you not -- apes the one on the latest Toyota Supra sports car.

(Toyota)

The Highlander also has one of the top interiors in its class, with lots of soft-touch surfaces and a 12.3-inch infotainment system display. There’s seating for seven or eight, but the third row is a tight fit, even for children, and can’t compete with what’s offered by the Honda Pilot, Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade. However, a flip-down mirror and a system that amplifies the driver’s voice through the speakers does make it easy to keep tabs on what’s going on back there.

(Toyota)

The cargo area behind the third row is a healthy 16 cubic feet, which is larger than the last Highlander could provide, and the 48.4 cubic feet available if you fold it down is simply cavernous.

(Toyota)

The Highlander comes to battle offering an arsenal of driver aids that includes automatic emergency brakes, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control and a 360-degree camera system with multiple views, including a virtual rendering of the vehicle with its space that’s probably cooler than it is useful.

On the road, the ride quality is excellent and the cabin generally quiet, although the engine makes its presence known under acceleration. Power is adequate for the Highlander’s size and good enough for a 3,500-pound tow rating.

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The Highlander Hybrid starts at $39,395 for a front-wheel-drive LE and checks out at $51,375 for a loaded all-wheel-drive Platinum, which is only $1,420 more than the V6 model that gets 23-24 mpg.

It may not be the overachiever that the Rav4 Hybrid is -- with its 40 mpg rating, excellent road manners, impressive interior space and more power than the non-hybrid models -- but it is a formidable family car, as long as your large family isn’t too tall.

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2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Base price: $39,395

As tested: $51,375

Type: 4-door, 7-passenger all-wheel-drive SUV

Powertrain: 2.5-liter four-cylinder and electric motor hybrid

Power: 243 hp

Transmission: CVT automatic

MPG: 35 city/34 hwy