For years now, Toyota Motor has pushed the idea that it’s future is electrified. And by electrified, Toyota primarily is referring to its gasoline-electric hybrid offerings.

Luxurious Highlander Hybrid cabin in top-line model.

True, Toyota does offer plug-in hybrids and they’re very, very good for what they are — though range-limited in the neighborhood of around 60 km. The RAV4 Prime, for instance, is a 300-horsepower rig that’s fast (0-100 km/hour in about six seconds), roomy and comes with electronic on-demand all-wheel drive and a nicely firm suspension that makes the whole package quite pleasant to drive – balanced, rather than lumpy, quick and responsive.

The RAV4 Prime represents, I think, the best and worst of Toyota here in the age of electrification. It has a plug, but in terms of being all-electric, it’s a fairly timid offering compared to the segment-busting electrified parade we’re seeing from so many other automakers – from Tesla to Ford Motor, from General Motors to Volvo, Volkswagen Group, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and all sorts of others.

That’s in keeping with Toyota’s very cautious corporate culture, one that by the way delivers stunning profits.

Strong design though not ground-breaking, as you might expect from Toyota.

The world’s biggest automaker by sales rarely gets out ahead of the automotive pack – the Prius hybrid of 20-plus years ago a notable exception. Toyota’s strength, and why its products (and those from its Lexus brand) are so incredibly reliable, is in refining existing technology with extreme thoroughness. Toyotas are engineered to be bullet-proof, not necessarily cutting-edge.

This explains, then, why Toyota Motor is only now dipping its corporate toe into the bigger electrification space – pure EVs, with no internal combustion motor on board. Toyota announced this spring that it would sell about eight million electrified vehicles by 2030, a quarter of which will be battery electric or hydrogen fuel cells.

And while in the U.S., and presumably Canada, too, Toyota expects 70% of sales to be electrified, most will be hybrids. Pure battery-electrics will account for about one is seven Toyotas sold by 2030. Toyota hasn’t abandoned its hydrogen fuel cell program, either.

Fuel cell cars will remain in Toyota’s zero-tailpipe-emissions vehicle mix. The point is, even now, even as battery-electric sales are set to accelerate rapidly, Toyota is not completely convinced that battery-electrics are the final “solution” when it comes to “green” personal transportation.

Power liftgate opens to roomy cargo space. Seating available up to 8.

Toyota Motor North America chief administrative officer Chris Reynolds put it this way in a company release earlier this year: “Although some people believe concentrating resources on one possible solution will achieve the goal more quickly, we believe investing in many different solutions will actually be a faster way to achieve carbon neutrality around the world.”

You will see full battery cars from Toyota and quite soon. A production version of Toyota’s bZ4X electric SUV is due in 2022, for instance. More of its battery-electric ilk will follow.

But don’t expect Toyota to abandon its decades-long commitment to hybrids like the agile, refined, handsome, roomy (seating for up to 8) and efficient 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Toyota launched this new version of the Highlander last year.

The big development: it’s built on Toyota’s TNGA platform (Toyota New Global Architecture), which is a more solid, better-engineered foundation than what we saw in the old Highlander – and, says Toyota, 19 per cent more efficient. If you’re shopping used, note that the platform switch happened with the 2020 Highlander introduced late in 2020. (BTW, the 2021 RAV4 lineup rides on this same platform.)

20-inch chrome alloy wheels.

The 2021 Highlander Hybrid is precisely what you’d expect from Toyota, and that includes pricing. It’s not cheap, but not exorbitant, either. The three-version Highlander Hybrid range starts at $45,950, and tops out at $54,150, plus fees, taxes and whatever little extras you add.

I tested the top-of-the-line Limited model and it’s really quite luxurious: heated and ventilated leather-clad seats; JBL Surround Sound with 11 speakers; wireless charging; navigation; a suite of connectivity and safety features; lovely 20-inch chrome alloy wheels; a hands-free power liftgate; and much more.

This Hybrid’s 7.0-inch “multi-information display” is undersized and a bit of a disappointment in a world of Titanic-like displays, but its actual functionality is very good. The 243-net-horsepower hybrid drive power is adequate, but not segment-busting, either. As good as they are today, a continuously variable transmission is less than sporty – here and in Toyota’s rivals, as well.

My goodness, though, the seats are quite comfortable, the ride quality excellent, visibility first-rate and build quality unsurpassed. Personally, however, I find the rival Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid is a more exciting drive and has better screen displays. You really must cross-shop the two, at the very least.

While at it, have a look at what hybridization does for the Highlander.

First, the Hybrid layout delivers a stunning improvement in fuel economy and CO2 emissions versus the gasoline-only Highlander: 6.7 litres/100 combined for the Hybrid, 10.3 for the gas model. There is a similarly dramatic drop in CO2: 156 g/km for the Hybrid, 241 g/km for gas. In dollars-and-cents terms, the Hybrid will save you $900/yr at the pump.

With the Hybrid, you save a bundle on fuel and dramatically reduce CO2 emissions.

Those facts and figures in large part explain why Toyota remains so thoroughly committed to hybrids, which deliver very real gains in fuel economy and emissions, with cost savings at fill-up time and proven reliability.

Yes, the future is electrified at Toyota, but hybrids are now and will almost certainly remain at the core of that effort.


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