2019 Highlander Hybrid XLE-V6 AWD-i vs. 2005 Highlander 4-Cylinder

It’s Toyota’s 2019 Highlander Hybrid vs. my 2005 Highlander 4-cylinder. (Photos by Matt Coker)

In a recent Ride Me, a 2020 Kia Telluride was pitted against a 2019 Mazda CX-9. That story was so successful–a whopping five Facebook shares, BOOYA!–a decision was made to pit a Toyota Highlander against a Toyota Highlander …

… with a twist.

It would not be two new vehicles, as was the case with the Kia-Mazda challenge, but a 2019 Highlander Hybrid on loan from Toyota versus a 2005 Highlander four-cylinder on loan from my spouse.

As you can see from the above photo–the Silver Metallic one’s the new hybrid, by the way–both have taillights, carpeted cargo areas and hatch openings in the back, although you pull down the liftgate with the dangling strap seen on the ’05. Meanwhile, you push the button to the left of the hatch lock mechanism viewable on the ’19 to automatically lower its gate.

Notice the fine fabric seat coverings in the ’05.

We obviously chose value over comfort when we first leased the ’05. (We later bought it outright and later still took out a loan against it, so it’s as if we bought the same SUV three times. #HowToMakeSuzeOrmansHeadExplode.)

What is not fabric, carpet or plastic inside the ’05 is the shiny covering seen in the foreground of the picture above. Classy, no? But one issue we have dealt with is upholstery stained by food, coffee and sweat, which are a monster to get out and interior detail jobs cost a fortune.

No such issues come with our ’19 tester, whose front and second-row seats are leather-trimmed and black like everything else inside, making them easier to clean and/or better to hide stains.

And the front seats, unlike the ’05’s, can be heated. The driver’s throne is 12-way power adjustable while the front passenger’s is four ways. The only way to heat the ’05 seats is with a heavy blanket, and seat adjusting is done manually.

The ’19 is leathery inside, plus it has room for a third row of seats (whose headrests are pushed down above).

Speaking of seating, the ’05 seats, at most, accommodate five adults, while you can get eight into the ’19 thanks to a third row of seats. These 60/40 split fold-flat seats can be pushed down to create a larger cargo area, as can its and the ’05’s second rows.

Among the biggest differences between the two model years involve the audio/video/infotainment systems. As you can see from the photo below, the ’05 has an AM/FM radio with a compact disc player and, get this, a cassette player! (‘Member cassette tapes?) There are no USB chargers but there are cigarette lighter port under the radio and in the back cargo area that, with adapters, can be used to charge things.

The photo shows the cords that we use to charge and play music and podcasts from our iPhones. An adapter cord for the lighter has an end that plugs into the latest models of iPhones and an adapter on the head so a USB cord can also be used to get power. Meanwhile, we use a cassette player device to play content from our iPhones through the SUV’s speakers. Back in the old days, we could charge the iPhone via the lighter adapter and play it at the same time by putting the plug end of the cassette device into the smartphone’s microphone port.

However, newer iPhones only have one plug port, so while driving the ’05 a Sophie’s Choice must be made between charging or playing content. It is routine on long trips for my wife and I to swap out iPhone plugged into the cassette based on which one has the most battery life left.

When my iPhone is not being charged in the ’05’s cigarette lighter adapter, it is hooked up to play podcasts through the speakers via the cassette player adapter. SCIENCE!

There are no such issues, of course, with the 2019 Highlander Hybrid. You don’t have to have your smartphone plugged in at all thanks to Bluetooth Audio.

You’ll also notice in the photo below, just under the climate controls, there is a shelf, and you just might be able to make out the shiny black plastic piece on that shelf. Set your smartphone on the shelf, and through the plastic piece you can run a USB cord to a media port or charging ports below it (but not viewable from that photo angle).

There are a total of four USB charge ports throughout the vehicle, as well as 12-volt and 120-volt outlets.

Besides being able to play what’s on your phone through the Entune Premium Audio system’s six speakers, you can switch to AM/FM, a CD player or satellite radio. The new Highlander comes with a three-month trial subscription to SiriusXM that can be extended on your own dime after purchase.

It’s much easier to get my iPhone content to play through the ’19’s sound system thanks to Bluetooth Audio. NO WIRES!
And how about the ’19’s fold down DVD monitor with a remote for backseat riders?

Unlike this ride, the ’05 does not have a navigation system, let alone an eight-inch touchscreen with a backup camera.

And as any of my backseat riders will tell you, my SUV has no rear Blu-ray DVD entertainment system with a nine-inch display monitor, RCA jacks, two sets of wireless headphones and a remote like my test vehicle had. That is an $1,810 optional upgrade, by the way.

Give Toyoto credit for this: While we just had some fairly major work done on the ’05, which can mostly be blamed on usual wear and tear and not keeping up on the maintenance, our mechanic assured us that the engine, transmission and suspension are holding up great. In fact, if we keep up with the regularly scheduled maintenance, it should run “another five years … or more,” according to our favorite grease monkey.

As welcome as that assessment was to our ears, it’s difficult to ignore the creature comforts found in the same model that is 14 years newer than our SUV. Besides what’s been mentioned before, there are the dueling climate control systems. Despite all the years that have passed since we first took our Highlander off the Costa Mesa South Coast Toyota lot–if that reads like a shout out, it’s meant to be; love that dealership–our air conditioner blows out strong streams of cold air very quickly.

It’s something you notice right away–if you are sitting in the front two seats. There are no vents in the back, and due to the “I’m hot” complaints we get from backseat riders, we are constantly adjusting the front vents and asking, “Can you feel it yet?”

The ’19’s front looks futuristic compared to the ’05.

We would no longer be dealing with such barking in the ’19, whose climate can be controlled in three different zones, including the rear sections.

Speaking of beating the heat, you may make out in the photo of the ’05’s interior an aftermarket screen applied to the passenger-side, roll-down window. This came from a Central Valley truck stop and is used to better shield rugrats in car seats from the unrelenting sun.

The money paid for the shades could have been spent on trail mix with the ’19, which comes with integrated second-row, side-window sunshades, standard. All windows are also tinted.

There are too many other things the ’19 has the ’05 does not to list here, so I’ll just peel off some favorites: 18-inch alloy wheels; electric on-demand all-wheel drive; way more cup/bottle holders (12!); heated, power-adjustable outside mirrors; fog lights (which weren’t standard back in the day); leather-wrapped steering wheel with multi-media controls and Homelink to automatically program your garage door opener.

Of course, there are also a ton of safety features on the ’19 that we did not have in ’05, such as a lane departure alert with steering assist and a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection. There is also blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and Toyota’s Hill-Start Assist Control. I don’t recall how many airbags are in my Highlander, but the new hybrid has eight.

I doubt that, unlike the ’19, that my Highlander’s tow capacity is 3,500 pounds, but then again I’ve never towed anything with it.

One thing I have enjoyed is for a decent sized SUV (save for a lack of third-row seating), we have achieved great gas mileage thanks to the four-cylinder engine, whose 160 horsepower has been plenty enough to go uphill, although you do have to gas it from time to time climbing mountain roads.

By contrast, the Toyota Hybrid System generates a net 306 hp, and you definitely notice the immediate, better responsiveness of the ’19 Highlander, which also gets a stunning 29 miles to the gallon in the city, 27 mpg on the highway and a combined 28 mpg. You can also switch to all-electric to spare more petroleum. (I’m next to positive this is the largest vehicle I’ve driven in EV Mode so far.)

OK, Toyota, you win. How about a straight trade for the ’05?

The ’19 gets a six out of 10 (10 being best) in the EPA’s Fuel Economy & Greenhouse Gas Rating and a seven for the Smog Rating. It gets five stars in the Government 5-Star Safety Ratings.

My test vehicle had a base price of $42,030, which seems to me to be on the lower end compared to other SUVs I’ve driven for this space with third-row seating. Add in the aforementioned rear-seat entertainment system, $264 for the carpeted floor mats and cargo mat and the $1,045 delivery processing and handling fee, and the manufacturer’s suggested retail price is $45,149.

That’s much more than the total sticker price in ’05 (my memory is it was in the $19,000s), but then again Ms. Orman  would tell me I wound up paying equal to that amount if not more by leasing it, buying it and then taking a loan out against it.

Oh, and there’s one more thing the new Highlander Hybrid comes with that my Highlander does not currently have: a full tank of gas.

OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.

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