Introduced early in 2001, the car-based Highlander is the newest of Toyotas sport utility vehicles. Its the fifth member of Toyotas SUV lineup. Though structurally related to the Lexus RX 300, the Highlander is a little larger and has a different squared-off appearance. Fender creases are prominent, and fewer features are standard than on the RX 300, which costs considerably more. Both models are offered with front-drive or all-wheel drive.
Due to its debut after the 2001 model year began, changes are few for 2002. They include a new standard console, rear-seat armrest and cabin air filter. Slightly longer and 5 inches wider than the truck-based 4Runner, the Highlander promises SUV versatility along with carlike ride and handling. Toyota expects to sell about 70,000 units annually, the vast majority with V-6 power.
Despite the styling differences between the Highlander and RX 300, the two models share the same, basic design. The Highlander rides a 106.9-inch wheelbase and is 184.4 inches long overall 4 inches longer in both dimensions than the RX 300. Fitted with a rear liftgate, the four-door SUV is 71.5 inches wide and just over 66 inches tall. In addition to prominent fender creases, the Highlander features squared-off styling instead of slanted roof pillars found on the RX 300.
Seating for five occupants includes two front buckets and a split rear bench that holds three and folds down. The automatic transmission lever mounts at an odd angle below the dashboard, which is actually a convenient location. The Highlander and RX 300 dashboards are similar in layout, but the Highlanders has different audio and climate controls.
Under the Hood
Both the 155-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and the 220-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 were borrowed from the Camry sedan and team with a four-speed-automatic transmission. The Highlander is available with front-wheel drive or permanently engaged all-wheel drive, which has no Low range. Three different automatic transmissions are used, depending on the engine type. A limited-slip rear differential is optional.
Antilock brakes and Brake Assist are standard. Options include seat-mounted side-impact airbags and Vehicle Skid Control, Toyotas electronic stability system.
An exceptionally smooth ride coupled with confident and capable handling are high points of the Highlander picture. Seldom does this SUV lose its composure, even when the pavement gets somewhat rough. Body lean is minimal in fairly tight curves within reason. All told, the Highlander is extremely easy to drive, with just the right steering feel and a balanced sensation on the highway.
Though acceleration is strong from a standstill, an extra push on the pedal may be needed at midrange speeds, which can produce some awkwardness or unpleasant noise at times. Inside, similarities to the RX 300 are more evident, led by the console-mounted gearshift lever.