Introduced early in the 2001 model year, the car-based Highlander is the fifth and newest member of Toyotas sport utility vehicle lineup. It is structurally related to the Lexus RX 300, but the Highlander is a little larger and has a different squared-off appearance. Fender creases are prominent on the Highlander, and fewer features are standard than on the RX 300, which is considerably more expensive. Both models are offered with front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD), but the Highlander may be equipped with a four-cylinder engine or a V-6.
The Highlander is slightly longer and 5 inches wider than the truck-based 4Runner. It promises SUV versatility with carlike ride and handling. Like the RX 300, the Highlander uses an unconventional gear selector for the automatic transmission, which protrudes from the lower dashboard. Toyota expected to sell about 70,000 units annually, but Automotive News reports sales of 86,699 Highlanders during 2001 that signifies quite an impressive debut season. Little is likely to change for 2003, but Toyota has not yet released details about the upcoming model year.
Despite 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 stretches 184.4 inches long overall thats 4 inches longer in both dimensions than the RX 300. The four-door SUV is fitted with a rear liftgate and measures 71.9 inches wide and nearly 68 inches tall. In addition to prominent fender creases, the Highlander features squared-off styling instead of slanted roof pillars like those found on the RX 300.
Seating for five occupants includes two front bucket seats and a split, folding rear bench that holds three. The automatic-transmission lever mounts at an odd angle below the dashboard, which is actually a convenient location. The Highlander and RX 300 dashboards have similar layouts, but the Toyota design 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 FWD or permanently engaged AWD, which has no Low range. 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 the high points of the Highlander picture. Seldom does this SUV lose its composure, even when the pavement gets somewhat rough. Body roll is minimal in fairly tight curves within reason. The Highlander is extremely easy to drive, and it has just the right steering feel and a balanced sensation on the highway.
Acceleration is strong from a standstill, but an extra push on the pedal may be necessary at midrange speeds, which can produce some awkwardness or unpleasant noise at times. Similarities to the RX 300 are more evident on the Highlanders interior, which is led by the distinctively positioned gearshift lever.