Editor's note: This review was written in November 2011 about the 2012 Toyota Highlander. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
If you're looking for a three-row crossover, the 2011 Toyota Highlander is as sound a pick as you can get. It's affordable and it has a quiet, comfortable ride with a family-friendly interior.
Even as newcomers like the Ford Explorer and Dodge Durango face off against the Highlander and the Honda Pilot, I still find the Highlander a capable underdog. If you opt for the V-6 engine, it performs as well as the rest, too.
I tested a brand-new 2011 model with just 65 miles on it, but the 2012s are already on sale and are equipped and priced almost identically. See a comparison.
While most families would be well-served by nearly any three-row crossover on the market, the Highlander has some notable features that set it apart.
The front seats of my tester were comfortable on a long-haul road trip from Chicago to Wisconsin. The second-row seat has plenty of support, too, and all seats have ample thigh support. The second row can slide forward and back, which is most beneficial for third-row passengers.
A third row is standard even on the base Highlander. With the second row moved all the way back, there is very little room for third-row passengers. Move the second row up even slightly, though — about two notches — and third-row passengers should be as comfortable as I was at 5-foot-10. It's the sliding second row that makes this crossover as practical a choice for carrying seven people as much larger crossovers, like the Chevy Traverse and Ford Explorer. The Honda Pilot is sized similarly to the Highlander and offers seating for three in the third row. That gives it a maximum seating capacity of eight, unlike the rest of the class at seven.
The middle section of the Highlander's second row can be removed completely, turning the bench into two captain's chairs with a pass-through to the third row. The pass-through is a favorite feature of minivan owners, and while other crossovers may offer a choice between a bench or two chairs, only the Highlander gives owners both in the same vehicle.
Overall, I found materials quality to be good, but other editors and a family involved in a comparison test thought the Highlander seemed cheap. However, as equipped, our tester was priced thousands less than much of the competition. Besides some rough finishes on the plastic around the door pockets, I found the interior on par for the price. My wife also liked it, suggesting it's a step up from her 2010 Subaru Outback.
In terms of safety features, a backup camera is standard on the Highlander SE and higher trim levels, or it can be had as part of an optional Tech Package, which was included on my base tester. On models without navigation, there's a small screen at the top of the dashboard that shows trip information while driving, then switches to the rearview display when the transmission is put into Reverse. Navigation-equipped models show the rearward view on their larger touch-screen.
If there was one thing my wife enjoyed about the Highlander, it was the four cupholders in the center console between the passenger and driver, with one more in each of the four doors and four more for second-row passengers. Every other crossover included in our recent comparison test featured just two cupholders in this area.
If you've ever dealt with the sippy cups, water bottles and soda cans a family of just four requires for a Saturday out on the town — which for us involves hitting an indoor play zone with giant inflatable bounce-houses, lunch and either a bookstore or library stop — you realize drinks accumulate.
Cars.com performed its own child-safety seat check in the Highlander. (We don't test for crash safety, just for fit and ease of installation in all our test cars.) Three seats do not fit across the Highlander's second row. All three seat types — infant, convertible and booster — fit well, and the Latch anchors in the second row are easy to reach. There are no Latch anchors in the third row, but two seats can fit there, secured by the seat belts.
I installed my children's convertible car seats, and there was plenty of room for the little kickers. My son found it pretty easy to climb in by himself, which is important for a family with two kids under age 4. Having one be able to get in by himself while you assist the other is a major win.
For 2012, the Highlander comes standard with a 187-horsepower, 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine teamed with a six-speed automatic transmission, for mileage rated at 20/25 mpg city/highway. The engine is pretty anemic; the version I drove this time had the V-6, but in past tests I've found that the four-cylinder-powered Highlander feels like an underpowered lummox. Four-cylinder models come equipped only with front-wheel drive.
There's a hybrid model with a 3.5-liter V-6 and an electric motor that make a combined 280 hp, good for 28/28 mpg city/highway. The hybrid comes equipped only with all-wheel drive, which makes those mileage figures quite impressive.
My test vehicle — as do the bulk of sales — featured the 270-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 engine teamed with a five-speed automatic transmission, good for 18/24 mpg with front-wheel drive and 17/22 mpg with all-wheel drive.
Mileage is on par with the rest of the segment, with most players rating only 1 mpg above or below the Highlander.
Power was plentiful in my front-wheel-drive Highlander, which scooted from a stop with gusto and passed mightily at highway speeds. Steering was light and a tad vague, as it is in most crossovers. The ride was comfortable, the engine quiet and wind noise almost nil, which made for pleasant driving and the ability to hear every cry, complaint and occasional song from my backseat passengers.
Braking was the real issue I had with the Highlander. Even after a week and hundreds of miles of driving, I had a hard time judging the brake response. I repeatedly jerked my wife forward in her seat when I had to add more pressure than expected near a stop. This is a trait of many Toyota vehicles, and it's one I don't particularly enjoy.
There's just 10.3 cubic feet of cargo space when the third row is up. The Honda Pilot has significantly more, at 18.0 cubic feet. The Traverse, with 24.4 cubic feet, is significantly larger.
With the third row down, cargo room expands to 42.3 cubic feet, and for my use that was plenty large enough. I stuffed a 32-gallon trash can in the back — actually two stacked into each other — and those fit lengthwise with the second-row seats just slightly forward. The Pilot is rated at 47.7 cubic feet, so the difference between the two models there is less significant than it is behind the third row. I preferred the Pilot's under-floor storage, though.
Features & Pricing
For 2012, the Highlander starts at $28,090 for the base four-cylinder with front-wheel drive. That doesn't get you much in terms of features, but it does include 17-inch alloy wheels, tinted rear windows, remote entry, cruise control, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel and two 12-volt power outlets.
My test car was a base V-6, but I didn't feel like I was missing much in terms of features because it also had the $1,835 Tech Package, which includes a USB port, Bluetooth for phones and music streaming, and a nice trip computer. While I enjoy fancy entertainment systems as much as the next guy, this is the type of feature set that most families will need, for a reasonable as-tested price of $32,845. All-wheel drive is only $1,450 more. In this segment, it generally costs $2,000 to move up to all- or four-wheel drive.
SE models start at $32,695 for four-cylinder, front-drive models, adding a power moonroof, a rear window that opens independent of the liftgate, roof rails, fog lamps and a power liftgate. Heated leather front seats, HomeLink, a leather steering wheel with audio and Bluetooth controls, and all the features in the Tech Package are also included. For a similar price, I'd opt for the V-6 model instead of the SE four-cylinder.
The top-of-the-line, all-wheel-drive Limited V-6 Highlander starts at $37,045 and is loaded: 19-inch wheels, three-zone climate control, keyless ignition and entry, and higher-grade leather seats.
The Highlander Hybrid comes in two trims: a base model for $38,140 and a Limited model for $43,795, with similar equipment offerings as V-6 gas models.
Pricing is similar to the Traverse, Pilot and the rest of the class. Toyota also offers two years of free maintenance with new-car purchases, which none of its competitors in the segment offer.
The Toyota Highlander is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick; that's the institution's highest award. To earn the rating, cars must receive top scores of Good in front, side and rear crashes, as well as pass roof-strength tests that measure rollover protection.
The Highlander earned a four-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Five stars is the highest rating, which the Chevy Traverse earned.
Highlander in the Market
If it weren't so darn practical with a nice engine, it would be easy to discount the Highlander in a field that contains some splashier new models. But there are just too many things in the Highlander's favor to rule it out of your shopping plans. Because of their smaller footprint in your driveway and garage, the Highlander and Pilot are more accessible for more families.
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