First Drive: 2008 Toyota Highlander

Just a stone's throw from Ford's corporate headquarters, Toyota invited journalists to Dearborn, Mich. yesterday to check out the redesigned 2008 Highlander. We took the SUV/Crossover through its paces on city streets and Michigan highways. The verdict: Toyota hasn't messed up a good thing.

All Highlanders carry a 270 hp V-6 from the Camry. There is no more four-cylinder, but V-6 gas mileage improves slightly to roughly 20 mpg in overall driving, according to the EPA's stricter 2008 ratings. By the same standards, the old V-6 Highlander came in at 19 mpg.

The new engine means lead-footed parents will make it to the video store before midnight; power comes quickly as the engine revs, with enough oomph to make you forget the unremarkable response early on. The five-speed automatic allows for energetic passing — third gear is the name of the game, as it proves a handy springboard to accelerate from around 45 mph all the way to 60 or 70.

The suspension sounds a bit crude over expansion joints and potholes, but the highway ride is otherwise quiet. We drove a 2007 Highlander Hybrid to Michigan for the event, and the '08 models exhibited none of its incessant squeaks and rattles.

That makes it easy to relax in the cabin, which is mostly a step in the right direction. The dashboard looks much like the new Camry's with sloping contours that arch toward the prominent center controls. Taking a page out of the Tundra's playbook, the Highlander has enormous circular knobs for major climate and radio functions. If this cabin is any indication, the era of Japanese cars having Mini-Me controls might finally see its end.

This Highlander is based on the latest Camry, and as in the Camry, not everything comes up roses. Toyota needs to find some better headliner materials — the Highlander's mouse fur looks and feels downright tacky. If you opt for a moonroof, passengers get flimsy pull-out grab handles. Ironically, the cheaper non-moonroof trim levels have more desirable flip-down handles. In more expensive trims, the plain-looking leather upholstery won't fool anyone for Lexus quality.

Most Highlanders come with seven seats, with a trick center seat in the second row that stows in a hideaway compartment between the front chairs. Room is abundant in the first two rows, and six-foot adults could even endure a short trip in the third row. I can't say that for a lot of three-row SUVs. One catch: Cargo room behind the third row is dismal.

Even in its twilight years, the old Highlander sold briskly. In some areas, the 2008 model takes a step back, but in most other regards it's a healthy leap forward. With models trickling into dealerships as you read this, and a hybrid version set to arrive next month, there's little doubt that Toyota's latest SUV will be as popular as ever.

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