When Toyota introduced the redesigned Highlander for 2008, it defended the V-6-only drivetrain by saying four-cylinder buyers would drop down to a RAV4. Evidently that’s changed: With gas prices as high as the junkies in “Pineapple Express,” a four-cylinder Highlander seems like a good move. Under the hood is the new 2.7-liter four-cylinder from the Venza, whose 189 hp represents a healthy gain over Toyota’s current 157-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Final mileage ratings are pending, but Toyota spokesman Bill Kwong put preliminary estimates at 20/26 mpg city/highway for a FWD four-cylinder, which is about 10% better than the FWD V-6’s already-decent 18/24 mpg rating. (Memo to Dodge: This unseats the four-cylinder Journey, which gets 19/25 mpg, as segment-best.)
The four-cylinder Highlander comes as a two-row, FWD base model. Options include a third-row seat and an upgraded stereo, and Toyota says it can be equipped to tow 3,500 pounds, versus 5,000 pounds for the V-6. The automaker has yet to announce pricing, but considering that the difference between a four-cylinder Camry and a V-6 version is $3,600, we’d expect the four-cylinder Highlander to start under $25,000. The 2009 Highlander V-6 starts at $27,600. Four-cylinder Highlanders go on sale in mid-January 2009, and Kwong said that if the model proves popular — and we think it will — expanding its availability to Sport and Limited trims is a possibility.