Toyota, in press material that presents the latest member of its sport utility menagerie, paraphrases an old candy-bar ad: “Sometimes you feel like a truck, sometimes you don’t.”
True enough. Which is why the Toyota Highlander presents itself as a combination SUV, minivan and passenger car. A crossover SUV based on the Camry automobile platform, Highlander manages to blend the attributes of the three vehicle types while avoiding many of the pitfalls.
Though it may look like a rugged SUV, Highlander is no rough-and-tumble off-highway vehicle. And it would be a misnomer to call it a truck. Carlike unibody construction, similar to the smaller RAV4, and a softly sprung suspension make Highlander ride and handle nearly as well as a car, but it limits exposure to the wilderness. Highlander is mainly a practical family vehicle, roomy and accommodating, more attuned to suburban streets and parking lots than boulder-strewn trails. Think of it as a tall station wagon with good driving characteristics. Look for them with “Mom’s Taxi” bumper stickers.
By the way, Highlander is a less-expensive version of the RX 300 built by Toyota’s upscale sibling, Lexus. RX 300 was the vehicle that first defined crossover SUVs, now a fast-growing niche, offering carlike luxury accommodations with the convenience of an SUV and the roominess of a minivan. Sound familiar? So if you’ve been coveting the expensive RX 300, this is an opportunity to get essentially the same vehicle, though slightly longer, less stylish and not as well equipped.
A flat floor increases the roomy feel of a minivan. One feature that was appreciated in the RX 300 that carries over to Highlander is the shifter level-mounted low in the center of the dashboard, set up like a floor shifter. Definitely preferable to a steering-column shifter and allowing a pass-through between the front seats.
Highlander starts at under $24,000 for the four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive base model. Add about $1,000 for the V-6, still pretty reasonable. But start laying on all-wheel drive and options, and Highlander quickly passes the $30,000 mark, just as the test car did.
On the road, Highlander feels soft and safe with the high seating position of an SUV. It’s a substantial critter, bigger than such crossover competitors as Ford Escape and nearly as big as Pontiac Aztek and newcomer Buick Rendezvous.
The 220-horsepower engine howls happily under acceleration, making this heavyweight feel lively enough. Standard engine is a 155-horsepower four, but I’d spring the extra $1,000 for the V-6.
Gas mileage is decent, compared with the guzzler numbers for truck-based SUVs.
The steering is nicely responsive with good road. The handling is good, but that soft suspension and high profile equate to significant body sway in turns. Freeway driving is solid and competent, although the rear-seat passengers comp lained of wind roar.
The interior is pleasant with excellent headroom and legroom throughout. But it’s also rather bland and uninteresting, and it lacks cubbies and stowage spaces.
The test Highlander was nicely equipped with options that included a power moonroof, $815; a package that includes power driver’s seat, garage-door opener and several other electronic features, $645; 16-inch aluminum wheels and premium tires, $500; keyless entry and cargo cover behind the back seat, $320; tinted windows, $310; side air bags, $250; towing upgrades totaling $450; and the odd, $40 option of daytime running lights, which is usually standard or not offered at all.
Of course, one can’t review any Toyota without mentioning what for many people is the main selling point, which is Toyota’s enviable reputation for reliability.