Vehicle Overview
Introduced early in the 2001 model year, the car-based Highlander is the newest — and most popular — member of Toyota’s five-member sport utility vehicle lineup. Though it is structurally related to the more expensive Lexus RX 300, which has been replaced by the RX 330 for 2004, the Highlander has a different squared-off appearance. The Highlander’s fender creases are prominent, and fewer features are standard than on the Lexus SUV.

Both models may be equipped with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, but the Highlander is available with a four-cylinder or V-6 engine. Nearly 2 inches narrower and 4.6 inches shorter than Toyota’s truck-based 4Runner, the Highlander promises SUV versatility along with carlike ride and handling.

The 2004 Highlander gets a new horizontal grille, a fresh headlight shape, and new taillights and fog lamps. A DVD-based navigation is now available. The Highlander may be equipped with an optional third-row fold-flat seat that can boost occupant capacity from five to seven people. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine has been upgraded and is now rated at 160 horsepower. A 230-hp, 3.3-liter V-6 with VVT-i technology is also offered. Side curtain-type and torso airbags are optional for the 2004 model year.

Exterior
Despite styling differences between the Highlander and its Lexus companion, the two models share the same basic design. The Highlander rides a 106.9-inch wheelbase and stretches 184.4 inches long overall — that’s 4 inches longer in both dimensions than the original RX 300 but 2 inches shorter than the new RX 330, which has the same wheelbase.

Toyota’s four-door SUV has a rear liftgate and measures 71.9 inches wide and approximately 68 inches tall. In addition to prominent fender creases, the Highlander exhibits squared-off styling instead of slanted roof pillars like those on the RX 330.

Interior
Seating for five people includes two front bucket seats and a split, folding rear bench that holds three. A third-row seat that allows for a seven-passenger capacity is available for 2004. The automatic-transmission lever mounts at an odd angle below the dashboard, which is actually a convenient location.

Under the Hood
Both the 160-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and the 230-hp, 3.3-liter V-6 have gained 5 hp for 2004. The four-cylinder teams with a four-speed-automatic transmission while the V-6 uses a five-speed automatic. The Highlander is available with front-wheel drive or permanently engaged all-wheel drive, which has no Low range. A limited-slip rear differential is optional.

Safety
Antilock brakes and Brake Assist are standard. Options include seat-mounted side-impact airbags and Toyota’s Vehicle Skid Control electronic stability system.

Driving Impressions
An exceptionally smooth ride coupled with confident and capable handling are the high points of the Highlander picture. Body roll is minimal in fairly tight curves. The Highlander is extremely easy to drive, and it has just the right steering feel and a balanced sensation on the highway.

Acceleration from a standstill is strong, but an extra push on the pedal — which can produce some awkwardness or unpleasant noise at times — may be necessary at midrange speeds. Similarities to the RX 330 are more evident with the Highlander’s interior, which is led by the distinctively positioned gearshift lever.

 
Reported by Jim Flammang  for cars.com;
Posted on 11/5/03