If the redesigned Toyota Highlander is to succeed, it has its work cut out for it. It needs to transport and entertain youngsters, swallow cargo and conquer snow. It needs to be safe, comfortable and luxurious, and it needs to do all these things without breaking the bank — in car payments or at the pump. A tall order, no doubt, but the leading midsize SUV competitors really have gotten that good.
The Toyota Highlander makes the grade on all counts, though it doesn’t excel in any one area. Provided it can maintain its outstanding resale value and reliability, it should prove a smart — if not particularly captivating — choice for years to come.
Base, Sport and Limited trim levels come with front- or four-wheel drive, and all can seat five or seven, depending on the configuration. Prices range from roughly $27,000 to $40,000 with options. There’s also a hybrid version, covered separately in the Cars.com Research section. I tested all three trim levels of the regular Highlander at a Toyota event in Michigan.
Toyota’s California design studios sculpted the exterior, which is bigger in all major dimensions than the old Highlander. To my eyes, Toyota’s smaller RAV4 SUV looks better-proportioned, with just enough curves to offset the angles. With its creased headlights, flashy grille and characterless bumper, the Highlander seems a bit too slick — like a convenience store shopper who won’t take off his sunglasses.
The rear bumper has dimpled reflectors on each side, and most trim levels have a glass hatch that opens independent of the liftgate. Seventeen-inch alloy wheels are standard; the Sport and Limited have 19-inchers that fill out the wheel wells nicely. The Sport has a dark silver grille and smoked-out headlights. The Limited has plainer headlights and chrome exterior moldings.
At 188.4 inches long and 75.2 inches wide, the Highlander casts roughly the same shadow as a Honda Pilot, Subaru Tribeca or Hyundai Veracruz. The Mazda CX-9 and Saturn Outlook are both about a foot longer.
Toyota has spent years building a reputation for quality, and absent any serious competition, the new Highlander might have maintained that standard. The competition is nothing if not serious, though, and SUVs like the CX-9 and Veracruz boast some impressively upscale interiors. In comparison, Toyota falls a bit short.
The Toyota Highlander shares underpinnings with the current Camry, and the dashboard bears much of the sedan’s flavor. The center controls are the natural focal point, with oversized knobs for major functions within easy reach. Sport and Limited models have a 3.5-inch screen atop the stereo. It displays gas mileage, outside temperature and more. It also shows settings for the optional automatic climate control system, which can divide the cabin into as many as three temperature zones — two front and one rear. The climate controls sit below the stereo, and they’re awfully cluttered. I counted 13 buttons between the two temperature knobs; that’s a lot of ground to cover when you’re referencing a readout some 10 inches away. In contrast, the standard manual air conditioning is simple.
Cabin quality is merely average. The window switches, turn signals and center controls could go straight into a Lexus, and the chrome accents and electroluminescent gauges look terrific. Most areas are trimmed in hard plastics, however, and the textures lack the appeal of the stuff in several competitors. Worst of all is the ceiling’s headliner, which is some of the cheapest mouse fur this side of an economy car.
Parents will appreciate the storage options. The center console between the front seats has four cupholders and a wide storage bin. Forget laptops; the glove box could fit a small desktop computer. (Probably not the monitor, though — let’s not get carried away.)
Three standard rows of seats accommodate up to seven, though you can drop the third row in order to save a little cash, reducing seating capacity to five. The front seats offer plenty of room, with a trick extender in the Highlander Limited that extends the cushion under the driver’s thighs. Nice touch.
The second row is equally commodious, with reclining backrests and seat cushions that adjust backward and forward. The center seat has Toyota’s new Center Stow feature. It’s basically a jump seat, which passengers can swap for a plastic center console, turning the second row into two captain’s chairs. The unused portion — either the middle seat or console — stores in a floor compartment between the front seats. After a few practice runs, I was able to make the change in around 25 seconds.
The jump seat is light enough for easy installation. Its comfort is hit and miss, even for a middle seat; the bottom cushion is substantial, but I could easily feel the hinges beneath the backrest padding. The plastic console is lighter still, and both pieces have sturdy installation hooks that should survive plenty of thrashing from overenthusiastic kids.
Depending on where the second row is positioned, the third row can be surprisingly adult-friendly. I’m 6 feet tall and found headroom a bit tight, but with the second row moved forward a few inches — preserving plenty of legroom for most adults — the third row’s legroom was such that I could tolerate a short trip.
All Toyota Highlanders get the 3.5-liter V6 from the Camry, Sienna and several other Toyotas. In the Highlander it makes 270 horsepower and 248 pounds-feet of torque. Both are substantial gains over last year’s V6, which made 215 hp and 222 pounds-feet of torque. A five-speed automatic transmission is standard. Last year’s base four-cylinder engine has been dropped.
Acceleration is adequate off the line and stronger as the engine revs. The transmission helps things along, holding gears and rarely shifting prematurely. Hard acceleration can prompt some abrupt transitions among lower gears — better for acceleration, worse for comfort — but most of the time the shifts are smooth enough to pass undetected. The drivetrain feels best on the highway, where it downshifts with minimal gear hunting. Third gear is especially potent for 50-to-70 mph passing.
The optional four-wheel drive is transparent to the driver. It incorporates a center differential to split power 50/50 between the front and rear wheels all of the time. Four-wheel-drive models have a downhill assist function. Press a dashboard button, and it will slow the SUV to a crawl down steep grades. The feature seems a bit disingenuous: There is no low gear for offroad rock crawling, which means you should probably avoid anywhere treacherous enough to require the downhill assist.
All Highlanders have a hill-start aid that holds the brakes for up to three seconds from a stop to prevent the SUV from rolling backward before you have time to hit the gas.
Using the EPA’s more realistic 2008 rating system — which generally leads to lower numbers — gas mileage is rated at 18/24 mpg (city/highway) for two-wheel-drive models and 17/23 mpg for those with four-wheel drive. These ratings lead most midsize SUVs by 1 or 2 mpg. They also beat the old V-6 Highlander by about 1 mpg (adjusted using the EPA’s new calculation) — an impressive feat, given the new Highlander has more power and weighs some 300 pounds more. (Four-cylinder fans won’t miss much: The old four-cylinder Highlander got just 1 mpg more than the new one does with the V6.)
The unibody construction affords a comfortable ride, with none of the underbody shimmying that plagued the previous Highlander (which was also unibody) and many body-on-frame SUVs. The four-wheel-independent suspension is sport-tuned in the Highlander Sport, but I couldn’t detect a difference in ride firmness among the base, Sport and Limited. All three have a bit more suspension noise over major bumps than I’ve come to expect in a midsize SUV.
Wind noise is minimal. Given a smooth stretch of asphalt, the tires are relatively quiet. The Sport and Limited’s 19-inch wheels and P245/55R19 tires emit a slight hum at highway speeds, which I couldn’t detect with the base model’s 17-inchers and thicker P245/65R19 rubber.
All models now come with electric power steering. These systems save a bit on fuel consumption — a bit of low-hanging fruit to meet the government’s fuel economy standards, I suspect — but they often result in lifeless, artificial steering feel. Expectedly, the Toyota Highlander steers with a light touch, never delivering much in the way of feedback or turning precision. The CX-9 fares better in this regard, but few other competitors stand out. The same is true for body roll: Like most SUVs, the Highlander leans away in curves, reminding drivers it’s not to be cornered quickly.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard. The pedal offers spongy response, but the brakes clamp down hard when needed.
With all three rows installed and raised, cargo room in back is a meager 10.3 cubic feet. The third row folds flat into the floor, and the second row folds nearly flat. Highlanders without the third row instead include a fairly large storage area under the rear floor.
With all seats folded, maximum cargo volume is 95.4 cubic feet, which compares more favorably with the crowd.
|Cargo Volume Compared
When properly equipped, the Highlander can tow up to 5,000 pounds.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety frontal crash tests, the 2008 Highlander scored the highest score, Good. IIHS has not tested the Toyota Highlander for side impacts.
Toyota didn’t skimp on safety features. All Highlanders come standard with four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system. The stability system now works with the electric power steering, which boosts the power assist when the driver is steering to correct a skid. It also helps combat steering pull under hard braking to help the Highlander stop in a straight line. (Toyota says the system cannot steer the SUV on its own, as some advanced systems now do, so if you steer the wrong way in a skid, don’t expect any extra power assist.)
Seven airbags are standard, including the required dual front airbags, a driver’s knee airbag and side-impact airbags for the front seats. There are also roll-sensing side curtain airbags for all three rows, which deploy during a rollover to prevent occupant ejection.
All seats have head restraints, and in Sport and Limited models, the front ones are forward-adjustable for better whiplash protection. Active head restraints are standard on the front seats of all trims. The second row includes Latch child-seat anchors in the outboard seats, with easily accessible top-tether anchors midway down the seatback.
Excluding the destination charge, the base Toyota Highlander with two-wheel drive starts at $27,300. A Highlander Limited with a full bevy of options runs around $42,000. Four-wheel drive on any trim adds about $1,500. All trim levels come with three rows of seats, though a third-row delete option on certain models can save $740.
- For $27,300, the base Toyota Highlander comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, a CD stereo with an auxiliary MP3 jack, air conditioning, cruise control, and power windows, mirrors and door locks.
- For $29,950, the Sport adds darkened exterior elements, 19-inch wheels, fog lights, a power driver’s seat, a multifunction steering wheel, a backup camera and six-CD audio.
- For $32,700, the Toyota Highlander Limited adds a keyless startup system, automatic climate control, leather upholstery and a power passenger seat. Many of these features are optional on the Sport. Options on both trim levels include a navigation system, JBL premium audio, a backseat DVD player, a moonroof, a power tailgate and heated front seats.
Competitors from GM, Mazda and Hyundai will give the Toyota Highlander a run for its money. Its largest rival, the Honda Pilot, is due for a redesign in the next year or two, and Toyota’s trump card — its reputation for quality and reliability — has been slipping lately. The automaker has pledged to redouble its efforts, and its latest SUV must prove that.
The new Toyota Highlander has lots of textbook sensibilities, like decent gas mileage and loads of safety features, but there’s nothing exceptional about it. If it proves as bulletproof as its predecessor, though, dependability will become its defining attribute, which is a textbook draw a lot of buyers can get behind.