The Highlander, Toyota's first midsize crossover utility vehicle, moved into its second generation for 2008 with a complete makeover.

Based on the Lexus RX crossover, which arrived two years before the Highlander's debut for 2001, this was the second Toyota-brand SUV to break from the truck mold, offering consumers a more-refined family hauler based on the chassis of a car - in this case, the Toyota Camry.

The first, of course, was the compact RAV4 that came to market in 1996, the first of the vehicles that were called mini-SUVs.

Nobody was using the term "crossover" when the Highlander arrived.

But since then, the vehicles now referred to as crossovers have bloomed, and in 2005, they overtook the truck-based models as the best-selling SUVs.

Most automakers now have several crossovers in their lineups, which is helping them to weather the recent gasoline price increases that have made the traditional truck-style SUVs an endangered species.

There's good reason for that: the Highlander we tested, the front-wheel-drive Sport model (base price $29,950 plus $645 freight), comes with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that provides EPA fuel-economy estimates of 18 miles per gallon city/24 highway. That's a marked improvement over the 16 city/21 highway ratings of the comparably sized Toyota 4Runner, a body-on-frame, truck-based traditional SUV. All-wheel-drive Highlanders for 2008 are rated at 17 city/23 highway.

Toyota is further bolstered in its crossover lineups by gasoline-electric hybrid versions of the Highlander and its upscale Lexus cousin, called the RX 400h.

The redesigned '08 Highlander rides on the same architecture as the Toyota Avalon full-size sedan, which itself is a stretched version of the Camry.

That makes the newest Highlander bigger, with more passenger and cargo space. Toyota says it has grown 3.8 inches longer, 3.3 inches wider and 2.8 inches higher, with a wheelbase that is 2.9 inches longer. Inside, there is 41 more cubic feet of space.

It's heavier, as well - about 300 pounds. But to overcome the extra weight, there's more power.

Under the hood is the same 3.5-liter V-6 engine that is used in the Camry and Avalon, rated at 270 horsepower and 248 foot-pounds of torque. The horsepower is up 55 from that of the previous model's 3.3-liter V-6.

Gone - but perhaps destined to be resurrected - is the four-cylinder engine from the previous generation, which offered not only better fuel economy than the V-6, but a lower starting price for the Highlander.

At the time the new Highlander was rolled out last year, Toyota believed that people who want a four-cylinder engine would buy the smaller RAV4 instead. It was redesigned for 2006, and is now almost the size of the previous Highlander.

Although only about 20 percent of Highlander buyers chose the four-cylinder model (remember, gas was generally under $2 a gallon then), the lower-priced version did give consumers more choice.

The difference in fuel economy isn't that great, though. The four-cylinder engine used in the 2007 Highlander has EPA ratings of 19 city/25 highway, just one mpg higher for each.

For those who want the best fuel economy the Highlander has to offer, there is the hybrid, whose EPA ratings are 27 city/25 highway. But for such a slight increase in highway mileage, just one mpg, the hybrid model's price might be hard to justify: It begins at $34,200.

This model uses a smaller V-6 engine combined with an electric motor to give it combined power equal to that of the gasoline-only version.

With the remake, Toyota pushed the Highlander upscale - which primarily means more expensive - in response to a shift in buyer priorities, the automaker said last year.

The base price is now $27,500 (plus freight) for the two-wheel-drive entry model, compared with $24,880 for the 2007 four-cylinder model, and $25,940 for the lowest-priced 2007 V-6 version.

But Toyota justified the increased prices by adding standard amenities including a new five-speed automatic transmission, electronic power steering, side-curtain air bags for all three rows of seats, a driver's side knee air bag, larger alloy wheels, and, of course, the bigger engine.

Increased safety was the major goal in the Highlander's redesign, Toyota said. Besides the additional standard air bags, the new model has a more-rigid cabin, which provides better absorption of crash energy, and new active head restraints. Much of the new model's added weight came from these reinforcements.

There also is increased protection for pedestrians who might be hit by the Highlander. It has a collapsible hood and fender tops, a softer hood construction, and increased clearance between the hood and the engine.

Improvements also were made to the electronic stability control, brakes and steering.

The Highlander's exterior was significantly redesigned as well, in a move to make it more appealing. The result is an improved look, but nothing dramatic.

Toyota says the Highlander is aimed at couples, empty-nesters and busy families. But Toyota also hopes it will attract significantly younger and more-affluent customers than the previous generation.

There are several new convenience features in the Highlander that were inspired, in part, by owners of the previous generation. Among them is a second-row seat that can be instantly converted from a three-person bench to a two-person bucket-seat setup, giving the rearmost passengers a walk-through area.

The middle section of the second row can be stowed into the floor in a compartment under the front console.

Other standard or optional features include a rear glass hatch that opens separately from the entire tailgate, a Smart Key system with pushbutton start, 19-inch alloy wheels (17-inch are standard on base models), several audio system options, a navigation system, and a rear DVD entertainment system.

Three trim levels are offered: base, Sport and Limited. All-wheel drive is optional on all three.

The base model with all-wheel drive lists for $28,950 plus freight. Among standard features are manual air conditioning, power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote, tilt and telescopic steering wheel, AM/FM/compact-disc player with six speakers, and 10 cupholders.

With all-wheel drive, the Sport model starts at $31,600.

Extra features on the Sport include an eight-way power driver's seat and four-way power front passenger seat, 19-inch wheels, dark-silver roof rails, sport-tuned suspension, the rear glass hatch, a chrome exhaust tip, rear spoiler, fog lights, rear backup camera, and sport badging.

Top of the line is the Limited model, priced at $32,900 (2WD) and $34,350 (AWD).

This one comes with the Smart Key system, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 10-way power driver's seat, chrome grille and door handles, fog lights, puddle lights, light-silver roof rails, heated outside mirrors, rear spoiler, the backup camera, woodgrain interior trim, power rear hatch,

The third row seat folds flat into the floor to create a larger cargo area.

Five-passenger models, with no third seat, are available in the base and Sport trim levels.

A separate rear air conditioning system is optional.

Options on our Sport tester included a JBL audio system with six-disc, in-dash CD changer ($630); a power-operated rear hatch ($400); anti-theft system ($220); power sunroof ($850); towing package with 5,000-pound capacity ($220); roof-rail cross bars ($229); and carpeted floor and cargo mats ($275).

Total sticker price was $33,419.

2008 Toyota Highlander

The package: Midsize, front- or all-wheel-drive, four-door, five- or seven-passenger, V-6 or V-6/electric-hybrid crossover utility vehicle.

Highlights: Redesigned for 2008, this is Toyota's family-size crossover, with choice of gasoline-only or hybrid drivetrains. It's based on the architecture of the Camry/Avalon sedans.

Negatives: Four-cylinder model has been dropped; price climbs significantly for the hybrid model with little improvement in highway fuel economy.

Overall length: 188.4 inches.

Curb weight: 3,974-4,641 pounds.

Engine: Gas-only model: 3.5-liter V-6; Hybrid: 3.3-liter V-6, plus front and rear (AWD only) electric drive motors.

Transmission: Gas model: five-speed automatic; Hybrid: continuously variable automatic.

Power: Gas: 270 HP.; Hybrid: 209 HP. (gasoline engine), 167 HP. (front electric motor); 68 HP. (rear electric motor, AWD hybrid only).

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

Cargo volume: 10.3 cubic feet (behind third row); 42.3 cubic feet (behind second row, third seat folded or absent); 95.4 cubic feet (both rear seats folded).

Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds (3,500 hybrid).

Electronic stability control: Standard.

Side air bags: Front seat-mounted, three-row side-curtain.

EPA fuel economy: Front drive: 18 city/24 highway; AWD: 17 city/23 highway; Hybrid: 27 city/25 highway.

Fuel capacity/type: 19.2 gallons/unleaded regular.

Main competitors: Honda Pilot, GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse (fall intro), Dodge Journey, Ford Edge, Ford Flex (fall), Nissan Murano, Mitsubishi Endeavor, Subaru Tribeca, Suzuki XL7.

Base price range: $27,500-$34,200 plus $645 freight.

Price as tested: $33,419, including freight and options (front-drive Sport model).

On the Road rating: 8.7 (of a possible 10).

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at