The more the Highlander changes, the more it stays the same.
And that's not a bad thing.
For the 2011 model year, Toyota upgraded its three-row crossover by giving it a fresh face, a few more standard features and a new, four-cylinder SE model.
While not the most exciting looking vehicle on the road, the Highlander remains a consumer choice for people looking for reliable family hauling. After all, not everyone's life fits with a minivan.
The seven-passenger Highlander is a safe choice. It may be far from flawless, but it has few flaws.
Toyota offers two nearly bulletproof engines with the Highlander: The 2.7-liter four-cylinder and 3.5-liter V-6.
The four-banger comes with a big displacement — Chrysler made a 2.7-liter V-6 for comparison. But this engine provides 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. It also manages to get 20 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway without any noticeable lack of power. The addition of the SE model, the middle trim level, is a smart move. Prior to the 2011 model, customers had to sacrifice luxury if they wanted fuel economy. Now that isn't necessary.
Toyota is merely keeping up with the competition, which offers smaller displacement engines with its higher trim levels, recognizing that luxury is not always about additional power.
But really, the V-6 provides the additional 87 horses that make the Highlander much more pleasant to drive. It also doesn't sacrifice much mileage either, putting up EPA figures of 18 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway. The V-6 model comes with a five-speed automatic transmission and the four-cylinder models come with a six-speed automatic transmission.
The new fascia does give the Highlander a more aggressive look, but it still keeps those gangly proportions, with a high roofline and long body that makes the Highlander look like it could gain a few pounds.
Really, there's nothing offensive in the way it looks and that's the appeal of this vehicle. It looks and feels so normal. And it doesn't look like a minivan.
Its ride and handling are similar. There's no excitement in the steering or ride. But it wasn't designed to be a sports car. It was created to go over the hills and through the woods to Grandmother's house on weekends, or a long road trip or just to soccer practice.
This is where the Highlander excels. Its ride is comfortable, quiet and downright peaceful. Its independent suspension smooths out all of life's potholes and just keeps on cruising. While it may have all of the trappings of an SUV, the Highlander feels like a big sedan on the road.
The high riding position provides good visibility, the seats are firm but comfortable and second row captain's chairs are good for children or adults.
Like the exterior, the interior is plain and extremely functional. Everything is well laid out and the plastic surfaces include nicely placed silver trim. There's some flat plastic and areas that could be improved, such as the door panels, but how much do people really look at door panels?
The SE and Limited models come standard with a backup camera. (It's an option on the base model.) The backup camera does not require you buy the navigation system, as some cars have done. Instead, if you choose not to have the navigation system's 7-inch display screen on the top of the center stack, a small 3.5-inch screen is available.
While I really like this vehicle as a five-passenger crossover, I think it loses some of its charm with the third row. Like most third rows, it's very cramped back there (just 29.9 inches of legroom). Of course, it is a great space to use when attempting to separate siblings and it does provide the option of being able to carry more people.
However, when that third row folds down, there's actually a ton of storage space available, more than 42 cubic feet to haul things around.
That's part of the beauty of the Highlander: It can play a lot of roles on its 109.9-inch wheelbase. It can be a repairman's assistant, a school bus, a daily driver and grocery-getter all on the same day. It may not be the most exciting vehicle, but that's just because the people who drive it find their excitement off the highway. They just need some wheels to get them there.
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