When Steven Sturm, marketing vice-president for Toyota Motor Sales USA, describes the 2001 Toyota Highlander as the "SUV for housewives" and adds "we didn't want it to appear too macho," you want to set him straight. Images of dowdy women
wearing flowered housecoats and brush rollers come to mind. You can almost hear Roseanne in the background barking, "It's domestic goddess - not housewife." But once you take a spin in the newest family vehicle from Toyota, you can forgive Sturm's not
exactly politically correct descriptions. That's because the Highlander, which is pitched at a 60-percent female market and is the Japanese manufacturer's fifth salvo in the war to win SUV buyers, will appeal to you even if you never dust or
vacuum. And even though its basic underpinnings were derived from the Camry sedan, it's macho enough to meet the SUV needs of many folks. Despite the company's insistence on labeling the Highlander an SUV, it's really a "crossover" vehicle - one that
combines the handling of a family car, the roominess and higher seating position of a minivan, and the functionality and go-anywhere capability of a sport-ute. Toyota says consumers who want a more rugged SUV can always buy the truck-based
4Runner, which competes directly with the Ford Explorer. But if you envy all the people in your neighborhood who are lucky enough to own a Lexus RX300, the Highlander is an even more affordable choice. The Highlander is the cheaper sister vehicle to the
RX300. The Highlander is priced from $23,515 for a standard 4X2 model with a four-cylinder engine to $26,495 for the 4X4 version with a V-6. Within the span of a week, I got to sample two versions of the five-passenger Highlander. The first time
was a quick trip around my old Detroit neighborhood - past the house I grew up in and the church I got married in - with my friend Jackie. She gushed about the Highlander, noting its chief benefit was the sensible cabin, which was nice, but not so nice
that "you'd freak out if your kid dropped a French fry." Later, our family tested a lavishly equipped $30,350 Highlander 4X4 with a four-speed automatic transmission and a twin-cam 3.0-liter V-6 engine that makes 220 horsepower - just enough to
rocket you onto the highway, even with a load of passengers. We put the Highlander through typical family paces, including a fancy Saturday night birthday dinner for a sister-in-law, an airport run to pick up a cousin passing through town and a rush-hour
trip running the dog to the vet. Bottom line: The Highlander is great for both errands and a night on the town. We give Toyota extra credit for being one of the first manufacturers to come up with a nongarish gold exterior paint scheme. Our test
vehicle was Vintage Gold with an ivory interior, and a simple thing like that sharp color put Highlander a cut above most of the mom-and-pop SUVs and minivans we see parked in front of the local elementary school.
The Highlander also has some of the biggest, most sensible and easy to use cabin controls we've seen. They're a real plus, especially if you're in situations where you can barely afford to take your eyes off the road. And the rear seats are a snap to
fold flat with one motion and one hand - no pulling up the seat bottom and then tugging at the seat back like you have to do in some SUVs. While fuel economy isn't terrific - Highlander gets 18 miles per gallon in the city and 22 on the highway -
it's not as dreadful as some of the more conventional SUVs we've been in. Our complaints about the Highlander were fairly minimal. We wondered why a loaded Highlander with a 30 grand price tag lacked such amenities as heated seats, a compass and
an outside temperature gauge - some features which come on the optional $3,495 Limited package. A big issue for larger families may be that, unlike most minivans and some SUVs like the 2002 Explorer, Highlander does not have an option
third-row seat. "Those who need that space can graduate to the (Toyota) Sequoia, with its eight-passenger seating," said Sturm, although the Sequoia is substantially bigger - about the size of a Ford Expedition - and costs considerably more.
We also pointed out to Sturm the Highlander lacks the clever purse holder we've seen on the 2002 Buick Rendezvous, another crossover vehicle that shares its base with the Pontiac Aztek. "We're beyond purse holders," he said. Thank
goodness that cavalier attitude doesn't extend to more critical things like safety features. Highlander's list of standard safety items includes anti-lock brakes, but features like side air bags and traction control are optional. Side bags were an extra
$250 on our test vehicle, which also had the optional $850 vehicle skid control with traction control. Standard amenities are plentiful on the Highlander and include air conditioning, a premium sound system with a CD player, cruise control, power windows
and locks and a tilt steering column. Expect to pay an extra $320 for keyless entry and a tonneau cover and $220 for a roof rack system. Heated seats for front passengers are an extra $440. Toyota's warranty on the Highlander is three years/36,000 miles,
nowhere near some of the lengthy warranties on its Korean competitors. But, hey, Toyota has a sterling reputation when it comes to quality. Sturm said Toyota christened its newest SUV Highlander because the name said "mainstream, Scottish,
family-oriented." Earlier, Toyota used the Highlander name as a package on the 4Runner for a couple of years. As for the latest model, it's a four-star vehicle, judging from my initial drive. I'm even ready to buy one. Just don't call
me a housewife.