The Toyota Highlander is the best-selling vehicle of its type, a midsize sport-utility based on a car. Highlander's popularity is partly because it's a Toyota, which promises top-notch quality, durability and reliability. But it's also a result of its practicality and easy manner.
The Highlander is, after all, the easiest of motoring companions. Getting in and out couldn't be easier. Accommodating various combinations of people and cargo is easy. Seating for five comes standard, but the Highlander can carry up to seven passengers with the optional third-row seat. Folding the seats down reveals 80 cubic feet of cargo space.
Underway, it's smooth and quiet. Its independent suspension is set up for comfort and ride quality as a priority. The Highlander is based on the Lexus RX and offers much of what made that luxurious crossover SUV popular. In many ways, we like the Toyota better than the Lexus.
It's available with four-cylinder or V6 power, and a choice of front-wheel drive or full-time four-wheel drive. The standard Highlander with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive performs well around town and on the open highway, delivering responsive performance when merging into highway traffic. Equipped with the larger 3.3-liter V6 and all-wheel drive, the Highlander offers strong power and secure handling in nasty weather.
The new Highlander Hybrid is surprisingly powerful, more powerful than the regular V6 models. The Hybrid combines a 3.3-liter V6 with an electric motor, or two motors in the case of all-wheel-drive models. The electric motor improves acceleration, helping the Hybrid to easily keep up with big, powerful SUVs. This urge to speed comes at a major cost to fuel economy. It's estimated at just 33/28 mpg City/Highway by the EPA, and you may never see that. The real story here is emissions. The Highlander Hybrid will be classified by the government as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle, or SULEV. You could drive across America several times and emit fewer pollutants than someone painting a bedroom.
First introduced as a 2001 model, the Highlander was substantially revised for 2004. The 2005 models added more standard equipment. The Hybrid is new for 2006; the other models carry forward largely unchanged.
Toyota Highlander 2WD ($24,530); 4WD ($25,930); 2WD V6 ($25,590); 4WD V6 ($27,840); Limited 2WD ($30,460); Limited 4WD ($31,860); Highlander Hybrid 2WD ($33,030); Hybrid 4WD ($34,430); Hybrid Limited 2WD ($37,890); Hybrid Limited 4WD ($39,290)
Highlander is slightly larger inside, as measured by total EPA interior volume, than the RX 330, although the Lexus has slightly more cargo volume.
Toyota design philosophy tends toward conservative appearance changes, and the Highlander lacks a cutting-edge design such as that of the Nissan Murano. Highlander's front and rear overhangs are relatively large, tending more toward a station wagon look. It's an attractive vehicle, though, particularly in profile. Highlander's front bumper, light clusters and grille were revised for 2004.
While the Toyota 4Runner is basically a truck, the Highlander is essentially a car. Like a car, the Highlander uses unibody construction rather than having a separate frame. And, like a car, the Highlander features a four-wheel independent suspension, rather than a solid rear axle. Two-wheel-drive versions are front-wheel drive, not rear-wheel drive. The 4Runner is the opposite of each of those strategies. The best choice? It comes down to your game: For towing and driving off road, the 4Runner is better. For commuting and transporting the family, the Highlander is the better, more comfortable choice. Properly equipped, Highlander can tow up to 3,500 pounds, not much by truck standards, but sufficient for personal watercraft, small boats and other toys.
Highlander comes with reclining bucket seats in front. These seats are flat and lean, but supportive and comfortable and adjust to suit various-size drivers. Their higher ride height provides a commanding view of the road. The sloping hood of the Highlander makes the forward view even more encompassing. The front seats are designed to reduce the possibility of whiplash.
The second row seats up to three passengers, but is better for two. The center of the second-row seat folds down into an arm rest with cup holders, and the seats recline for additional comfort. It's split 60/40 and folds down with a cleverly articulated seat bottom. The second row folds fairly flat but not perfectly flat. The second-row seat slides forward to make access to the third row easier, and to provide more legroom for third-row passengers.
Toyota intends for the third row to be used only occasionally. It's uncomfortable for average-sized adults. We found our knees rode high, and there was minimal leg room, hip room and shoulder room. The third row is best for kids and short trips. Third-row seats are seldom comfortable, especially in this class. The Honda Pilot offers substantially more hip and shoulder room in the third row, but legroom is the same story. The Nissan Murano has no third row. Also, the side-curtain airbags do not protect third-row passengers; they do in a Toyota Sienna minivan. Bottom line: If you need the third row often, then you should consider a minivan. For transporting people, a minivan is better. Highlander's third-row seat does fold flat into the floor, with no need to remove the headrests, so you still get the greater cargo-carrying utility of an SUV. Third-row seats are packaged with rear privacy glass, a rear heater system with separate fan controls, and additional cup holders.
The driver will find everything in its place. Buttons for the power windows are right there on the doors where they should be. Radio and heater controls operate intuitively and use simple dials and amply sized buttons. Instruments are readily visible through a panoramic space in the comfortable four-spoke steering wheel. The whole layout indicates thoughtful appraisal and wise choices.
The Hybrid instrument panel includes a large screen to monitor energy use and battery condition/storage. It's interesting to watch how the power flows back and forth between the engine, electric motor(s) and transmission and then on to the driven wheels. It's a good way to teach your right foot how to be especially light on the throttle. You soon learn that only a slight increase in pedal pressure dips heavily into fuel and electric reserves, and it's not easy to conserve when the demands of surrounding traffic flow come into play.
Interior trim and fabrics in all Highlanders are conservative and generally tasteful. V6 models come with aluminum interior accents. Limited models come with simulated silver and burled maple wood-grain dash trim and door scuff plates, but the wood grain trim on the center stack looks like fake wood. The standard climate control is a single-zone system.
The shifter is uniquely positioned more as a part of the dash than on a central console. This opens up the space between the front seats. It also lends an open, unconfined air to the cockpit. The interior is outfitted with dome, door courtesy, glove box and cargo-area lighting. Map pockets, visor mirrors, and front and rear auxiliary power outlets are provided. The driver's window has one-touch Auto-down.
The standard front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder Highlander makes a superb wagon for the city and suburbs. Traction control and electronic stability control and other accident-avoidance measures are standard equipment. Highlander is far easier to deal with on a daily basis than a truck-based sport-utility. Though you ride a little taller, you look eye to eye at Volvo wagon drivers.
The four-cylinder engine offers good power. It's quick, smooth and quiet, delivering 160 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque. We found the four-cylinder version to be a happy performer. We did not feel like we were missing something by not having the V6. The four-cylinder gets significantly better fuel economy than the V6 (22/27 vs. 19/25 mpg EPA-estimated City/Highway in 2WD trim). When equipped with the 4WD system, EPA mileage is one or two mpg lower, not a bad tradeoff for the all-weather capabilities of all-wheel drive. The four-speed automatic transmission features a Snow Mode for improved throttle control when accelerating from a standstill on a slippery surface.
The V6 is larger and more powerful, at 3.3 liters and 230 horsepower. Torque is increased significantly, to 242 pound-feet. Torque is that force that propels vehicles smartly away from intersections and up hills. Further enhancing engine smoothness are active-control motor mounts that cancel vibration. Toyota recommends using premium fuel for the V6, but it runs fine on regular. The V6 is mated to a five-speed automatic.
Highlander feels at home around town, amidst traffic lights and parking seekers. It's a good size for city streets and soaks up potholes and irregular pavement well. Rolling into suburbia, the Highlander fits right in. It's a natural mall-crawler, maneuverable and quick to nose into a parking slot. The steering effort is very light at low speeds, so it's easy to turn in tight quarters.
It cruises well on major highways, offering good stability and a smooth, quiet ride. It's a solid-feeling structure. Grip is quite good for hard cornering, better than expected. On winding roads, though, the steering felt slow and a bit vague. The suspension is too soft for serious hard driving, with significant body roll. Like a lot of cushy SUVs, it wallows in corners and the body leans.
Active safety features help the driver maintain control by reducing skidding. Toyota's electronic Vehicle Stability Control with traction control detects slipping of the front or rear wheels and reduces engine power and/or applies the brakes on individual wheels to correct the Highlander's course.
Braking is certain and smooth. ABS helps the driver maintain steering control under hard braking. Electronic Brake-force Distribution optimizes brake force at each wheel under different load conditions and as the car's weight shifts forward under braking for improved stability and reduced stopping distances. Brake Assist detects an emergency braking situation and automatically maintains enough brake pressure to engage the ABS even if the driver makes the mistake of relaxing pressure on the brake pedal.
All-wheel drive works great in slippery or inconsistent conditions. Snow melt, muddy ruts, icy patches on shadowed curves were easily handled by an AWD V6 Limited we drove on a meandering back road. The Highlander cut up hills covered in eight inches of newly fallen snow like a snowplow on a rescue mission. All-wheel-drive Highlanders use a permanently engaged system that splits torque 50/50 front/rear, and relies on the traction control to limit slippage at any wheel. Highlander is intended pri
Toyota Highlander is an excellent choice as a versatile, no-hassle 4WD wagon. Its ease of operation and convenience features make it eminently easy to live with. Highlander carries four people in comfort, seven in a pinch, and hauls a lot of stuff. It is a competent all-weather performer. Toyota's reputation for quality, durability and reliability should mean trouble-free ownership and a strong resale value. Highlander provides what most people want from a modern, on-road sport-utility. The Highlander Hybrid delivers strong performance and emits 80 percent fewer smog-forming emissions than a conventionally powered SUV.
Reporting from Lake Tahoe, California was NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Greg Brown.