The Toyota Highlander is a family hauler that's smooth and comfortable with generous space for passengers and cargo. The Hybrid model delivers excellent fuel economy with minimal emissions, while a new four-cylinder engine for 2009 offers decent fuel economy at a lower price point. An available V6 engine delivers smooth performance and respectable fuel economy.
Completely new for 2008, the current Highlander is larger than the previous-generation in every significant dimension.
New for 2009 is a brand-new four-cylinder engine. It displaces 2.7 liters, makes 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, and delivers attractive EPA fuel economy ratings of 20/27 mpg City/Highway. It has a variable intake manifold and Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) to optimize torque and fuel efficiency and to deliver strong response at all engine speeds. The new four-cylinder is matched with a six-speed electronically controlled automatic overdrive transmission, and is available only with two-wheel drive. Otherwise, the Highlander is unchanged for 2009.
A versatile cabin adds to the attractiveness of the Highlander as a family vehicle. The second row can slide forward and back, and the third-row seat is hospitable for children and capable of carrying adults. Getting in and out of the first two rows is easy, and Toyota provides both a walk-through and a fold-and-slide-forward second-row seat to ease access to the third row.
In addition to the new four-cylinder engine, there are two other powertrains. A 3.5-liter V6 delivers 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. The 3.5-liter V6 is buttery smooth, as is its five-speed automatic transmission, which downshifts seamlessly to provide ample passing punch. Front-wheel-drive Highlanders with the 3.5-liter V6 are EPA-rated at 18/24 mpg City/Highway, while all-wheel drive models are rated slightly lower at 17/23 mpg.
The Highlander Hybrid has a 270-hp gas/electric powertrain that provides smooth, plentiful power. The gasoline engine is a 3.3-liter V6 that delivers 208 horsepower and 212 pound-feet of torque and is matched to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT). In combination with the electric motors, the complete Hybrid powertrain can deliver 270 horsepower to the driving wheels. The Hybrid is rated at 27/25 mpg City/Highway.
Gasoline-only Highlanders come standard with front-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive available for customers who want all-weather capability and enhanced safety. Hybrids come standard with all-wheel drive.
The Highlander is a so-called crossover SUV, meaning it's built more like a car than a truck. The Highlander is based on the architecture of the Toyota Camry midsize sedan. As a result, the Highlander offers a quiet cabin and a luxurious ride quality. Overall, we found the Toyota Highlander to be a pleasant way to carry a group of people.
The Toyota Highlander is in the heart of the midsize crossover SUV market, and is about the same size as the Honda Pilot. Highlander's 95.4 cubic feet of cargo room is more than all but a handful of competitors in the popular midsize class.
The Highlander fits in the middle of Toyota's four-pronged midsize SUV lineup. It features softer styling than the 4Runner midsize SUV and the retro-styled FJ Cruiser. Truck-based platforms, rugged suspensions and low-range transfer cases make 4Runner and FJ Cruiser highly capable off road. The Highlander is based on the same architecture as that of the Camry and Avalon sedans. Highlander's all-wheel-drive systems are designed for taming slippery pavement and wintry conditions, not for climbing rocks and traversing rough terrain. Likewise, the Toyota Venza is a mid-size vehicle that further blurs the line between wagon and SUV. (Whether you call these vehicles SUVs or wagons seems like a specious argument to us, and we could argue either side. The point is whether the vehicle meets your needs.) Also based on the Camry platform, the Venza is even more carlike than the Highlander.
The design of the Highlander is clean, and accented on each side by a character line that leads into pronounced wheel arches. The look is more SUV than station wagon, and the available 19-inch alloy wheels add to the muscular stance.
Alloy wheels come standard, so every Highlander looks well-equipped. Hybrid models are differentiated by blue-tinted lighting, a special grille, and unique alloy wheels.
Climb into the driver's seat of the Highlander and you are greeted by a quality, upscale cabin. Fit and finish are excellent and the design is attractive. There are more hard plastic finishes than in a Lexus, but those plastics are nicely grained and assembled with care.
The secondary controls are easy to spot, and they move with precision. A 3.5-inch screen displays trip computer and climate control information on all but the base model. This same screen displays the image from the rear backup camera whenever you shift into Reverse. The picture is very small, but it could help the driver avoid making the tragic mistake of backing over a child and in everyday use it speeds parallel parking or backing up to a wall.
Opt for the navigation system, and the camera is projected onto the larger navigation screen, making the image easier to see. This is a far useful tool than the standard screen when it comes to backing up. This screen also displays some of the audio controls, adding an extra step or two when changing stations, but the system works very well.
Cup holders abound, with 10 cup holders scattered throughout the cabin. Larger bottle holders are provided in the doors, handy for large water bottles. There's also plenty of storage for small items.
Hybrid models have some exclusive interior touches. The gauges are trimmed in blue instead of red, and a power meter replaces the tachometer. Displayed either on the multifunction screen or the navigation screen are Consumption and Energy Monitor information. The Consumption screen displays fuel economy in real time and five-minute increments, and the Energy Monitor screen employs a schematic to show when the gas engine and electric motors are in use. It may be fun to watch these screens, but be careful because they can distract attention from the road.
Many buyers prefer SUVs because the high seating position lets them see over traffic. The Highlander's elevated ride height and upright seating position give it that desirable SUV trait but with easier step-in than what's found in older, truck-based SUVs.
Head and leg room are generous in the first and second rows. Up front, the leather seats are comfortable, and visibility is good to all corners.
The second-row captain's chairs are comfortable, and the Highlander has a handy removable center seat that can be replaced by a center console. The area between the second-row seats can also be left open to provide a walkthrough to the standard third row. Either the center console or the center seat can be stowed beneath the front seat center console.
The third-row seating is aided by second-row seats that can slide forward. Adults can fit, but the seat cushion is set low, so it's still not ideal for long trips. Access to the third row is easy from the passenger's side, as the second row captain's chair flips and slides forward in one motion. The driver's side chair folds flat, but doesn't slide forward far enough to allow passengers to walk through.
For cargo space, the second- and third-row seats fold flat to open up a very useful 95.4 cubic feet. Tethers and levers are provided in the cargo area to make folding and unfolding the seats a breeze. The available separate opening rear glass is a nice convenience, and the load height is low for an SUV, making it easier to load groceries, duffle bags, and other cargo.
The Toyota Highlander is a pleasant vehicle to drive. Most notable is the ride quality, which is luxurious or soft, depending on your viewpoint. Even with the available 19-inch wheels, the suspension smoothes all but the most jarring bumps. There is a bit of unwanted float on highways and on winding roads, though, and some folks find it too soft. Sport models and Hybrids have slightly more road feel, but are still quite comfortable, making them a better choice who find the standard suspension too soft.
The suspension emphasizes a soft ride over taut handling. All models lean when cornering and braking. Steering feel is light, but the response is somewhat slow. We would not describe the Highlander as nimble. We prefer the Sport model's slightly firmer ride because it doesn't allow as much lean and is still comfortable. The Nissan Murano offers better handling prowess. Traction control and electronic stability control come standard on the Highlander to help keep you on your intended path in slippery conditions or if you enter a corner too fast. Just always remember to look and steer where you want to go.
The brakes feel a bit soft but provide fine stopping power thanks to Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist.
The all-wheel-drive system in the gas models provides a full-time 50/50 front/rear torque split. In Hybrid models, the AWD system is front-drive biased, but when it detects slippage, the rear-mounted electric motor can kick in to deliver up to 25 percent of the available power to the rear wheels. Both systems will help you get the kids to school on snowy days.
The 3.5-liter V6 propels the Highlander front-drive models from 0 to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds and all-wheel-drive models in 7.8 seconds. A manual shift gate also allows choosing a lower gear for more immediate power delivery. From inside the cabin, the V6 can barely be heard, emitting only a refined growl under hard acceleration.
The Hybrid's powertrain is called Hybrid Synergy Drive, and it mates a 3.3-liter V6 with three electric motors for a total of 270 horsepower. The transmission is a continuously variable automatic that constantly adjusts gearing ratios instead of changing gears.
The Hybrid version feels a bit more responsive off the line, but in reality it isn't as quick as the standard versions, accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds. Driving the Hybrid is different than driving a standard V6 model. You start to notice those differences when you turn the key and nothing happens. Rest assured, it's ready and operational. The gas engine just doesn't start until it's needed. The gas engine shuts off at stoplights but starts again as soon as you step on the accelerator. Under the right conditions (full battery charge and proper coolant temperature), you can press the EV button and drive the Hybrid up to two miles at less than 25 mph on electric power only. That can be a big benefit in stop-and-go traffic. The Highlander Hybrid is the first Toyota hybrid to offer an EV button in the United States. Hybrid models also have an ECON button that reduces throttle response to improve fuel economy. The continuously variable transmission feels natural. It has a standard drive mode, which allows the Hybrid to freewheel down hills, as well as a B mode, which uses engine compression to slow the vehicle when the driver's foot is off the throttle. B mode helps recharge the battery pack. The Hybrid powertrain is a little rougher than the standard V6 but is still quite refined.
In all models, wind noise is well-checked, and the only notable interior noise is some tire hum on rough pavement.
The Toyota Highlander offers generous room for people and cargo, a choice of powertrains, ample performance and good fuel economy. Hybrid models offer excellent fuel economy, particularly in the stop-and-go traffic of major metros, along with extremely low emissions. Add in Toyota's reputation for reliability and resale value, and the Highlander is a wise choice for active families.
Kirk Bell filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after driving Highlander models around Scottsdale, Arizona.