The Toyota Highlander is a midsize SUV that's smooth and quiet underway, with a versatile cabin that seats seven. Highlander is a crossover SUV, meaning it's built more like a car than a truck, while feeling nice and big like a truck SUV. It's based on the platform of the Toyota Camry midsize sedan.
All Highlanders were extensively revised for 2011, with freshened styling and upgraded audio and safety systems. There are no additional changes to the 2012 Highlander.
The 2012 Highlander comes with a choice of powerplants. The base 2.7-liter four-cylinder makes 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, and delivers EPA fuel economy ratings of 20/25 mpg City/Highway. It's matched with a 6-speed electronically controlled automatic overdrive transmission, and is available only with two-wheel drive.
The optional 3.5-liter V6 is extremely smooth and delivers 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. Also smooth is its 5-speed automatic transmission, which downshifts seamlessly to provide ample punch for passing. Front-wheel-drive Highlanders with the 3.5-liter V6 are EPA-rated at 18/24 mpg City/Highway; Highlander AWD (all-wheel drive) models are rated slightly lower at 17/22 mpg, which is about what we got in the AWD V6 we drove, including a 300-mile freeway run.
There's also a Highlander Hybrid, whose gas/electric powertrain uses three electric motors: One to drive each axle, for AWD, and a third to regulate the electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT). The Highlander Hybrid's gasoline engine is essentially the same 3.5 liter V6, but with port, rather than direct, fuel injection and milder tuning producing 231 horsepower and 215 pound-feet of torque. But add in the additional punch of the electric motors, and the total system horsepower is 280. EPA estimated fuel economy is 28 mpg, city or highway. Unfortunately, we found it difficult to achieve that during our winter test drive using power accessories full blast.
Highlander offers a quiet cabin and a comfortable ride, while being a pleasant way to carry a group of people, with generous space for passengers and cargo. A versatile cabin adds to its attractiveness as a family vehicle. The second row can slide forward and back, and the third-row seat is good 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.
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. 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.
The Hybrid has its own grille and front bumper fascia: Dominated by horizontal slots, it looks high-tech, maybe even a little futuristic; while the standard Highlander front end prominently features a more truck-traditional, six-sided grille. Both grilles are plastic, as they almost all are nowadays, but the Highlander grilles are clearly so. The foglamps on the SE and Limited have odd silver eyebrows that seem reversed, as they travel toward the center of the car. Makes you want to swap the lights from left to right. Hybrids make the “eyebrows” less obvious by having them sweep from the bottom of the lamps; and by tucking the entire foglamp assembly inside a vertical nacelle.
The Highlander has a quality, upscale cabin. The seating position is way up high, and forward visibility excellent, without losing the corners of the car. The seats are comfortable on three-hour trips, but they're pretty flat and could use more body contour.
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 multi-function screen at top center on the dash displays the trip computer and climate control information; it's optional on the base model and standard on all others. This same screen displays the image from the rear backup camera whenever you shift into reverse. It's the smallest rearview camera screen we've ever seen, except for those tiny ones in the rearview mirror. We watched it carefully as we backed toward a chain-link fence around a driveway one dark night, and if we hadn't stopped and looked over our shoulder to double-check, we would have backed into the fence even with the rearview camera.
With the optional navigation system, the camera is projected onto the larger navigation screen, making the image much easier to see. This is a proper rearview camera. This screen also displays some of the audio controls, adding an extra step or two when changing stations, and adding distraction. The voice navigation messed up big time, when we used it. It misguided us past an easy freeway interchange we knew by heart. And it repeatedly and annoyingly interrupted our radio listening, to warn of traffic delays ahead that didn't exist. Overall, however, the Toyota navigation system works better than most.
Highlander Hybrid models have some exclusive interior touches. The gauges are trimmed in a soothing blue instead of raspy red, and a power meter replaces the tachometer. Displayed either on the small 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.
The elevated ride height and upright seating position give Highlander that desirable SUV trait but with easier step-in than older, truck-based SUVs.
The front seats are comfortable, and visibility is good to all corners. Head and leg room are generous in the first and second rows.
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.
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. Cup holders abound, with 10 cup holders scattered throughout the cabin, with bottle holders in the doors. There's plenty of storage for small items.
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. Hybrids have slightly more road feel, but are still quite comfortable, making them a better choice for those 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. The Nissan Murano offers better handling. Traction control and electronic stability control come standard on the Highlander.
The 3.5-liter V6 propels the Highlander front-wheel-drive models from 0 to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds, 7.8 seconds with all-wheel drive. A manual shift gate allows choosing the gear you want. From inside the cabin, the V6 can barely be heard, emitting only a refined growl under hard acceleration. In all models, wind noise is well-checked, and the only notable interior noise is some tire hum on rough pavement.
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, and we did just that.
We tested a Highlander in the Pacific Northwest in the middle of the winter. We drove around for two days on icy roads with our Hybrid, and it performed brilliantly, both to provide traction and to stop the vehicle safely. We tackled steep icy hills and the all-wheel-drive did its thing to keep moving the car forward without noticeable slipping. We charged down those icy hills and floored the brake pedal, and the ABS stopped the Highlander as quickly as possible. We tested the steering during ABS braking by making S turns while it was sliding on the ice. The Highlander's control was perfect.
One of our test vehicles was fitted with Toyo A20 Open Country all-season tires, P245/55R19, not even snow tires, wrapped around handsome 10-spoke 19-inch alloy wheels. We recommend winter tires for the best traction on snow.
We hung it out in icy curves (at relatively slow speeds), and the stability control kept the Highlander true to its intended path. What a wonderful feeling of security on those icy roads: whether accelerating uphill, hard braking, or around curves, the Highlander covered us.
We also drove a V6 Highlander Limited, on the same icy roads a few days later, and it too took everything in stride. It used similar 19-inch Bridgestone tires, the Dueler H/L brand, not the winter Blizzak tires. The anti-lock brakes in the Limited were rougher than on the Hybrid, with more noise and pedal vibration. At one point sliding down a steep icy hill at 3-4 mph, ABS fully engaged, we tried to steer away from the snow-covered ditch at the side of the road, but the front wheels continued to slide and not steer; apparently there is a limit, when they say you can steer with ABS engaged. So we tapped the DAC button by the shift lever, and Downhill Assist Control kicked in. It's standard equipment on AWD models. We totally took our feet off the pedals, the steering in the front wheels came back, and we maintained that safe crawl to the bottom of the icy hill. Look Ma, no feet.
The Hybrid powertrain, called Hybrid Synergy Drive, mates a 3.5-liter V6 with three electric motors for a total of 280 horsepower. The powertrain is a little rougher than the standard V6 but is still quite refined. The transmission is a continuously variable automatic that constantly adjusts gearing ratios instead of changing gears.
Like all hybrids, when you first turn the key, nothing seems to happen. But it is ready and operational. The gas engine just doesn't start until it's needed. However for us it was needed virtually all the time. We drove our Hybrid around town in cold weather for a week, and the gas engine was needed to power the accessories. Stopped at a red light, at the drive-through window at the bank, anywhere: the gas engine kept running. We averaged 18.2 miles per gallon for that week, rarely reaching 35 mph. If the EPA gets 28 mpg in the city, their city must include a lot of 25-mph zones with no stoplights.
Under the right conditions (full battery charge, warm day, not using heat or air conditioning), you can press the EV button and drive the Hybrid up to two miles at less than 25 mph on electric power only. For example, looking for a parking space at the mall. The Highlander Hybrid is the first Toyota hybrid to offer an EV button in the U.S. We suggest using it around town, more than we apparently should have.
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 more engine compression to slow the vehicle when the driver's foot is off the throttle, while recharging the battery pack more aggressively.
The Toyota Highlander offers generous room for people and cargo, a choice of powertrains, ample performance and decent fuel mileage. The V6 engine with 5-speed automatic transmission is extremely smooth, and with fuel mileage nearly as good as the four-cylinder at a price only $1155 more, it's good value. The Hybrid model offers a proven powertrain with increased fuel mileage and lower emissions. With Toyota's reputation for reliability and resale value, the Highlander makes sense for active families.
Sam Moses reported from Oregon's Columbia River Gorge; Kirk Bell reported from Chicago.