On street and highway, Highlander performs decorously, pretending to be a car. Yet it can swallow impromptu flea-markets buys with ease, and tote them home despite sudden worsening of the weather. Highlander offers much of what made the Lexus RX 300 so popular without the high payments.
The four-wheel-drive V6 model offers impressive all-weather capability. The base model with front-wheel drive and a four-cylinder engine performs brilliantly around town and on the open highway, delivering responsive performance when merging into highway traffic.
Prices start at $23,880 for the four-cylinder model with front-wheel drive. With full-time four-wheel drive, the four-cylinder Highlander lists for $25,280. V6 models are priced at $25,460 with front-wheel drive and $26,860 with four-wheel drive.
Even the base trim level is well-equipped, and includes air conditioning, power windows and door locks, cruise control, cloth upholstery, and anti-lock brakes. Some of the Limited's standard features are offered as options on the base Highlander, either by themselves or grouped into packages.
Highlander Limited ($29,935 with 2WD, $30,795 with 4WD) comes with the V6 as standard equipment, and adds automatic climate control, an eight-speaker JBL sound system, eight-way power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, aluminum wheels, roof rack, fog lights, rear privacy glass, heated mirrors, remote keyless entry with security system and engine immobilizer, wood-grain interior trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and other amenities. Leather upholstery, heated front seats, and an in-dash six-disc CD changer are optional.
With either trim level, and especially with the V6, we highly recommend the optional Traction Control with Vehicle Skid Control ($850). We also recommend the seat-mounted side-impact airbags ($250).
Entry, both for cargo and for people, is easier than in truck-based SUVs. With its more car-like step-in and lift-into, the Highlander is even friendly to wearers of tight skirts. Not so the usual truck-based SUV.
Highlander comes with reclining front bucket seats in front, and a three-passenger 60/40 split fold-down reclining bench in the rear. The seats are supportive and comfortable and adjust to suit various-size drivers. Part of the appeal of SUVs is the ease of seeing out at every angle. And so it is here. The sloping hood of the Highlander makes the forward view even more encompassing.
Once seated, you'll find everything in its place. Power window buttons are right there on the doors. Ventilation ducts are right where you would expect to find them. Radio and heater controls use simple dials and amply sized buttons and operate intuitively. Instruments are readily visible through a panoramic space in the comfortable four-spoke steering wheel. The whole layout bespeaks thoughtful appraisal and wise choices. V6 models come with aluminum interior accents. Wood and chrome touches warm and brighten the Limited edition.
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 standard front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder Highlander with traction control makes for a superb wagon for the city and suburbs. It's 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. This is a quick, sprightly car with the four-cylinder engine, and it's smooth and quiet. It also gets better fuel economy (22/27 mpg city/highway vs. 18/22 for the 4WD V6). The steering is sedan-like with an appropriate feel. Braking is certain and smooth. Acceleration is nimble. We expected this in the V6 test car, but found the four-cylinder version to be a happy performer as well. We didn't feel like we were missing something by not having the V6.
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. 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.
Highlander deals with mountain roads like an expert speller in the early stages of a championship bee. Snow melt, muddy ruts, icy patches on shadowed curves were easily handled by a 4WD V6 model. On a meandering backroad, the Highlander cut up hills through eight inches of newly fallen snow like a snowplow on a rescue mission.
Highlander is intended primarily as a highway and street vehicle with all-weather capability. It is not meant for boulder bashing and serious off-road driving. That said, we found the Highlander more capable in demanding situations than Toyota publicizes. After all, Toyota has the 4Runner for serious off-road duty.
Toyota is determined to have the best-outfitted SUV stores on the planet, with an array of both truck and car-based models ranging from compact cute-utes to hulking Suburban fighters. Five different sport-utilities are now available from Toyota, and that's not counting the two from Lexus. Clearly, Toyota's goal is to meet every need, want, taste and whim of the SUV shopper. Highlander meets the needs of what most people want from a modern, on-road sport-utility.