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.
The Highlander was completely redesigned for 2008, and made larger than the previous generation in every significant dimension. A more economical four-cylinder version arrived for 2009. Displacing 2.7 liters, the four-cylinder 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 inline-four is matched with a six-speed electronically controlled automatic overdrive transmission, and is available only with two-wheel drive.
The 2010 Highlander is available with a power tilt-and-slide moonroof on both four-cylinder and V6 models. The Highlander V6 comes standard with a multi-information display, including back-up camera. And the mid-range Sport model is being replaced by the Highlander SE, which is more near-luxury and less sporty.
The V6 is a 3.5-liter unit that delivers 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. We found the 3.5-liter V6 is buttery smooth. Also smooth 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 gas/electric powertrain that provides smooth, plentiful power. The gasoline engine is a 3.3-liter V6 that delivers 209 horsepower and 212 pound-feet of torque and is matched to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT). With its gas engine and three electric motors, the complete Hybrid powertrain can deliver the same 270 peak horsepower as the 3.5-liter V6 alone. 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, meaning it's built more like a car than like 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.
Highlander comes standard with cloth upholstery; air conditioning; three-row seating for up to seven passengers; a 40/20/40 second-row seat with a removable center section that can be stowed under the first-row center console; AM/FM/CD with six speakers and MP3/WMA playback; power windows, door locks, and foldable mirrors; remote keyless entry; cruise control; variable intermittent wipers front and rear; rear defogger; rear spoiler; tilt/telescope steering wheel; two front and one cargo-area 12-volt power outlets; and 245/65R17 tires on alloy wheels. A fold-flat third row is standard with the V6, optional ($740) with the four-cylinder.
Hybrid models come with keyless entry and starting, and a 3.5-inch multifunction display screen that includes a rear backup camera, a clock, tire-pressure display, air conditioning readout, and outside temperature and trip computer information, in addition to all the hybrid-related features. Like the four-cylinder model, base Hybrids come standard with two seating rows; the third row is optional.
Highlander SE adds leather seats with heat for the front row, tri-zone automatic climate control, power tilt/slide moonroof, six-disc CD changer, Homelink universal transceiver, heated outside mirrors, daytime running lights, and a tow package.
Highlander Limited models upgrade with a 10-way power driver's seat, four-way power front passenger's seat, Smart Entry, fog lamps, a multi-function display, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and display controls, lighted vanity mirrors, visor extenders, second-row reading lights, opening glass in the rear hatch, a rear tonneau cover, and a lever in the cargo area to fold the second-row seats. The Limited models are distinguished with more chrome and bright trim than other models, and bold 19-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels wearing 245/55R19 tires. Hybrid Limited models come with the same features as the Limited.
Options are too numerous to list and vary in both price and availability with trim level. Among them: a power tilt/slide moonroof ($910); a multi-information display for the base V6 ($500). Base models offer a power-adjustable driver's seat ($320), rear air conditioning ($415), a tow package ($220), and a Cold Weather Package ($60) consisting of a windshield-wiper de-icer grid and heated outside mirrors. Higher-level models offer a JBL audio system with nine speakers and a Bluetooth hands-free cell phone link, with navigation ($2,625) or without ($750); a power rear tailgate ($400); rear DVD entertainment ($1,780); and automatic rear air conditioning ($585).
Safety features on all models include dual front airbags, front side-impact airbags for thorax protection, head-protecting curtain side airbags that cover all three seating rows, a driver's knee airbag, active front headrests, tire-pressure monitor, antilock brakes, traction control, antiskid control, and hill-start assist. Hill descent control is standard on AWD models.
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 in our view 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 finer-textured grille, and 10-spoke alloy wheels with alternating thicker and thinner spokes.
The secondary controls are easy to spot, and they move with precision. A 3.5-inch screen displays trip computer and climate control information; its 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. 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 more 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 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 to help keep you on your intended path in slippery conditions or if you enter a corner too fast. If this happens, remember to look and steer where you want to go.
The brakes feel soft but provide fine stopping power thanks to standard 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.
Kirk Bell filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after driving Highlander models around Scottsdale, Arizona.