The Highlander is Toyota’s mid-size SUV, a three-row, front or all-wheel-drive crossover that seats seven and can be equipped with a trio of drivetrains. There is a Highlander for almost everyone with prices spanning the $32,000 - $45,000 range.
Built in Indiana, the Highlander hit the market in 2001 with a second generation coming along for the 2008 model year. Currently among the top six sellers in this large segment, it will receive a major makeover for the 2014 model year.
There are four versions of the Highlander FWD four-cylinder, AWD V-6, AWD V-6 Limited and Hybrid.
My test vehicle was the $45,100 Limited. There were no options and none were necessary as the standard equipment list is extensive.
That list includes: full-time AWD with downhill and hill start assist, tilt & telescope steering wheel, 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels, three-zone automatic climate control, nine-speaker JBL audio system with satellite radio and Bluetooth connectivity, power windows locks and mirrors, backup camera, power hatch, heated leather seats, push-button start, navigation system and remote keyless entry.
The Highlander also comes standard with Toyota’s legendary build quality and reliability.
Nothing stands out about this vehicle visually. It is a conventional two box design common among SUVs and station wagons, unlike the Venza which shares the same platform. Incidentally, they are both based on the Camry.
But vehicles of this type are not often purchased based on appearance. Whether you call it an SUV or a CUV that middle initial stands for Utility and the Highlander is all about seat and space utilization.
After you climb up into the cabin, likely using the running board that is standard on this trim level, you notice a car-like interior with two exceptions: height and length.
The instruments and controls will be familiar to anyone with experience with Toyota products. Everything is well thought and laid out, if a bit dated in overall effect. The Optitron instrument lighting is exemplary, day or night and everything fits and feels like it cost twice as much.
The front buckets are wide, supportive and you emerge after several hours at a stretch without feeling as though you need a chiropractor.
The second row is split 40/20/40 allowing a variety of configurations with respect to child seats and other family-related provisions. The third row is a bit difficult to get to and sit in for larger folks, but it accommodates small fry well and will likely spend much of its life folded into the floor, available for those occasions when needed.
With all three rows of seats in place, cargo capacity is not exactly plentiful at just 291 litres. But fold that 50/50 split third seat down and it immediate passes into the impressive territory 1,197 litres.
With the second row out of the way there is a cavernous 2,701 litres or room. There is ready access to the cargo area through the power-operated cargo door or the glass-only upper portion.
On the road
While the base Highlander comes with a four-cylinder engine and front-wheel-drive, both the up-level gasoline-powered Highlander and the gasoline-electric hybrid are now powered by a 3.5-litre V-6 used extensively throughout the Toyota and Lexus lineups.
Silky smooth and with ample low-end grunt, this engine is a perfect companion for the Highlander. The five-speed automatic is shy a gear or two in this day and age, but perhaps that shortcoming will be addressed with the new 2014 model.
Under all but sustained wide open throttle, the engine remains quiet and thanks to the relatively light weight of the Highlander compared to many in the class, fuel consumption is reasonable. I averaged 13.7 litres/100 km over a week of mixed use.
While those numbers may not impress, they are better than most other vehicles of this ilk I have driven over the same roads.
The ride quality is decidedly car-like, which makes sense since this is basically a tall and boxy Camry. The suspension soaks up even large road blemishes with aplomb.
That height and soft ride come at the cost of alacrity in the twisties, but your average Highlander buyer/driver is unlikely to push it hard enough in such situations to encounter this experience, other than on or off-ramps.
While it may not be a sports car, the all-independent suspension results in ride and handling qualities more closely associated to cars than trucks.
The engineering team has also done a good job eliminating or masking noise, vibration and harshness, making the Highlander a pleasant long distance cruiser.
The Highlander may be in the last year of the current generation, but it has aged well.