If we can assume that today’s three-row crossovers are the modern-day equivalent of the family station wagons of the 1960s, then we can also stop pretending that these AWD soft-roaders aren’t anything more than replacements for the minivans that proliferated through the 1990s — without the sliding side doors. Functional, versatile and comfortable, full-size crossovers are part of the wave of new transportation devices — families or not.
Ford’s Explorer leads the sales race here, in no small part due to its extended fleet sales for law enforcement, with this week’s fourth-generation Toyota Highlander biting on the heels of the Ford. Chevy’s Traverse is a distant third, followed by the Honda Pilot with the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade swiftly climbing into contention. Dodge’s Durango, GMC’s Acadia, Subaru’s Ascent, Mazda’s CX-9 and Nissan’s Pathfinder round out a segment that is evolving.
The newest Highlander continues a recent trend from Toyota — more engaging to drive mainstream products. All of the interior functionality is retained: comfortable front cabin that is reasonably hushed, spacious, adaptable second-row seating (captain’s chairs or split-bench seat — your choice), roomy rear cargo area over part-time third-row seating best suited for children. Limited trim adds side window shades, sunroof, power liftgate and more media ports throughout.
Yet, there is also a greater hew to the Lexus side of interior refinement with better textures and surface material grains, crisper detailing, plus an expansive 12.3-inch info screen packed with media and entertainment information — when not covered in sun-glare. There are two small-article shelves carved into the dash, clever enough to warrant thinking that a third such shelf on the driver’s left side, or a beverage slot cut into the upper door or the dash, would be equally welcome. Legible, simple buttons and dials abound for climate and audio. Are you listening, Honda?
Limited also brings heated and cooled front leather seating, a heated steering wheel, plus a digital rear-view mirror/camera. An 11-speaker JBL audio fills the cabin with selected sounds plus the Bird’s Eye view camera system gives not only rear angles, but an overhead perspective for a complete perimeter view of your surroundings.
Visually, the Highlander looks closer to the Lexus RX, which isn’t bad at all. Wearing Blueprint paint and polished 20-inch wheels, the Limited distinctly stands out. LED lighting all around provides a gleaming finish.
But it’s the powertrain and the chassis that shine — for what they do and not do in concert. Like Honda, Nissan and Ford, the Highlander uses a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, with 295 hp. Here it is mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission, with no turbocharging, no CVTs, yet it stands out for its refined performance. The eight-speed smartens up the big Toyota’s agility and responsiveness, giving it a verve that some similarly equipped vehicles lacked. Shifts are smooth, never any stumbles or hesitations when you summon extra steam from the engine room, and the Highlander holds selected speeds without a lot of fanfare from the transmission. Efficient, without drama.
Chassis stability and ride compliance is smooth and adroit, calling no attention to any compromises in the TGNA platform, the innovative platform sharing that Toyota, like all makers, currently uses.
With many vehicles based on a similar foundation, costs are reduced. Production is streamlined, complexity is eliminated and the consumer wins on the sticker price. Base Highlanders start at $36,260. Add $1,600 for AWD, or $1,400 for the Hybrid package (up to 35 mpg) or get the sporty new XSE trim for $42,855. Our well-equipped Limited, with the usual Toyota Safety Sense portfolio of driving aids and safety assists, stickered for a modest $48,258. The Highlander is built in Princeton, Ind.
EPA estimates have increased 1 mile per gallon — 20/27/23 — however, our realized economy hovered around the combined number during the Limited’s visit. Like its rivals, the Highlander can pull up to 5,000 pounds.
There is no locking button for the front-wheel-drive-biased AWD system, yet Toyota has added torque-vectoring to the program, plus a dial on the console for multi-terrain and surface traction selections. It is a reasonable course of action for a vehicle not intended to visit the Rubicon trail.
Only the Highlander (243 hp) and the Explorer (318 hp) currently wade into the hybrid-ized end of the three-row spectrum, a segment that will surely expand. The Toyota hybrid gets 10 mpg more than the Ford, while costing $11,000 less. Enough said.
Toyota’s dealers have to be pleased with this latest Highlander, and other recent Toyota upgrades, as the brand rapidly closes the gap between its pricier Lexus sibling with the polish, finish and aplomb of the luxury marquee — without the price. Add top honors for reliability and it’s hard to beat a package as solid as the new Highlander.
Next week: Toyota Venza Hybrid