On the Road Review: Toyota Highlander Limited



This is the all-new Highlander, the three-row crossover that handily outsold every rival in America (Explorer, Traverse, Pilot, Durango, Pathfinder, CX-9) last year. While not the new Highlander Hybrid, the twin-electric motor/gas engine, CVT-shifted hybrid that promises 34 mpg, this high-end Limited model clearly illustrates everything that is good with Highlander and why it now dominates the family crossover segment.

The fourth-generation Highlander is a slick adaptation of everything that consumers have wanted in previous editions — more space, more refinement and noise suppression, more comfort and more features. Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 electronic driving aids are standard on all models (base FWD L starts at $35,720, sampled Limited AWD lists for $48,483) while the info-entertainment suite has also been upgraded with 8.0-inch and optional 12.3-inch screens exercising Apple/Android compatibility as well as a new 11-speaker JBL sound system, navigation, four USB ports and more.

While shorter than several rival three-row crossovers, the new Highlander gains over 2 inches of total length, which expands both the tight third row seating layout and the rear cargo area. Second-row seating is excellent, with great ingress and egress, plus comfortable reclining seating configured for two or three passengers. It does require both hands to get the folding seatback down flat for maximum cargo space, but just plan accordingly.

Power comes from the standard-bearer 3.5-liter 295-hp V-6 — now teamed with a more responsive and efficient eight-speed automatic transmission, or, the new 2.5-liter four-cylinder/hybrid powertrain. The former gets new EPA mileage estimates of 20/27/23 mpg (24 mpg realized during a summer visit) with the new hybrid powertrain earning 34-mpg numbers, which knocks every other three-row crossover into the weeds.

Day after day, the latest news on Tesla sucks the air out of the auto industry, yet Toyota’s hybrid-power strategy is turning into real sales. In June, Toyota’s hybrid-powered RAV4 was the best-selling crossover in America. The combination of more power, more responsive acceleration, plus enhanced fuel economy — all without the added cost of an EV or the attendant range anxiety — is clearly appealing to the masses. With interest running high for the Highlander Hybrid as well, plus the planned hybrid-ized versions of the latest Tacoma and Tundra due late this year/early 2021, and the Sienna minivan’s move to hybrid-only, Toyota’s plan may be under-the-radar sneaky, as well as very profitable. Clearly, consumers are embracing Toyota’s efforts as the sales numbers indicate sustainable growth.

The key has been the pricing. While the RAV4 hybrid costs just $900 more than a comparable gas RAV4, a benefit ratio that can be earned back in less than three years of reduced fuel costs, the Highlander’s similar jump in efficiency in a much larger crossover only costs consumers $1,400 extra, as is apparent in the LE Hybrid, starting at $39,320.

The real kicker in the three-row crossover hybrid battle; the Highlander is thousands less than the Explorer hybrid, with more efficiency.

Likes include the upgraded surfaces and materials, the quiet, roomy cabin, the ease of use. The standard powertrain packs plenty of punch, while this family-focused wagon’s plethora of standard and available driving aids should satisfy every safety-crat. The latest Highlander also offers enhanced styling that is more visually pleasing, while the rock-solid reputation of this model may be the most valuable virtue.

Snowbelt drivers will appreciate the upgraded AWD system with torque-vectoring and multi-terrain select. These tailorable setups, along with the appropriate winter tires, make these crossovers strong winter performers.

Yes, the steering is slightly more benign than some might like, and the programmable 12.3-inch screen can offer scads of simultaneous information that can actually be distracting, plus the climate buttons could be simplified for easier, quicker interaction. Yet the quality is apparent throughout.

At $48,483, our sampled Limited looked enough like a Lexus, inside and out, to beg the question of why spend more? In a segment heating up with the new Korean twins, the Highlander is staking out its number one slot and saying everyone will need to work hard to steal the Toyota’s marketshare.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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