On The Road Review: Toyota Highlander

As the domestic auto market fragments into increasingly smaller segments, defined by slight variations in vehicle size, shape and performance parameters, one known remains constant — American drivers like their space and versatility.

How else would you describe the rapid proliferation of wagons, crossovers and psuedo-SUVs — as well as minivans — that fill the marketplace? These two-box design people movers are packed with the virtues that include efficient space for both passengers and parcels of all shapes. The growth in these vehicle sales makes the venerable three-box sedan seem staid, inefficient and at times irrelevant in a world that now demands flexible multitasking.

Capably filling this opportunity in the marketplace is none other than Toyota Motor Co. You remember Toyota, the brand that raced up the sales charts to eclipse General Motors as the top-selling brand in North America — and the world — only to become falsely accused of mechanical gremlins that didn’t exist and quality gaffes that were exaggerated. Toyota’s rapid rise to prominence was only matched by its humbling tumult backward under the onslaught of an ugly media and a nastier bureaucratic oversight emphasis that proved inept at best. With new-car automotive sales in China now leading the world — by a wide margin — Toyota is taking a new tact in America and elsewhere and concentrating on the quality pieces that helped its rise to fame, rather than the push to be the sales top-dog.

These strengths are most evident in the company’s Highlander midsize crossover wagon. The Highlander embodies all of the virtues of this class. It offers a roomy forward and second row space for passengers of all sizes — with a supportive second row seat that slides fore and aft. There is a fold-away third row seat for seven-passenger seating when necessary — split-folding seats that can comfortably hold small adults — or room for 43 cubic feet of cargo when not.

Traveling with just two? The Highlander’s cargo area stretches out to 94 cubic feet of peak space when all rear seats fold, giving this wagon minivan-like rear space. Therein lies one of the secrets of this segment: crossover wagons such as the Highlander offer packing space and room like minivans, while wearing a decidedly more contemporary exterior design that doesn’t illustrate the minivan/sedan based chassis that is underneath.

Yes, the Highlander is based on a front drive car chassis — Toyota’s top-selling Camry in fact, the foundation for about 47 other Toyota products. OK, not really, but the point is that the Camry’s platform has proven to be versatile enough to underpin so many designs, other vehicles that save costs and allow more efficient assembly, that Toyota has obviously done a great job engineering these pieces not only for the Camry, but for the Highlander, and the Sienna, and the Avalon, and the RX350 and the ES350 and the….

For the Highlander, this chassis is available with standard front-wheel drive (pricing starts at $27,450) or the more customary all-wheel drive setup, with retails beginning around $30,000. Dimensions are 188.4 inches long on a 109.8-inch wheelbase with a 64-inch track width. These numbers are very comparable to the similar Honda Pilot, but slightly smaller than the new Ford Explorer. Both the Honda and the Ford have a 67-inch-wide track — a stance that lends more stability under certain situations — yet both of these rivals also weigh hundreds of pounds more than the Toyota, a factor that negates some of that stability gain.

On the road, the Highlander is a civil and willing partner. It drives “lighter” than you might imagine, with decent steering feel and a responsive helm. Cornering is solidly placid with little of the lean that upsets tall wagons when pushed. Ride compliance is outstanding, surely at the top of the class, while there is little road noise intruding into the cabin.

Buyers continue to gravitate to repeat purchases of these vehicles for not only their versatility, but for the command-of-the-road perception rendered by the driver’s seating position. The Highlander is no different with great sight lines plus superior ergonomics.

Ford’s Explorer offers a modern interpretation of controls and instruments, with multicolored lights and buttons and a complicated electronic entertainment interface that stumbles over basic functions. Honda’s Pilot offers a plethora of similar looking buttons and switches that confuse the operator — nothing is touched at just a glance.

The Highlander is a refreshingly ‘old-school’ presentation with oversized round dials for climate and audio controls — there is no confusion, no muddling indecision as you seek and manipulate changes. Buttons are large, instruments are clear, and everything falls to your hand where you expect it to be. Simplicity rules here and succeeds very nicely.

The Highlander further distinguishes itself with multiple storage slots sprinkled throughout the cabin — useful slots and pockets that actually hold what you are using, or not using — as well as a rear hatch-window that opens separate of the whole liftgate. Toyota has made this feature a mainstay on the 4Runner and other hatch-models for years, and I admire its persistence in continuing to offer it. Customer feedback obviously warrants this convenience — a feature that all of the rivals lack.

Under the hood, the top selling Highlanders come with a 3.5-liter 270-hp V-6 that is quite responsive. Running through a five-speed automatic transmission, the V-6 makes the AWD Highlander lively at all throttle settings.

Shortcomings are few. With all seats in the upright position, there is little room left for additional cargo. While base models — with the new 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine — offer respectable fuel economy, 25 mpg, the best-selling V-6 edition only produces an EPA rating of 22 mpg on the highway. To get the most mileage out of a Highlander, you have to opt for the optional Hybrid powertrain — upgraded this year to 280 hp — in order to get 28 mpg. However, the Hybrid model’s price is problematic — $38,300 to start, a hard nut to crack unless you plan on driving your Highlander Hybrid for well over 100,000 miles.

While I wish the AWD Highlander returned better fuel economy, its actual mileage is not significantly different from its rivals. In front-wheel drive, mileage does increase somewhat but like some other crossover wagons that offer a commendable range of performance and capabilities, the Highlander cries out for a sensible diesel engine option. Mercedes and BMW and Audi are doing it with their latest crossover designs for sale here —and Toyota is doing it in other parts of the world; why can’t we get torquey diesel engines into our larger vehicles here?

In the end, there is a lot to admire here. The Highlander is the anti-minivan with many of the virtues of the minivan. Subtlety, that’s what makes all of these wagons so appealing.

Just the Facts: Toyota Highlander

Tested Highlander SE AWD model listed for $36,144 including options. SE trim replaces the former sport trim, while Limited trim remains. Standard pieces include: Hill Start/Downhill assist control, four-wheel independent suspension, four-wheel drive, traction and stability control, third-row curtain airbags, power rear liftgate, moonroof, heated leather seating, eight-way power driver’s seat, back-up camera, one-touch folding second row seats, tow package, power folding mirrors.

EPA mileage ratings for the 3.5-liter 270-hp V-6 are 17/22-mpg. V-6 Highlander can tow up to 5,000 pounds. Standard Highlander with 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine can pull up to 3,500 pounds and earns EPA estimates of 20/25-mpg. Hybrid model has EPA ratings of 28-mpg city/28-mpg on the highway.

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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.