Road Test: Affordable and versatile [July-August 2012 Print Edition]

Toyota Highlander a practical choice for business

September 4, 2012
by Tony Whitney

For buyers who just can’t manage with one of the almost numberless compact SUVs and SUV/crossovers on the Canadian market, there are several excellent products a size further up. Among the front-runners is the Toyota Highlander.

Compact SUVs are all very well, but they do have their limitations when it comes to people and cargo room. Although the Highlander doesn’t look that big, when you put one alongside something like a Toyota RAV4 or a Honda CR-V the difference is quite dramatic—especially when you climb inside. For business or family users who’ve outgrown a compact, it could be a good choice and a way of upsizing without making the often costly move to something too large. Crossover/SUVs in the Highlander’s class have most of the room of the full-size vehicles but without the bulk and inevitable fuel economy sacrifices.

The Highlander is a relatively new product for Toyota. The original version first appeared in 2001 as the first car-based crossover/SUV to debut in North America. There are now a fair number in this class, providing the Highlander with plenty of competition. A hybrid version was introduced in 2005 and the current-generation Highlander first saw the light at the 2007 Chicago Auto Show.

A number of upgrades and enhancements were made for the 2012 model year with what the auto industry calls “a mid-cycle refresh”. Toyota has managed to keep the entry-level price reasonably affordable, and at $31,675, it’s less expensive than many well-optioned compacts.

BODY STYLE: Seven-place crossover/SUV
ENGINE: Three choices: 4-cylinder, V-6
and V-6 hybrid
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed, 6-speed automatics, CVT, according to power unit
PERFORMANCE: Zero to 100 km/h in approx 9-secs (V-6)
FUEL ECONOMY: 9.0-litres/100 km combined (4-cylinder); 10.9-litres/100 km combined (V-6); 6.9-litres/100 km combined (hybrid)
PRICE: $31,675 base model MSRP

One thing has to be made clear though. As a crossover/SUV, the Highlander isn’t a full-blown off-roader like some other products in the Toyota lineup. It’s based on a Camry sedan platform, so you do get a car-like ride, but if any rugged off-road excursions are regularly called for, buyers would be better off with Toyota’s 4Runner or FJ Cruiser (both of which are based on truck platforms) or an appropriate vehicle from another automaker.

You can get your Highlander with 4WD, of course, so it’s fine in that configuration for gravel backroads, modest snow and ice and similar demands. The base vehicle comes with front-wheel drive but it’s still a very competent truck in wet or snowy weather, thanks to a roster of electronic features we’ll discuss later.

It almost goes without saying that there’s a Lexus derivative of the Highlander, though it has so many differences in styling detail, interior and equipment levels that few people would realize this. Perhaps a canny buyer could order a Highlander with every possible option and come up with the nearest thing to an “affordable Lexus”, though without the prestige that goes with the nameplate.

Toyota quality
And of course, even the least expensive Toyota is built to a very high level of quality. You only have to look at how the interior trim fits, how neat the window seals are and how narrow and even the gaps between body panels seem to be and you’ll get a good grasp of how Toyota earned its reputation.

As a styling job, the Highlander falls into the category of “not that exciting, but what else can you do?” The fact is that radical styling efforts in this class have often ended up as disasters, and when factoring in the practicality and interior roominess quotients, stylists tend to end up with a very conservative-looking product. That’s not to say the Highlander is unattractive. It has clean, businesslike lines and there are certainly no disturbing elements in the appearance of the rig or in the detailing. Correctly, the design team probably started from the inside and worked outwards and perhaps that’s always the best plan in this particular class. The latest effort with the grille and front lighting is, in fact, a rather better than the job done on many rivals.

The Highlander’s doors are wide and access is very good, though the small third row of seats can be a chore for adults to get to, which is not who they’re really meant for anyway. Many buyers, especially those with business applications in mind, will probably keep the rearmost seats folded down most of the time (using a handy remote switch) to create more cargo space. At a pinch, though, the Highlander can handle its full roster of seven occupants and it’s nice to have this capability available for the odd trip. All Highlanders are seven-passenger vehicles; there isn’t a version without the third row of seats.

A variety of powerplants
There are three engines available for the Highlander—a 2.7-litre 187-horsepower four-cylinder; a 3.5-litre 270-horsepower V-6 and the 280-horsepower 3.5-litre V-6 plus electric motor hybrid. We’ve driven all three recently and they deliver exactly what’s expected of them. The four-cylinder is very thrifty with fuel, but there’s a price to pay if the user plans to haul a full load of passengers and cargo over hilly territory.

The best performance characteristics come, expectedly, from the 3.5-litre V-6, whether in regular or hybrid form. The V-6 Highlander can tow an impressive 5,000lb. As far as transmissions go, the four-cylinder uses a six-speed automatic, the V-6 a five-speed auto and the Hybrid, a continuously variable (CVT) gearbox. All engine versions run happily on regular gas, which is a blessing in these inflated times.

Like the exterior of the vehicle, the Highlander’s interior is restrained and tasteful, with a minimum of gimmicks and distracting elements. The seating in the two front rows is excellent—we’ve done many lengthy runs in Toyota SUVs and few automakers match them for front seat comfort, in particular.

The trim is stylishly done and combines grained vinyl materials with the currently popular metallic panels that are found on almost every vehicle these days. It all looks very tidy and well planned and there’s nothing that isn’t easily within reach of the driver. Toyota makes good use of steering wheel-mounted controls, which do tend to decrease driver distraction. The central console where the gear selector is positioned is wide and has a comfortable armrest and a pair of well-designed cup holders.
Visibility from the cabin is very good and like many SUVs, there’s a larger rear window wiper, which is a great aid on a rainy freeway. We often wonder why more sedans don’t have a rear wiper—after all, rear visibility is a key aspect of driving safety. Generally, you have to buy an SUV, hatchback or (increasingly rare) station wagon to get this feature. The Highlander boasts a wide range of stowage bins and pockets, an important feature for anyone planning long road trips. Even in the crossover/SUV class, there are vehicles that are weak in this respect.

The most obvious rival to Toyota’s Highlander for many buyers is probably the Honda Pilot, which is about the same size and has a similar specification, though you can’t get either a four-cylinder engine or a hybrid powertrain with that model. Other rivals might include the Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer/Flex, GMC Terrain, Hyundai Veracruz, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan Pathfinder and Subaru Tribeca—an intensively-contested market segment.

Not all these rivals offer a four-cylinder engine option and none markets a hybrid variant. Hybrids seem to be rare birds in the medium-sized SUV/crossover class. Volkswagen offers a hybrid version of its Touareg, but this falls more into the luxury class and competes with an equivalent Lexus.

All Highlander models feature Toyota’s Star Safety System, which includes a very long list of worthwhile features. Without getting into a forest of Toyota acronyms (VSC, TRAC, EBD and so on), the vehicle has stability control, traction control, antilock brakin

The Highlander is surprisingly roomy inside, with wide doors and easy access.

g, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist and “smart stop” technology. All this adds up to a safe and stable vehicle with excellent stopping power and the ability to get it back under control if the driver gets into trouble. If all this fails, there are seven air bags, including one to protect the driver’s knees. Also, there are active head restraints (they move forward in an impact) with whiplash protection.

The Highlander’s popularity in the Canadian market is based on its ride comfort, handling that inspires driver confidence, class-leading safety systems, a generous suite of standard features and, of course, Toyota’s reputation for long life and high resale value. There’s not much more that can be asked of a vehicle in this class.     b2b