Inevitably, when people find out you're an automotive journalist, they blurt out the question, "So what's the best
What a silly question. Of course, you as the informed readers of TheCarConnection.com know the real truth; there are thousands of choices out there at price points to suit paupers and princes. If my questioner is sincere, I often ask a series of questions to find out what they're truly interested in, and if it's a new main-line middle-of-the-road vehicle, I offer "safe" advice that's unlikely to ever bite me in the butt … I say, "It's tough to go wrong with a Toyota Camry or
After reading this, the PR wonks from other manufacturers are scratching me off of their future drive lists, so it's important for to note that I often recommend non-Toyotas. But, I reiterate, that when white bread is what somebody's looking for, Toyota knows how to serve it up.
Case in point is the second-generation 2008 Toyota Highlander. This new
Offering about the same room as a mid-size sedan in a more rugged looking package, the original Highlander racked up some serious sales. Updated for 2004, sales remained strong thanks to significant upgrades to its powertrains and features. During the maturation of the first-generation Highlander, the market landscape continued to evolve. Truck-based SUV sales waned while crossovers waxed, with the latter overtaking the former in 2006. And as in many car segments, nameplates like the Camry were growing in dimensions to suit the evolving tastes of their owner bodies.
Toyota carefully watches such trends and their overall product line has evolved to match shifting demand. During its 2006 redesign, Toyota's compact RAV4 grew by over 20 percent inside and gained V-6 power, bringing it awfully close to the dimensions and capabilities of the soon-to-be-extinct generation of
Significantly, the '08 Highlander is bigger. Lots bigger. Inside and out. While Highlander used to be sized closely to the Ford Escape, it's now closer to the Ford
Inside, the increased room is put to good use. Two rows of seats are standard, but the Limited and Sport models we drove featured three rows of seats. Second-row room proved ample for American-sized men, especially when the standard rear bench seat was configured like individual buckets. (It's two, two, two seat designs in one.) Executive chief engineer Yukihiro Okane explained that a current Highlander customer asked Toyota to design a full-width bench seat that provided a van-like pass-through to the third row. Okane's team developed a feature appropriately dubbed the "Center Stow Seat." ( Toyota felt compelled to trademark this pithy moniker. Go figure.)
When in place, the center cushion provides a spot for a third (small) behind. When stowed (an action that takes less than 15 seconds) in a rattle-free cubby under the front console, the space between the outboard bucket
Bigger in all ways
Dynamically, the Sport is the only non-hybrid model in the Highlander range that will appeal to TheCarConnection.com readers. The base and Limited editions are too softly sprung to be twisty-road interesting - think Toyota Avalon - complete with zero-feedback electrically-boosted steering plus mushy springs and dampers. However, the Avalon connection isn't all bad. The Highlander is based on the same architecture that rides under that
But for the few and the proud who demand stiffer spring rates, tighter dampers, and lower aspect ratio tires, there is the Sport Highlander we drove. With its totally recalibrated suspension and low-profile P245/55R19 tires, the Sport takes a nice set in sweepers and refuses to hobbyhorse. While it's no Skyline, its turn in is quick and predictable. Roll is well controlled, and the brakes (12.9-inch rotors with twin-pot calipers up front) burn off speed without drama. With so much power from the V-6, the Sport accelerates as expected, briskly and smoothly with no flat spots from idle on up to over 6000 rpm. A five-speed automatic handles shifting duties, but even though Toyota calls it the "Super Intelligent Electronically Controlled Transmission," its lethargic performance earned only a B in the automatic mode and a C when set for manumatic sequential shifting.
With 8.1-inches of ground clearance and available full-time four-wheel-drive (with a 50:50 torque split), light-off roading is also part of the Highlander's repertoire, especially since Toyota engineering finally acquiesced and put an OFF switch for the traction control. No longer will you get stuck on beach access roads or your plowed-in driveway.
As we racked up miles during our evaluation, our only complaint focused on the electrically-boosted steering. While we understand the benefits of the system (less mechanical complexity and parasitic power consumption compared to hydraulic units), the feedback still leaves a lot to be desired. Like most things technical, somebody will come up with a better-tuned electric box that delivers unfiltered communiqués from the road. We can't wait.
As shown with each generation of the top-selling Camry, Toyota is a master of offering what the market wants … and most Americans prefer white bread. Toyota now delivers in a larger loaf that any car person can feel safe recommending.
2008 Toyota Highlander
Base Price: $34,150
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 270 hp/248 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic, front- or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 188.4 x 75.2 x 69.3 in
Wheelbase: 109.8 in
Curb weight: 4045-4255 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 17/23 mpg
Safety equipment: Front, side, and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction and stability control
Major standard equipment: Keyless entry/start; automatic climate control with filtration; power windows/locks/mirrors; power driver seat; tilt steering wheel; AM/FM/CD audio system
Warranty: Three years/36,000 bumper to bumper
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