The Toyota Highlander was completely redesigned for 2008 and grew a full size larger than the previous version. Its styling grows even more rounded but less distinctive, and while the interior feels like a quality piece, it's not a style standout either.
Toyota makes great use of the added space inside the 2009 Highlander. Two rows of seats are standard, but a three-row arrangement is optional. American-sized adults can fit just fine in the second row, especially when the second-row room proved ample for American-sized men, especially when the standard rear bench seat was configured like individual buckets. The second-row arrangement is more versatile than is typical for mid-size utility vehicles. A Center Stow Seat provides a spot for a third (small) behind, but 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 seats is wide enough to provide access to the two-person foldable third-row bench. While an adult wouldn't want to be in the third row for more than a few miles, the space is plenty large for the kids that will be crawling back there for their ride to soccer.
While we're still big fans of the smooth, torquey 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6, a new 187-horsepower, 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is now standard on the base models of the 2009 Toyota Highlander and provides acceptable performance with better fuel economy, even if it isn't quite as silky and responsive. A five-speed automatic handles shifting duties, but even though Toyota calls it the "Super Intelligent Electronically Controlled Transmission," its lethargic downshifts, even in manual mode, drains some zest out of the big V-6.
The 2009 Toyota Highlander certainly won't appeal to driving enthusiasts; dynamically, the Sport makes an effort, but base and Limited editions are too softly sprung to be interesting on a twisty road. Plus, the electric steering offers zero feedback, and the springs and dampers feel mushy--though not queasy like the cars of yore.
Off-road ability isn't expected from carlike utility vehicles such as the Highlander, but with its more traditional appearance comes modest trail chops. With 8.1 inches of ground clearance and available full-time four-wheel drive (with a 50/50 torque split), the Highlander has the goods to get through a muddy driveway or deep snow, along with rutted trails.
The Bottom Line:
The 2009 Toyota Highlander's mass appeal has grown even more massive with the addition of a fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine for base models.