The Highlander is all new for 2008, getting fresh styling, more power and an improved ride. Larger in every dimension, the Highlander dwarfs the first-generation model but handles like a smaller, lighter vehicle. Where the original was more wagon-like, the latest model feels more akin to an SUV; the increased size and 8.1 inches of ground clearance obviously contribute to this impression.
Plentiful power from the new 3.5-liter V6 flows out smoothly and effortlessly. Although over-boosted, the precise steering contributes to surprisingly good handling for a vehicle possessing these proportions - better than several smaller crossovers we've tested. On most roads the Highlander provides a smooth, stable, comfortable ride. We averaged an unimpressive 17 mpg in mostly city driving (exactly what the EPA predicts), which seems acceptable for a 4WD vehicle of this size and capability.
With the increased interior space in the Highlander, seating actually works for all seven passengers. Common with vehicles in this class, the third row is rather short on space and headroom is pretty tight, but the second row can slide forward to make the back livable for two adults. Access to the third row is a bit annoying; only the second-row seat on the passenger side is designed to tilt and slide forward. Cargo space is usable for small bags with the third row in use - fold the third row flat and the area is quite spacious.
Up front the controls are intuitive, and a small center-mounted information screen is a nice plus, providing trip computer data as well as a back-up camera display. Setting up a Bluetooth phone is very simple; however, the only way to access the phone menu is via voice commands. Although the system usually understood what I was saying, making a call seemed to be more complicated than it needed to be.
As consumers move to more car-based SUVs, the Highlander proves shoppers can get a vehicle that drives and feels like a passenger car without having to give up the capability and versatility of a larger truck-based sport ute.