Inevitably, when people find out you're an automotive journalist, they blurt out the question, "So what's the best car?"

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 Highlander."

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 SUV is larger, faster, and more efficient than the one it replaces, but before we get into the details, a little history: launched in 2001, the first-generation Highlander helped define the growing class of car-based SUVs - those would be what most call crossovers. (This designation is getting murky as it's being applied to vehicles like the GMC Acadia, a crossover for which there is no car to base it on.)

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.

 

Careful preening

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 Highlander. Within this framework, the changes Toyota made to the 2008 Highlander make perfect sense.

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 Explorer. The Highlander's overall length of 188.4 inches just about matches its arch-nemesis, the Honda Pilot. But, the Highlander's efficient packaging yields an interior space that surpasses the Honda's and actually compares favorably to larger SUVs like the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Ford Explorer, and Dodge Durango.

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 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.

 

Bigger in all ways

With the Highlander's size increase comes more mass - about 300 pounds. Such a weight burden would be too much for a four-cylinder given the engineering team's performance goals, so a version of Toyota's corporate 3.5-liter V-6 is the only engine available. (The new hybrid is its own story.) Compared to the 3.3-liter V-6 that it replaces, the new engine delivers another 55 horsepower (!) for an impressive total of 270 hp on (relatively) affordable 87 octane unleaded. All-important torque is also up to 248 lb-ft, an increase of 26. The power moves the Highlander along smartly with efficiency that betters the outgoing model (17 city/23 highway for 2008 for a 4WD model).

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 car and the Camry. The platform is stiff, doesn't weight too much, and offers good connecting points for the suspension. That Toyota elects to tune so many of their models for comfort and not speed is a wise ROI-boosting decision because, let's face it, most drivers aren't enthusiasts.

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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