2009 Toyota Highlander front shot
 2009 Toyota Highlander front shot
 2009 Toyota Highlander slick interior
 2009 Toyota Highlander back seat
 2009 Toyota Highlander from the back

Case in point: the 2009 Toyota Highlander. First launched for model year 2001, the Highlander started as a midsize SUV that would be more refined and car-like, rather than truck-like. Toyota was on to something, because crossovers, as they are now known, have soared in popularity in the years since. The Highlander was redesigned last year, and now shares a platform with the Avalon full-size sedan.

That resulted in the Highlander growing in length by 3.8 inches, in width by 3.3 inches and in height by 2.8 inches. Its wheelbase is 2.9 inches longer. On the interior, there is an added 41 cubic feet of space. Highlander has packed on 300 pounds in vehicle weight.

The engine is a powerful yet smooth 3.5-liter V-6, also found in the Camry and Avalon. It makes 270 horsepower and 248 pounds-feet of torque. The horsepower is up 55 from that of the previous model's 3.3-liter V-6. The RAV4 and Sequoia, two other Toyota SUVs, have also gotten larger in recent redesigns.

The RAV4, remade in 2006, is now nearly as big as the older version Highlander. The Highlander's fuel economy ratings are 18 mpg city, 24 highway, which is an improvement over the previous version's V-6 numbers of 17 and 23. The Highlander also is available as a hybrid , with that model having a smaller V-6 engine and an electric motor and posting numbers of 27 city, 25 highway.

That model starts at more than $32,000, which might make it hard to justify, financially anyway, surpassing the traditional model. Standard features on the Highlander include five-speed automatic transmission, electronic power steering, side-curtain air bags for all three rows of seats, a driver's side knee air bag and larger alloy wheels. The safety features, besides the airbags, include a more-rigid cabin design that allows for better absorption of crash energy, and new active head restraints.

The Highlander's electronic stability control, brakes and steering also were improved, Toyota said. The Highlander's exterior styling was changed to make it more SUV-like, rather than looking so much like a big station wagon. Toyota says the Highlander's typical buyers are couples, empty-nesters and busy families, and that this version should draw younger and more-affluent customers than the last model.

Toyota thinks that some new features will be appealing to more buyers, such as the second-row seat that can be converted from a bench configuration to bucket seats so that you can walk through to the rear. When you take out that section, you can put it in a floor compartment under the front console. The Highlander has three trim levels: base, Sport and Limited. All-wheel drive is optional on all three.

Our tester was a base model with a V-6 engine, which starts at around $27,600. Five-passenger models, with no third row of seats, are available in the base and Sport trim levels.

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