The 2008-2011 Toyota Highlander has a well-deserved reputation for quality, reliability and efficiency. Although based on the Toyota Camry platform, the Highlander is a fairly large crossover utility vehicle (CUV) that offers its occupants a high seating position, great visibility and a large interior area, which is equally adept at hauling passengers, as it is cargo. The Highlander has always been a favorite with American shoppers looking for a vehicle that is big enough to fit seven people but that is not gargantuan in size or fuel consumption. In the past, Highlanders have been criticized for their lack-luster design and tepid performance, but the 2008 and newer models have a decidedly sportier feel, more upscale interior appointments, and a choice between four or six-cylinder engines. There is even a hybrid model for those who prefer to go green.

 

Why You Want It

This is the perfect crossover for anyone who requires the ability to seat up to seven passengers, but who doesn't want to drive a full-size SUV or minivan. While there are plenty of vehicles that fit this description, few can match the 2008-2011 Toyota Highlander for reliability, low cost of ownership, strong resale and overall customer satisfaction. The available third-row seat is great for kids, but we should point out that when in place, it eats up most of the available rear cargo space. When not in use, the third-row seat folds flush into the floor. With its robust V6 engine, available third-row seat and stylish good looks, the Highlander is more than up to the task of competing with other seven passenger crossovers. What's more, the base models offer a four-cylinder engine uncommon in this class, but only on the front-wheel drive models. Those looking to be even more frugal can opt for the Highlander Hybrid, which employs a gasoline V6 paired to an electric motor to earn an EPA estimated 27-miles per gallon city and 25-MPG highway.

 

Notable Features & Options

The Highlander is offered in a number of trims and configurations including Base, Sport and Limited. Base front-wheel drive models can be equipped with four or six-cylinder engines, while the V6 models can be outfitted with all-wheel drive. Standard equipment includes power windows, locks and mirrors, air conditioning, cruise control, a tilt/telescopic steering wheel and a stowable second-row console/middle passenger seat design. Also standard are 17-inch alloy wheels, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo and a rear wiper/washer. Options include a 3.5-liter V6 engine, leather seating, a power sunroof, power-operated rear hatch, DVD navigation, JBL audio, Bluetooth, rear seat air conditioning, rear seat entertainment system, heated front seats and automatic climate controls. Standard safety equipment includes electronic traction and stability control, seven airbags including front side, side curtain and driver's knee airbags, anti-lock brakes and a tire pressure monitoring system.

 

Model Milestones

2009: A 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is made available on the front-wheel drive base model.

2010: The Highlander's options list is increased to include more features such as a power moonroof on the base four-cylinder trim and a rear backup camera on the base V6 model.

2011: The Highlander receives a mild freshening with new front and rear fascias, standard three-row seating with rear air conditioning, and a new front-wheel drive four-cylinder SE trim. The Highlander Hybrid gains a more powerful 3.5-liter V6 engine that replaces the 3.3-liter unit in previous models.

 

Engines and Performance

With the 187-horsepower 2.7-liter four-cylinder under its hood, the Highlander provides a leisurely driving experience that feels downright sluggish when the vehicle is fully loaded. While the fuel economy and lower entry price of the four-cylinder may look attractive, a seven-passenger CUV really needs the power provided by a V6 engine. Toyota's 270-horsepower 3.5-liter engine has the muscle to get the job done and its fuel economy figures are not far from what the four-cylinder achieves (18/24 for the V6 vs. 20/25 for the four-cylinder). As for the Highlander driving experience, it is far more serene than sporty; the ride is soft, the steering light and easy to control and the brakes solid and sure. The Highlander's soft suspension makes for a comfortable ride, but also allows for some body roll in hard cornering situations. Electronic traction and stability control help keep the big car on track in emergency maneuver situation, a reassuring safety feature worth its weight in gold.

 

Recalls, Safety Ratings and Warranties

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, has issued the following recalls for the 2008-11 Toyota Highlander.

2008: Recalls were issued for possible defective third-row seat belt mechanisms, and for a possible defective side airbag roll sensor that could inadvertently set off the seatbelt retractor mechanism.

2008-2010: Recalls were issued for a possible defect in the accelerator pedal which could cause a wide open throttle condition, and for improper labels pertaining to tire inflation figures. Dealers will install new accelerator pedal assembly and labels.

We should note that the 2008-2011 Toyota Highlander was included in the reports of uncontrolled acceleration in Toyota vehicles. While there was much media coverage and Toyota recalled nearly 8 million cars, an exhaustive study by both NASA engineers and NHTSA could find no flaws with the electronics in Toyota vehicles.

Recall repairs are required by law even if the vehicle is out of warranty. Your dealer can check to see if the repairs were performed and if not, will fix the car at no charge to you.

As for safety, the 2008-2011 Toyota Highlander earns strong marks in NHTSA testing, with five out of five stars for the driver and four stars for the front passenger in the front end crash test, five stars for the driver and passenger in the side impact crash test and four stars in the rollover crash test. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the 2008-11 Toyota Highlander its best score of GOOD in the frontal offset crash test, side impact crash test and roof strength tests, and is a Top Safety Pick for 2011.

The 2009-2011 Toyota Highlander has a 3-year/36,000 mile basic warranty and a 5-year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty. Extended warranties purchased when the car was new are transferable, so be sure to inquire if the vehicle you are buying has an extended plan. If you purchase a Certified Pre-Owned Highlander, the warranty coverage for the powertrain is extended to 7-years/100,000 from the vehicles original in service date. CPO cars also come with a 3-month/3,000 mile comprehensive warranty.

 

Word on the Web

A look at the web brings confirmation that the Highlander is solid transportation. ConsumerReports.com gives the 2008-2011 Toyota Highlander excellent marks in all areas except oddly enough, its audio system. Maybe the few complaints we read on consumer sites about jammed CD changers is to blame. JDpowers.com also gives high marks to the Highlander for its quality and reliability, but not so much for design and performance. As for well-known problems plaguing the Highlander, we couldn't find anything major. But, on Toyotanation.com there is a helpful forum noting all the problems owners have encountered and how to fix them. Everything from TSA (Technical Service Bulletins) to owner fixes are listed. Be it cold start vibration, problems pairing Bluetooth to a cell phone or information about the AWD system's off-road ability, the site is full of useful first-hand experiences and problem solving.

 

Competitive Set

There are many seven-passenger CUVs and SUVs out there, so we will try to give you a good cross section of possible alternatives. The Honda Pilot offers the same strong reputation for build quality and reliability and has a bit more interior room, but it also has a less powerful engine and lower fuel economy than the Highlander. You could look to the Hyundai Veracruz which offers more features for less money and has a better warranty, but its resale values and overall quality lag behind the Highlander. The Mazda CX-9 is a good choice for those who desire more style and a sportier ride, but it has less front seat head and leg room and slightly lower fuel economy. The Ford Explorer can be equipped with a V8 engine and can be taken off-road, but its interior is cramped, its ride is harsh and it doesn't do as well in the IIHS side impact crash test.

 

Auto Trader Recommendations

We like all the Highlander years and models equally, but have settled on two choices. The best combination of power, affordability and features is the V6-powered Sport trim. Whether to get it in front-wheel or all-wheel drive is the dilemma. If you live in a region that doesn't see much snow or poor weather, the front drive Highlander with its electronic traction and stability control is more than capable. However, if you live in a state where blankets of white cover the ground more than six months of the year, the all-wheel drive system is a must. Those who are not constrained by cost should look to the Limited trim which can usually be found loaded with such features as navigation, Bluetooth and leather seating.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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