Pros: Excellent optional V6; three standard rows of seating; drives like a big car; Highlander Hybrid is both frugal and fast

Cons: Base inline-4 is barely more fuel efficient than the V6; so-so interior quality; third-row seat is pretty tight

The most surprising fact about the 2012 Toyota Highlander is that it begins life as a Camry. That's right-this tough-looking ute with available all-wheel drive is based on an extensively modified Camry platform.

But, hey, don't laugh. Since pioneering the use of carlike underpinnings in a mid-size SUV more than a decade ago, the Highlander has spawned legions of imitators. Toyota knew that most Americans didn't want a pickup truck disguised as a family vehicle; they wanted a practical, safe people hauler that wasn't a chore to drive. For 2012, the Highlander continues to make that vision a reality.

Available in three distinct flavors - four-cylinder, six-cylinder, and Hybrid - the Highlander has something for everyone, and you can also choose between front- and all-wheel drive to fit your climate. Moreover, the Highlander comes standard with three rows of seats, making it a natural for carpooling duty. But perhaps the best thing about the Highlander is its pleasant driving character. There's nothing truckish here; just smooth, predictable responses as you glide down the road.

Competition has certainly heated up since the Highlander's groundbreaking debut, but we still put this Toyota at the head of its class.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Toyota Highlander is offered in three main trim levels: base, SE and Limited. The base non-hybrid model is nothing to be ashamed of, featuring standard niceties like 17-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, Lexus-like Optitron instrumentation, climate vents for all three seating rows and a six-speaker stereo with an auxiliary audio jack. Optional here and standard on the rest (including the base Hybrid) are desirable add-ons like iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, a 3.5-inch "multi-information display" with a rear-view camera and a power-adjustable driver seat. The SE and Limited add a sunroof, a power liftgate and leather upholstery (perforated on the Limited), while the Limited and Hybrid are eligible for an upgraded JBL sound system and a touchscreen navigation system.

The Highlander's front seats are forgettable in terms of contouring, but they're perched up nice and high, so you get that expansive view of the road that SUV drivers appreciate. Dashboard materials are just average, with plenty of hard plastics to differentiate the Highlander from its more luxurious sibling, the Lexus RX. The sliding and reclining second row features an innovative 40/20/40 design with a removable Center Stow middle seat (the "20" section), which converts the three-row bench into two captain's chairs with an aisle in between. The standard 50/50 split third-row seat is one of the more cramped you'll find in this class, but it's fine for kids, and limber adults can squeeze back there on short trips.

Cargo space is a measly 10.3 cubic feet behind the third row, but if you fold that seat into the floor, there's a healthy 42.3 cubic feet available behind the second row. With the second row folded as well - a task made easier by standard one-touch levers on every model except the base non-hybrid model - there's a whopping 95.4 cubic feet (94.1 for the Hybrid), a truly impressive figure for a vehicle that doesn't feel especially large from behind the wheel.

Technology

We're a bit disappointed that the base non-hybrid Highlander, which starts at over $28,000, doesn't have standard iPod/USB or Bluetooth integration. It's easy to add via a package, though, and it's standard across the rest of the lineup. The optional navigation system works well enough, but it isn't hard drive based, so you can't store music on it. Also, the Highlander currently can't be equipped with Toyota's new smartphone-based Entune interface, although that's subject to change as Toyota broadens Entune's availability.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Highlander's entry-level engine is a 2.7-liter inline-4 with 187 horsepower, 186 lb-ft of torque and a six-speed automatic transmission. This engine delivers acceptable thrust, but its fuel economy isn't so hot at 20 mpg city/25 mpg highway, and front-wheel drive is the only layout offered.

A better choice is the 3.5-liter V6, which can be had with either front- or all-wheel drive and accelerates with real gusto thanks to its 270 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque. Remarkably, the V6 isn't much worse on gas, checking in at 18/24 mpg (17/22 mpg with AWD) despite the extra power and its older five-speed automatic transmission. It can tow up to 5,000 pounds, too, versus 3,500 pounds for the inline-4.

As for the Highlander Hybrid, it's AWD only and features a 3.5-liter V6 that teams up with an electric motor and a battery pack to produce 280 net hp. The Hybrid has a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), meaning you won't feel it shift because it doesn't have separate gears. Instead, there's just one long surge of acceleration as the electric motor supplies extra power off the line and then the V6 comes on in full force. It's a pretty fast SUV. Oh, and it gets 28/28 mpg to boot-not bad for something this large and swift. Note that the Highlander is a dual-mode hybrid, meaning that the gasoline engine actually shuts off when it's not needed; you'll notice this when you're coasting to a stop accompanied by nothing but an electric hum.

Safety

The Highlander comes with standard stability control and seven airbags, including front and side airbags for front passengers, a driver knee airbag, and full-length side curtain airbags. The front seats also have active head restraints.

The Highlander received an overall rating of four stars out of five in government crash testing, including four stars for the front passengers, five stars for side impact, and four stars in the rollover test. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Highlander its top rating of Good in almost every category.

Driving Impressions

The Highlander drives exactly like what it is: a really tall Camry wagon. Yes, you sit up high, but the ride and handling are, well, Camry-like. That means the Highlander rides softly, taking bumps in stride. The handling pales in comparison to a Mazda CX-9's, for example, but it's not sloppy; there's some decent precision and control here by SUV standards. Road noise is more pronounced than in a family sedan, but that could just be due to the Highlander's relatively cavernous interior. If you're used to driving cars, you won't feel out of your element at the Highlander's helm.   

Other Cars to Consider

Chevrolet Traverse - If you don't mind a crossover that's large and in charge, the Traverse delivers more passenger and cargo space than the Highlander, and its safety ratings are a smidge better.

Mazda CX-9 - With a more adult-friendly third row than the Highlander and superior handling, the CX-9 is a formidable foe. There's only one engine, however - a thirsty V6 - and the ride might be too firm for some.

Kia Sorento - The Sorento is technically one class down, but it still has an available third-row seat (kids only, though) and strong engine choices. A loaded-to-the-gills Sorento won't run you much more than a base Highlander.

AutoTrader Recommends

We'd go with the V6, since the inline-4's fuel economy isn't significantly better, and the Hybrid's $38,000-plus starting price is awfully steep. Regarding feature content, we'd just make sure that our Highlander had the optional stereo with USB and Bluetooth integration.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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