Pros: Three standard rows of seating, smooth ride and drive, outstanding optional V6, plentiful standard features, Hybrid version is both fuel-efficient and fast.

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

What's New: The 2013 Toyota Highlander gets a standard 6.1-inch touch-screen and USB/Bluetooth connectivity from the base model on up. A new Plus trim level bundles popular features for a modest premium. The four-cylinder SE has been discontinued.

Introduction

There are so many midsize crossovers on the market that even our editors have a hard time keeping them straight sometimes.

But we never lose sight of the 2013 Toyota Highlander.

For one thing, the Highlander was the first-ever midsize crossover SUV when it debuted more than a decade ago. The innovative idea was to start with the Camry sedan platform and transform it into a tall, rugged-looking utility vehicle with available all-wheel drive. The Highlander met with some initial skepticism in the press, but it was an instant hit with the buying public. It started a crossover craze that, 12 years later, shows no signs of abating.

For another, the Highlander is simply an excellent all-around vehicle. Toyota's midsizer has grown over time, now featuring three seating rows in all models, but those Camry roots ensure that it remains a smooth-riding, pleasant-handling crossover. The optional V6 is a perennial all-star, and there's even an available Hybrid model that provides 28 mpg along with surprisingly strong acceleration.

Competition is no joke in this segment, and the current Highlander is one of the older options. But it's also one of the best. Don't buy a midsize crossover without driving this Toyota first.

Comfort & Utility

The regular Highlander is offered in four trim levels: base, Plus, SE, and Limited. The Highlander Hybrid comes in either base (roughly equivalent to the SE) or Limited trim.

The non-Hybrid base model is remarkably well-equipped, featuring standard niceties like 17-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, Lexus-like Optitron instrumentation, a 3.5-inch TFT trip computer, a height-adjustable driver seat, climate vents for all three seating rows, and a six-speaker stereo with a 6.1-inch touch-screen and iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

The Plus adds fog lights, power-folding outside mirrors, black roof rails, power front seats, a rearview camera, "easy-clean" upholstery, illuminated vanity mirrors, a cargo cover, and one-touch levers in the cargo area for folding down the second-row seatbacks.

The SE tacks on perks like a sunroof, leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and optional Entune smartphone integration with navigation (standard on Limited).

The sunroof, leather trim and auto-dimming mirror are optional on the base Hybrid, but Entune with navigation is standard, as are an array of Hybrid-specific gauges and displays.

The Limited boasts sharp 19-inch alloy wheels, chrome exterior trim, keyless entry with push-button start, a navigation system (optional in SE) with nine-speaker JBL audio, tri-zone automatic climate control, perforated leather upholstery, wood-like interior trim, and heated front seats with additional power adjustments.

Offered exclusively on Limited V6 and both Hybrid models is a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.

In our interior evaluation, we found that although the Highlander's front seats are forgettably flat, they're perched up nice and high, so you get that expansive view of the road that SUV drivers appreciate. Dashboard materials, however, 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?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

In a welcome change for 2013, every Highlander now comes standard with iPod/USB and Bluetooth integration, so we have one less thing to complain about this year. The cherry on top is the 6.1-inch touch-screen, also newly standard across the board. Almost overnight, the base Highlander has become a technological leader.

On the other hand, the smartphone-based Entune mobile-app interface, which brings apps like Pandora streaming audio into the driving experience, is only available on the pricey SE and Limited. As for the available navigation system, it works well enough, but it isn't hard-drive-based like some rival systems, so you can't store music on it.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Highlander's entry-level engine is a 2.7-liter inline-4 with 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. It's standard in both the base and Plus models but unavailable in higher trims. The transmission is a six-speed automatic. 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. We're not huge fans of the way it sounds at full throttle, either.

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 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. Sounds great, too. 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 horsepower. The Hybrid's transmission is a continuously variable automatic (CVT), meaning that 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 Hybrid is the "dual-mode" type, so the gas engine actually shuts off when it's not needed; you'll notice this when you're coasting to a stop and the only sound is a soft electric hum. Happily, the transitions are generally quite smooth. Toyota still does dual-mode hybrids better than just about anyone.

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 impacts, and four stars in the rollover test. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Highlander its top rating of "Good" in every category.

Driving Impressions

The Highlander drives exactly like what it is: a tall Camry wagon with mild off-road pretensions. You sit up nice and high, but the ride and handling are, well, Camry-esque. That means the Highlander rides softly, taking bumps in stride. The handling pales in comparison to the 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 typical family sedan, but that could just be down 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

Hyundai Santa Fe - Newly decked out in Hyundai's distinctive designer duds, the sexy three-row Santa Fe looks set to make a splash. Its 3.3-liter V6 doesn't have the punch of the Highlander's 3.5-liter unit, however. We actually prefer the 2.0-liter turbo four, but you can only get that in the two-row Santa Fe Sport.

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

Kia Sorento - The Sorento is technically one class down, but it's still got 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 sweet V6, as the inline-4's fuel economy isn't significantly better, and the Hybrid's starting price of almost $40,000 seems awfully steep. The new high-tech standard features are a boon for value-minded shoppers, turning the well-rounded base Highlander V6 into a legitimate bargain.

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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