It's easy to get lost in the wide world of midsize crossovers. But the 2013 Toyota Highlander remains a real standout against some very capable competition. The Highlander hasn't seen any earth-shattering changes for this model year, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" definitely applies in this case.
The Highlander shares the same platform as the Toyota Camry, which means it's well-built and delivers a secure driving experience. Unlike with some crossovers, the exterior styling is conservative. And there's a new trim level this year called Plus that's slotted between the Base and SE. At the top end of the range is the Highlander Limited. As with any other vehicle or model, the higher the trim level, the more standard features you get.
Toyota's slick Entune mobile-app interface is only available, for instance, on the more expensive SE and Limited models. But we applaud Toyota for making Bluetooth technology and USB with iPod connectivity standard on every Highlander, along with a new, high-def 6.1-inch touchscreen.
In terms of cabin quality, the Highlander's interior materials are mediocre, with too many hard plastic surfaces. However, the Highlander offers plenty of space and versatility for people-moving. A practical feature is the Center Stow middle seat that easily converts the second row from a bench to two captain's chairs with an aisle in between. There's also a third-row seat in the Highlander, but it's intended for kids, not adults. With the third-row seat in place, cargo room is limited, but with the second- and third-row seats folded, there's more than 95 cu ft of storage space.
The Base and Highlander Plus get a standard 2.7-liter inline 4-cylinder that's good for 187 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. The only transmission available for these trims is a 6-speed automatic driving the front wheels. If you can, go for the available 270-hp 3.5-liter V6 with a 5-speed automatic. It's smoother than the inline 4-cylinder, has a lot more power, can tow up to 5,000 pounds and comes with optional all-wheel drive.
Like most crossovers, the Highlander drives like a car. It offers a soft, comfortable ride and a suspension that's more suitable for soaking up bumps than rugged off-road excursions.
Surprisingly, the more powerful V6 actually yields fuel economy comparable to the inline 4-cylinder: 18 miles per gallon city/24 mpg hwy with the V6 versus 20 mpg city/25 mpg hwy with the 4-cylinder. The all-wheel drive V6 drops to 17 mpg city/22 mpg hwy.
The Base Highlander costs around $29,000 before options. At the other end, the Limited model starts at almost $38,000. But try the Hyundai Santa Fe, Mazda CX-9 and Kia Sorento before making a decision. They all compare well to the Highlander.
The 2013 Toyota Highlander is roomy, well-equipped, easy to drive and now loaded with standard technology on the upper trims. If you take our advice and choose that silky-smooth V6 while reserving the third row for the little ones, the Highlander will definitely earn your vote.