|The Toyota Highlander is easy to drive and operate. It feels instantly familiar with no fumbling for controls. The Highlander is quieter than truck-based SUVs both in engine and road noise. Highlander rides smoothly on a variety of surfaces, true to the car side of its SUV heritage, though some road vibration can be felt through steering wheel on rough surfaces. |
The standard front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder Highlander makes a superb wagon for the city and suburbs. Traction control and electronic stability control and other accident-avoidance measures are standard equipment. Highlander is far easier to deal with on a daily basis than a truck-based sport-utility. Though you ride a little taller, you look eye to eye at Volvo wagon drivers.
The four-cylinder engine offers good power. It's quick, smooth and quiet, delivering 160 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque. We found the four-cylinder version to be a happy performer. We did not feel like we were missing something by not having the V6. The four-cylinder gets significantly better fuel economy than the V6 (22/27 vs. 19/25 mpg EPA-estimated City/Highway in 2WD trim). When equipped with the 4WD system, EPA mileage is one or two mpg lower, not a bad tradeoff for the all-weather capabilities of all-wheel drive. The four-speed automatic transmission features a Snow Mode for improved throttle control when accelerating from a standstill on a slippery surface.
The V6 is larger and more powerful, at 3.3 liters and 230 horsepower. Torque is increased significantly, to 242 pound-feet. Torque is that force that propels vehicles smartly away from intersections and up hills. Further enhancing engine smoothness are active-control motor mounts that cancel vibration. Toyota recommends using premium fuel for the V6, but it runs fine on regular. The V6 is mated to a five-speed automatic.
Highlander feels at home around town, amidst traffic lights and parking seekers. It's a good size for city streets and soaks up potholes and irregular pavement well. Rolling into suburbia, the Highlander fits right in. It's a natural mall-crawler, maneuverable and quick to nose into a parking slot. The steering effort is very light at low speeds, so it's easy to turn in tight quarters.
It cruises well on major highways, offering good stability and a smooth, quiet ride. It's a solid-feeling structure. Grip is quite good for hard cornering, better than expected. On winding roads, though, the steering felt slow and a bit vague. The suspension is too soft for serious hard driving, with significant body roll. Like a lot of cushy SUVs, it wallows in corners and the body leans.
Active safety features help the driver maintain control by reducing skidding. Toyota's electronic Vehicle Stability Control with traction control detects slipping of the front or rear wheels and reduces engine power and/or applies the brakes on individual wheels to correct the Highlander's course.
Braking is certain and smooth. ABS helps the driver maintain steering control under hard braking. Electronic Brake-force Distribution optimizes brake force at each wheel under different load conditions and as the car's weight shifts forward under braking for improved stability and reduced stopping distances. Brake Assist detects an emergency braking situation and automatically maintains enough brake pressure to engage the ABS even if the driver makes the mistake of relaxing pressure on the brake pedal.
All-wheel drive works great in slippery or inconsistent conditions. Snow melt, muddy ruts, icy patches on shadowed curves were easily handled by an AWD V6 Limited we drove on a meandering back road. The Highlander cut up hills covered in eight inches of newly fallen snow like a snowplow on a rescue mission. All-wheel-drive Highlanders use a permanently engaged system that splits torque 50/50 front/rear, and relies on the traction control to limit slippage at any wheel. Highlander is intended primarily as a highway and street vehicle with all-weather capability. It is not meant for boulder bashing and serious off-road driving. That said, we found the Highlander more capable in demanding situations than Toyota publicizes, at home on graded dirt roads after a heavy rain. Highlander does not offer the low-range gearing that would be required for more adventurous travel. Toyota has the 4Runner for serious off-road duty.
The four-cylinder Highlander can tow a 1500-pound trailer, or up to 3000 pounds with the optional towing prep package. The V6 models can tow up to 3500 pounds with the towing prep package.
The Highlander Hybrid is powered by a new version of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive. Toyota's way ahead in hybrid technology and it's a powerful, efficient powertrain. It is eerily quiet during full electric drive as you creep around town. But stand on the go pedal and, when the gas engine and electric motor(s) combine forces in full synergy mode, it provides the force and feel of a turbocharged engine. Passing power is astonishing thanks to the combined torque of the powerplants and the rubber-band elasticity of the electronically controlled continuously variable transmission. Just push hard and go, go, go. The transmission offers a standard Drive mode, in which the engine is allowed to freewheel when coasting downhill or in other off-throttle conditions, and a B mode, which uses engine compression to help slow the Highlander on downgrades and at other times when the brakes need extra help. The Hybrid comes with a few quirky noises from the electric motor and CVT. The owner's manual is quick to call attention to these whines and thunks, cautioning drivers that they're entirely normal with that powertrain.
Around town, the hybrid drive shuts down at stoplights and restarts with a press of the accelerator pedal, and every push of the brake pedal recharges the battery pack. Every little bit helps, which is the message we should take away from current hybrid technology. As it exists in the Highlander, hybrid technology has not created a huge leap forward in fuel efficiency. We did not achieve the EPA's estimated fuel mileage, 33/28 City/Highway on our test drive, managing only 24 mpg during 1,000 miles of city streets, interstate highway and mountain roads.
The other ecological concern addressed by hybrid technology is emissions, and there's no doubt the Highlander's exhaust gas is sweeter than many other powertrains. We tailed quite a few big turbo-diesel pickups into the Sierra Nevada (it was opening of fall deer season) and noted the difference. As billows of unburned fuel spiraled out of their tailpipes, their oil-burner engines gasping for breath and turbos spinning madly, we blew by them with barely a whiff of wasted hydrocarbons set loose to drift through the pines.