Base Price (MSRP) $23,995
As Tested (MSRP) $30,470
Toyota is determined to have the best-outfitted SUV stores on the planet with an array of both truck and car-based models ranging from cute-ute size to Suburban fighters. Five different sport-utilities are now available from Toyota, and that's not even counting the two from Lexus. Toyota's goal: meeting every need, want, taste and whim of the SUV shopper.
The new mid-size Highlander slots in as a car-based (uni-body) SUV slightly larger in capacity than the truck-based 4Runner. Like its kissing cousin, the Lexus RX300, the Toyota Highlander offers lots of flexibility when it comes to carrying people and cargo. It totes four people comfortably, five less so. Alternatively, the seats can be folded down for cargo carrying.
The Highlander performs decorously on street and highway pretending to be a car. Yet it can swallow with ease impromptu buys at flea markets and get them home despite sudden worsening of the weather. Women went gaga over the Lexus RX 300 and will be equally at home in this variation from Toyota. Men of a practical bent will like the more utilitarian attitude of the Highlander. Everyone will cheer the obvious value: for all its shared components the Highlander is some $8,000 to $10,000 less than the RX 300.
Highlander is available with either full-time four-wheel drive or front-wheel drive. There's also a choice of engines: A 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine comes standard, and is rated at 155 horsepower. A 3.0-liter V6 engine that produces 220 horsepower is optional. All come with automatic transmissions.
One well-equipped model is available, which comes standard with air conditioning, power windows and door locks, cruise control, cloth upholstery, and anti-lock brakes. Prices start at $23,995 (including destination charge), which includes a four-cylinder engine with front-wheel drive. Options increase prices for this and all Highlanders, however. The V6 adds nearly $1600. Full-time four-wheel drive adds $1400. We highly recommend the optional Traction Control with Vehicle Skid Control ($850) for all front-drive models, and especially with the V6 ($25,575). The 4WD V6 model retails for $26,975.
Options such as leather upholstery, power seats drive the price up. Side-impact air bags are an option for $250. We drove a loaded 4WD V6 model that totaled $30,470, and a well-equipped 2WD four-cylinder model that came to $27,150.
The Toyota Highlander is smart and trim looking falling somewhere between the edgy high style of the RAV4 and the intense purposefulness of the 4Runner (both smaller than the Highlander). The Highlander is actually roomier than the upscale Lexus RX 300. The family resemblance to the Lexus is evident but the Highlander is dressed down a little, rather like wearing faded jeans and a favorite windbreaker instead of dry-clean-only lunch-with-the-ladies attire.
Entry, both for cargo and for people, is easier than in truck-based SUVs. With its more car-like step-in and lift-into the Highlander is even friendly to wearers of tight skirts. Not so the usual truck-based SUV.
A tidy, well-conceived interior becomes almost instantly invisible because everything is in the place best suited for it and thus never calls attention to itself. For instance, the power window buttons are immediately under the finger. The ventilation ducts are just there where your hand would expect to find them. The radio and heater controls are simple dials and amply-sized buttons. Intuitively you use them and forget them. The instruments are readily visible through a panoramic space in the four-spoke wheel. And as for the steering wheel itself, the hands fall naturally onto it at the proper driving position.
The whole layout bespeaks thoughtful appraisal and wise choices. Wood and chrome touches warm and brighten the Limited edition. The seats are supportive and comfortable and adjustable to suit various size drivers. Part of the appeal of SUVs is the ease of seeing out at every angle. And so it is here. The sloping hood of the Highlander makes the forward view even more encompassing.
The shifter for the four-speed automatic (the only transmission available) is uniquely positioned more as a part of the dash than on a central console. This opens up the space between the front seats. It also lends an open, unconfined air to the cockpit. The interior is outfitted with dome, door courtesy, glove box and cargo area lighting. Map pockets, visor mirrors, and front and rear auxiliary power outlets are provided. V6 models come with aluminum interior accents.
Highlander comes with reclining front bucket seats in front, and a three-passenger 60/40 split fold-down reclining bench in the rear. An eight-way power adjustable driver's seat ($390) is optional; dual heated front seats ($440) are available for V6 models. Leather Package ($1015) includes upholstery, door trim panel inserts.
The inexorable logic of the Highlander's layout carries over into the driving experience. It is a vehicle that feels instantly familiar. No fumbling for controls. The Highlander is quieter than truck-based SUVs both in engine and road noises. It rides smoothly on a variety of surfaces, true to the car side of its SUV heritage.
The steering is sedan-like with an appropriate feel. The braking (ABS standard) is certain and smooth. Acceleration is nimble enough. We expected this in the V6 test car, but found the four-cylinder version to be a happy performer as well. Toyota expects the V6 4WD version to be the best-selling Highlander.
All the “nice-that nice-this” is beginning to make the Highlander sound a little pedestrian and perhaps even dull. Not the case. After a stretch of allowing the straightforward competence of the vehicle to expand into admiration something else begins to creep onto the scene: appeal. Though not as instantly endearing as the RAV4, the Highlander nonetheless grows on you. It may not deliver a quick jolt to the brain's pleasure center, but it does gradually blossom there into a sense of general well-being and satisfaction. A smile even forms. Indeed at one point I startled my driving companion with a shouted: “Hey! I like this Highlander.”
Our first drive began with city meandering. The Highlander seemed at home amidst the traffic lights and parking seekers, a good size for this work. Rolling into suburbia the Highlander fit right in. It's a natural mall-crawler, maneuverable and quick to nose into a parking slot. Steering effort is very light at low speeds, so it's easy to turn in tight quarters.
Then our touring test began, with multi-lane highways and lesser roads. After determining that dry pavement was a snap for the Highlander whether on gradual climbing curves or twisty descending esses we went searching for more challenge to stretch the willing beastie. We found some sloppy snow melt, a few muddy ruts, icy patches on shadowed curves and even a road meandering upward that was deep with unplowed snow. The Highlander, uncomplaining, dealt with the tasks like an expert speller in the early stages of a championship bee. As it cut upward through eight inches of newly fallen snow like a snowplow on a rescue mission I again startled my companion: “Hey, I like this Highlander, a LOT!”
The Highlander, again, is intended to be primarily a varied-use highway and street vehicle with in-built peace of mind for rough weather and back-roads surefootedness to fishing and ski venues. It is not meant for boulder bashing and serious off-road driving. The absence of a low-low creeper gear makes really steep downhill descents toward cliff rims perhaps more exciting than they need be, but the point is: this platform that the RX 300 and Highlander share is more capable in demanding situations than the marketing managers prefer to publicize. After all, the company has specialists for every SUV use, no need to stretch one to fit all.
We've also driven a front-wheel-drive four-cylinder Highlander with traction control. It makes for a superb station wagon for the city and suburbs. It's 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. Sliding in and out is easy, with no need to climb up or down. This is a quick, sprightly car with the four-cylinder engine, and it's smooth and quiet. It gets better fuel economy (22/27 mpg city/highway vs. 18/22 for the V6).
The bottom line looms large in the acquisition of a vehicle and not just in the original transaction, but also down the line. What is it worth? The name Toyota has over the years come to mean longevity, absence of problems and an unparalleled ability to hold value. That's not a bad rep to have. This all translates to high residuals at the end of a lease or high trade-in or re-sale value when it's time to buy a new one. This sustained-value state of affairs with Toyota can sometimes confuse buyers because with such vehicles there's often little wheeling and dealing at the front end. A competitor can offer what seems to be a much better buy on a similar rig. Buyers should be reminded that the important figure is what a vehicle will cost for its entire time in their possession - what it costs to bring it into their life, to keep it running and insured and how much it pays back as it exits their employ. Toyota excels in this life-cycle costing. The Highlander, opening with such apparent value for money, should be a champion in that regard. It's worth a top location on your look-at list.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.