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2016 Toyota Highlander: New Car Review

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ADDITIONAL MODEL INFORMATION

author photo by Autotrader December 2015

The 2016 Toyota Highlander is a midsize crossover that's designed to combine the carlike ride of the popular Toyota Camry sedan with the practicality and family-friendly capabilities of an SUV. Fully redesigned 2 years ago, the latest Toyota Highlander succeeds in that aim like few of its rivals.

If you're familiar with the old Highlander, which was sold from 2008 to 2013, you'll notice that the latest model looks a little different on the outside. A lot has changed on the inside, too, as the Highlander boasts a far nicer interior than its predecessor -- an interior we now think is near the top of its class in terms of quality and appearance.

But where the Highlander really stands out is its everyday capabilities. For one thing, it's easy to drive -- and while it feels a little more substantial than a tall Camry, it still offers effortless steering and a highly comfortable ride. It also boasts seating for up to eight passengers -- something that few of its rivals can claim.

In other words, we think the Highlander has a lot to offer shoppers interested in a new family vehicle -- and we think you shouldn't buy a new midsize SUV without first spending some time behind the wheel of the latest Highlander.

What's New for 2016?

The Highlander is almost completely unchanged for 2016, save for the addition of rain-sensing wipers to the Limited Platinum trim level.

What We Like

Standard 3-row seating; smooth, quiet ride; outstanding V6 engine; classy cabin; impressive Hybrid fuel economy

What We Don't

Base 4-cylinder engine is barely more fuel-efficient than the V6; Hybrid costs as much as a Lexus

How Much?

$31,000-$51,500

Fuel Economy

The Highlander's entry-level engine remains a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder with 185 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. Front-wheel drive is mandatory with this engine. Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy estimates are 20 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

Most Highlander models are powered by a 3.5-liter V6, which is rated at 270 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque. Remarkably, the V6 isn't much worse than the 4-cylinder on gas despite its huge output advantage, checking in at 19 mpg city/25 mpg hwy with front-wheel drive and 18 mpg city/24 mpg hwy with all-wheel drive. It can tow up to 5,000 pounds, too.

As for the Highlander Hybrid, it's only offered with all-wheel drive -- and it features a 3.5-liter V6 that teams up with an electric motor and a battery pack to produce 280 net hp. This system is also carried over from the previous Highlander generation. The Hybrid's transmission is a continuously variable automatic, meaning you won't feel it shift because it doesn't have discrete gears. Fuel economy is 27 mpg city/28 mpg hwy.

Standard Features & Options

The regular 2016 Toyota Highlander is offered in five trim levels: LE, LE Plus, XLE, Limited and Limited Platinum. The Highlander Hybrid comes in either Limited or Limited Platinum trim.

The Highlander LE ($31,000) starts with the 4-cylinder engine, 18-inch alloy wheels, heated side mirrors with turn signal indicators, a rearview camera, a 3.5-in monochromatic driver information display, manual front seats, a nifty roll-top center console, 8-passenger seating (with 60/40-split, flat-folding rear seats), Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, a 6.1-in touchscreen infotainment display and a handy in-dash shelf with pass-through access to the power and USB ports below.

The LE Plus ($36,200) steps up to the V6 engine (optional on LE) and includes fog lights, a height-adjustable power lift gate with a flip-up window, an 8-way power driver seat with adjustable lumbar support, an upgraded audio package with satellite and HD Radio, tri-zone automatic climate control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

The XLE ($39,200) adds roof rails, a sunroof, a universal garage door opener, keyless entry/ignition, leather upholstery, heated front seats, second-row integrated sun shades and an 8-in touchscreen display with a navigation system and Toyota's Entune mobile-app integration. Optional on XLE are second-row captain's chairs (yielding 7-passenger seating overall).

The Highlander Limited ($42,500) boasts 19-in alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, a blind spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert, rear parking sensors, standard second-row captain's chairs, perforated leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, driver memory settings, a 4-way power passenger seat and JBL premium audio.

Both the XLE and Limited are eligible for a rear-seat Blu-ray DVD entertainment system. The Limited is additionally eligible for the Driver Technology package, which adds Safety Connect (subscription-based; includes emergency roadside assistance and stolen vehicle location), automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control, a collision-mitigation system with automatic braking and lane-departure alert.

Finally, the Limited Platinum ($45,400) tacks on a panoramic sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, a heated steering wheel, heated second-row captain's chairs and the contents of the Driver Technology package.

The Hybrid Limited ($48,800) and Hybrid Limited Platinum ($51,500) feature the hybrid drivetrain along with hybrid-specific instrumentation and display screens, but they're otherwise comparably equipped to their non-hybrid siblings.

Cargo space behind the Highlander's third-row seat has improved slightly with the latest model, measuring just under 14 cu ft. versus 10 cu ft. before. That's enough for some groceries, at least. There's a much more useful 42 cu ft. available behind the second row. Oddly, maximum cargo capacity (with both rear-seating rows folded flat) dropped to about 83 cu ft., whereas the previous Highlander could hold up to 95 cu ft. of stuff.

Safety

The 2016 Highlander comes with standard stability control, active head restraints, hill-start assist and eight airbags. The optional Driver Technology package (see above) adds numerous electronic driving aids, but it's only offered from the XLE on up.

In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash testing, the Highlander earned a perfect 5-star overall rating, comprised of a 5-star side-impact score and 4-star ratings in rollover and front-impact tests. In testing conducted by the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Highlander earned the firm's highest rating of Top Safety Pick+.

Behind the Wheel

In our interior evaluation, we gave the 2016 Highlander high marks for dashboard design and materials quality, especially compared to the previous model. Toyota clearly sweated the details this time around, and the result is a premium environment, even in the lower trim levels. The gap between Toyota and Lexus has narrowed considerably here, which is good, because the Highlander actually costs as much as a Lexus if you want all the fixings.

In back, the second-row seats slide forward farther than before, making third-row access appreciably easier. It's still pretty cramped back there for adults, but the new 3-across bench means you can carry an extra kid, if necessary.

Under the hood, the base 4-cylinder engine delivers acceptable thrust, but since its fuel economy is barely better than that of the V6, we don't really see the point. Most Highlander buyers opt for the six, and we can see why: It's one of the best V6s in the world, pumping out serious passing power when you need it. The Hybrid may have a few more horses, but there's a noticeable delay when you step on it, whereas the regular Highlander V6 downshifts immediately and leaps forward with impressive pace. Unless you do a lot of city driving, it's hard to justify the Hybrid's hefty price premium.

On the road, the Highlander feels significantly wider than it used to, reminding us more of the Ford Explorer than the tall Camry wagon it fundamentally is. But it's surprisingly solid in corners, taking a confident set with less body roll than we expected.

Other Cars to Consider

2016 Honda Pilot -- The recently redesigned Honda Pilot now goes toe to toe with the Highlander in all key areas, including interior quality, passenger room, fuel economy and pricing.

2016 Hyundai Santa Fe -- The stylish 3-row Santa Fe boasts standard V6 power and an attractive interior layout for less coin.

2016 Kia Sorento -- The recently redesigned Sorento offers strong engine choices and reasonable pricing -- though its third-row seat is hardly as big as the Highlander's.

Used Acura MDX -- If you'd rather have a 3-row crossover from premium brand, consider the MDX, which boasts a cavernous interior and a lot of technology. Pricing is high, though, so you may have to consider a used model.

Autotrader's Advice

Start with the V6 and find a Highlander that fits your budget. Thanks to an improved roster of standard features with the all-new model, you really can't go wrong with any Highlander in the model range.

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2016 Toyota Highlander: New Car Review - Autotrader