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2016 vs. 2017 Toyota Highlander: What's the Difference?

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ADDITIONAL MODEL INFORMATION

author photo by James Riswick October 2016

The 2017 Toyota Highlander represents the first significant update that's been made to this popular 3-row family crossover since it was redesigned 3 years ago. The updates pertain primarily to the Highlander's styling, powertrain and features, but let's take a closer look to see what exactly the differences are between the 2016 and 2017 models.

2016 Toyota Highlander2017 Toyota Highlander

Exterior

Although the 2016 and 2017 Toyota Highlanders share the same body, the styling has been clearly altered. The 2016's large, trapezoidal grille has been enlarged even further, essentially extending it to the bottom of the bumper. The trim within the new grille depends on trim level, though. The five razorlike slats are silver on the lower LE, LE Plus and XLE trims and chrome on the upper Limited and Platinum. On the new, sportier SE trim, the slats are gloss-black, making the Highlander look a bit like Darth Vader -- perhaps a reason to select black paint, too.

Meanwhile, Toyota has slightly reshaped the headlights and exaggerated the corners of the bumper. Around back, the taillights have been redesigned and feature standard LED-lighting elements.

2016 Toyota Highlander2017 Toyota Highlander

Interior

The Highlander's cabin design hasn't changed from 2016 to 2017, nor has its seating layout. However, it's now possible to equip the top Limited and Limited Platinum trim levels with 8-passenger seating thanks to a bench-style middle row in place of captain's chairs. The new SE also gets special interior trim.

2016 Toyota Highlander2017 Toyota Highlander

Mechanicals

Although both the 2016 and 2017 Toyota Highlander both feature 3.5-liter V6 engines, their powertrains are actually different. The new-for-2017 V6 produces 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, representing a considerable upgrade over the 2016's 270 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque. The Highlander was already one of the quickest 3-row crossovers around, and this extra power should further solidify that distinction.

The new engine also betters fuel economy thanks to a variety of clever engineering solutions within the engine itself, as well as a new 8-speed automatic transmission and an automatic stop/start system (standard on all but the LE V6) that shuts down the engine when the vehicle comes to a stop. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates a front-wheel-drive 2017 Highlander V6 will return 21 miles per gallon in the city, 27 mpg on the highway and 23 mpg in combined driving. All-wheel drive lowers the city- and combined-driving estimates by 1 mpg.

By comparison, the 2016 Highlander V6 with front-wheel drive returned an estimated 19 mpg city/25 mpg hwy/21 mpg combined. But bear in mind that the EPA's methodology has changed for 2017, so the newer Highlander may actually be even thriftier than the figures estimate. The 4-cylinder found on only front-wheel-drive LE models remains unchanged and now actually gets worse fuel economy than the V6 (22 mpg combined), despite being 110 hp less powerful.

The only other noteworthy mechanical change can be found on the new SE trim level. Like other Toyotas with this sportier trim, the Highlander SE features a retuned suspension for sharper handling. Frankly, it produces less of a difference than the suspension changes seen on the Camry and the Sienna SE. The lack of any steering changes makes opting for the Highlander SE ultimately more about aesthetics.

And finally, the Highlander Hybrid also features the new V6, which helps it achieve an improved 30 mpg city/28 mpg hwy/29 mpg combined. This improvement mostly comes in city driving, although again, the 2016 and 2017 estimates are not apples-to-apples comparisons.

2016 Toyota Highlander2017 Toyota Highlander

Features & Technology

Here's where you may ultimately decide that the 2017 Highlander is a better choice. Every trim level now comes standard with the Toyota Safety Sense bundle of accident-avoidance technologies. These include a forward-collision warning and automatic-braking system that can detect both cars and pedestrians. Other features include lane-departure warning and steering assist, automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control. This is a big deal, as these features are optional on every competitor, and even then, they're often restricted to upper trim levels. There's also the quality of those features -- the Honda Pilot at least offers its safety tech on all but its base trim, but its forward-collision warning and adaptive cruise control are not as well-executed as the Highlander's.

In terms of infotainment, the Highlander retains its large, responsive and relatively easy-to-use touchscreen interface. One key update that your passengers should greatly appreciate is the addition of four extra USB ports, now standard on every 2017 Highlander. The 2016 has only a single USB port up front, which is admittedly quite common.

Those interested in the Highlander Hybrid should also welcome the new LE and XLE trim levels, which makes the gasoline-electric SUV's fuel savings available at a lower price point. No longer are you forced into the Limited and Limited Platinum trims, which hover around the $50,000 mark.

2016 Toyota Highlander2017 Toyota Highlander

Driving Experience

The primary difference you'll notice when driving the 2016 and 2017 Highlander back-to-back is the newer model's standard stop/start system. This automatically shuts the engine down when you come to a stop and starts it again when you let off the brake to get under way. Then again, maybe you won't notice it -- we found it to be one of the more seamless systems of this type out there.

You may also notice the extra power, but really, both the 2016 and the 2017 offer compelling acceleration for the segment. The new 8-speed transmission means driving the 2017 brings a few extra, smooth shifts, as well as less commotion from the engine when passing or traveling up a grade. The 8-speed will also be of benefit if you decide to utilize the Highlander's maximum 5,000-pound tow rating.

Otherwise, only the new Highlander SE trim should represent a change from 2016. The ride is just a bit firmer, and body motions are better controlled through corners, but it's not a huge difference. There are also no changes made to the steering, which in every Highlander is pleasantly low-effort but could use a little more precision.

2016 Toyota Highlander2017 Toyota Highlander

Safety

As mentioned earlier, the 2017 Highlander comes standard with the Toyota Safety Sense suite of accident-avoidance technologies. These features, along with a blind spot monitoring system, were optional only on the 2016 Highlander Limited trim level and standard on the top-of-the-line Limited Platinum. A blind spot monitoring system is now standard on all but the LE and LE Plus.

In government crash tests, both the 2016 and 2017 Highlander received the best possible 5-star rating for overall crashworthiness. It received four stars for frontal-crash protection and five stars for side protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2016 Highlander its best possible rating of Good in every crash test. Its forward-crash prevention system was also given a rating of Advanced, which is the third of six possible ratings. This may change for 2017, though, as the equipment is now standard.

Conclusions

If you're considering one of the upper-level Limited trims, the differences between the 2016 and the 2017 are fewer due to the shared presence of Toyota Safety Sense. This suite of technologies really does represent a key advantage for a family vehicle like the Highlander. Otherwise, the 2017's more powerful and efficient V6 engine is certainly a selling point, as are the extra USB ports (maybe not to you, but we bet the kids and their dwindling smartphone batteries will love them). We'd say the 2017 Highlander is the one to ultimately get, but you'll still be well-served if you get a great deal on a 2016.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2016 vs. 2017 Toyota Highlander: What's the Difference? - Autotrader