In the world of family SUVs, the Toyota Highlander holds a special place. Its combination of safety, value, longevity, and comfort is unsurpassed, as are its numerous trim levels and engine configurations, including a hybrid model. With most models offering seating for up to seven, and some later versions up to eight, the Highlander is the perfect antidote to the dreaded minivan.
1st Generation: 2000-2007
With the success of the compact RAV4 under its belt, Toyota needed to build a larger SUV its customers could move into as their family size grew larger. The answer was to build a midsize crossover based on the Toyota Camry, and hence the Highlander was born. Making its debut in 2000, the Highlander offered seating for five, the choice of a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder or a 3.0-liter V6, and front or all-wheel drive. Right out the door, the Highlander was a success, offering a smooth, car-like ride, excellent crash test scores, cutting-edge safety features, and outstanding resale. One oversight on early model Highlanders was the lack of a proper center console between the front seats; an issue later remedied in 2004 when it became standard on all trims.
In 2004, the Highlander received a refresh that brought a more powerful 3.3-liter V6 mated to a new 5-speed automatic. Also new this year was the option of a 2-passenger third-row seat, a feature that increased the seating capacity to seven, although admittedly, the seat was only fit for small children. A sliding second-row seat made accessing the rear-most seat a lot easier, but with the third-row in place, many owners complained of greatly diminished cargo space. After 2004, vehicles not equipped with the third-row had the storage well converted to a cargo compartment, with the spare tire being accessed from beneath the vehicle. In 2006, the Highlander Hybrid joined the team, offering a 3.3-liter V6 paired with a hybrid electric motor. AWD versions were equipped with Toyota’s 4WD-I system that used two electric motors to power the rear wheels.
For the most part, the first-gen Highlanders suffered very few complaints. Those who bought the AWD hybrid models quickly learned the system was designed for use only on paved roads, discovering the electric motors would overheat and shut down during extreme off-road situations. Toyota later issued a recall for this problem due to poorly soldered transistors in the Intelligent Power Module controlling the system. There was also an issue with the 2001 and 2002 V6 engine’s overheating due to a build-up of oil sludge in the engine. Issues for used buyers include remembering to change the V6’s timing belt every 90,000 miles and issues with a check engine light related to a clogged charcoal canister (part of the emissions system) that can be quite costly to replace. Find a 1st Generation Toyota Highlander for sale
2nd Generation: 2008-2013
The second-generation Highlander arrived in 2008, considerably larger than the original, with more power and features, such as a standard 3.5-liter V6 engine, a telescopic steering wheel, and a flip-up glass window built into the rear liftgate. Trim levels included base, Sport, and Limited, with AWD again an option. The Highlander Hybrid also carried over but retained the old 3.3-liter V6 until 2011, when it got an upgrade to the 3.5-liter V6. In 2009, a 4-cylinder engine was returned to the lineup, this time being a 187-hp 2.7-liter unit offered only on the base 5-passenger model with FWD.
Standard features for the Toyota Highlander included power mirrors, air conditioning, a stowable second-row middle seat, 17-in alloy wheels, power windows, and power door locks. Available options varied by trim and included leather seating, a power liftgate, JBL audio, navigation, a power sunroof, and Bluetooth. Electronic traction and stability control was standard, as were seven airbags, including side-curtain and a driver’s knee airbag. In 2010, a rear backup camera was made standard on Sport and Limited, with the SE trim later replacing the Sport. 2011 saw the Highlander get a mild makeover, and the third-row seat made standard.
It should be noted that the 2008-2010 models were part of Toyota’s massive recall related to the mysterious unintended acceleration incidents on some of its cars. The recall required a new accelerator pedal to be installed. Other than this, owner complaints were few, mostly pertaining to less than claimed fuel economy on the 4-cylinder cars, issues with the CD changers failing, difficulties pairing certain cell phones with Toyota’s Bluetooth, and some odd vibrations upon startup.
People who tried pushing the AWD hybrid models to do prolonged off-road adventures (such as plowing through sand) soon found the electric motors would overheat and shut down. Owners with higher mileage Highlanders have reported a clunking or popping sound when turning the steering wheel, which turned out to be a rather common issue with the intermediate steering shaft, a repair that can run anywhere from $500-$900. Find a 2nd Generation Toyota Highlander for sale
3rd Generation: 2014-2019
For 2014, the Highlander again grew a bit larger and much more sophisticated. Longer and wider than the second-generation Highlander, the gen three model also found a new sense of style, with long sweeping lines and a more dynamic front end. The passenger count increased to eight people, with a sliding second-row seat and new driver assists such as lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, forward emergency braking, and automatic high beams being offered only on the Limited and Limited Platinum trims. After 2017, these features became standard on all trims. The interior quality is noticeably better on these models, with lots of soft-touch surfaces and elegant trim.
The base engine remained the 185-hp 2.7-liter 4-cylinder, which was standard on the FWD LE trim. Optional on the LE and standard on the LE Plus, XLE, Limited and Limited Platinum was the 270-hp 3.5-liter V6. The Hybrid Limited and Hybrid Limited Platinum employ the same V6 and electric motor combination as the previous generation. Fuel economy for the Highlander Hybrid came in at a respectable 27 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway.
The base Highlander LE came nicely equipped, including a rear backup camera, 18-in alloy wheels, heated side mirrors, 8-passenger seating, and Bluetooth. Moving up to the top of the line Limited Platinum netted a panoramic moonroof, a heated steering wheel, heated second-row captain’s chair seating, and a full suite of driver assists. Clever features for the Highlander included a flip-up rear liftgate window, a Blu-ray DVD rear entertainment system with a 9-in screen, and Driver Easy Speak, which allows parents to communicate with unruly children in the third-row seat.
In 2016, rain-sensing wipers were added to the Limited Platinum trim, and in 2017 the Highlander received a minor face-lift, a new 8-speed automatic transmission for the V6 powered models, and the addition of the Toyota Safety Sense-P driver-assist suite. The V6 also received a revised fuel-injection system and a bump in output to 295 hp, while the hybrid powertrain was expanded to some of the less expensive trims. Find a 3rd Generation Toyota Highlander for sale
4rd Generation: 2020-Present
A new generation of the Highlander was introduced for 2020. It advanced the Highlander as a family-friendly minivan alternative with a roomy, comfortable interior. Third-row seating is still a little cramped, but good for kids. One of the biggest stories of the fourth-generation Highlander is that the old, underpowered four-cylinder base engine was dropped and a 295-hp V6 became standard, which achieves up to 21 city/29 highway mpg.
A new Highlander Hybrid was also introduced. It’s quite a bit more efficient than the previous Highlander Hybrid achieving up to 36 city/35 highway mpg, which is outstanding for an SUV this size. All-wheel drive is no longer standard on the Highlander Hybrid, but it’s optional and still super-efficient.
Since the fourth-gen Highlander is still pretty new, used examples aren’t a whole lot cheaper than new ones. That said, it’s still worth keeping an eye out for a used 2020 or newer Highlander if you want a modern family crossover with a discount compared to a new one. Find a 4th Generation Toyota Highlander for sale
Which Toyota Highlander Is Right For Me?
With the Toyota Highlander, it’s hard to go wrong regardless of which year you choose. The first-generation models will likely be the most affordable but also have the highest mileage. The cabins are snug, and they lack some important features like a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel. Due to the oil sludge issue, we’d steer clear of the 2001 and 2002 models.
The best choice is probably the 2008-2013 version. This generation gives you more interior space, more features, and a more powerful engine lineup, plus better safety and crash test scores. Although the Highlander holds its value well, you should be able to find a low mile 2010-2013 Highlander Limited for around $20,000 and one of the lower trims for even less.
If you’re willing to spend north of $25,000, you can get into a third-gen Highlander, which opens the door to 8-passenger seating, advanced driver assists, and more features and interior room, but not advanced infotainment options like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
If you go with models older than six years, a private party sale may be advantageous both for the ability to negotiate a better price and the possibility that the owner kept meticulous repair and maintenance records. A car only a few years old might be better bought from a dealer that can provide an inspection as well as some type of warranty as found on certified pre-owned (CPO) cars. Find a CPO Toyota Highlander for sale