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click above image to view more on-the-spot images of the 2008 Toyota Highlander

The last generation Toyota Highlander was one of the first vehicles to utilize a car chassis (from the Camry) underneath the body of an SUV. Today we call them CUVs or Crossovers, but back in 2001, they were just different. As a matter of fact, SUVs like the Explorer and Trailblazer were considered by many to be superior due to their more powerful powertrains, ability to tow large amounts of weight, and relative off-road prowess. In this age of $3 per gallon gasoline, however, Toyota's Highlander has weathered the storm better than most midsize body-on-frame SUVs.

Where the Highlander did come up a bit short was in the looks department. Calling the last-generation Highlander homely would almost be a compliment. The interior, while nicely built with high-quality materials, wasn't very usable, either. To see if Toyota was able to improve upon the boring-yet-successful Highlander, we traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, of all places, where Toyota officially unveiled the Highlander and gave us a chance to drive the vehicle around town.

Make the jump to read on.

In the aesthetics department, Toyota's midsize CUV has graduated from ugly to somewhere between bland and slightly attractive, sporting less jarring lines and a more muscular stance. Toyota even sprung for 19" rims for the Limited and Hybrid models, which helps to fill out the wheel wells far better than the old Highlander's smaller rolling stock. The engine also gets a bump in horsepower from 225 to a very respectable 270 hp. The five-speed transmission stays, and while the vehicle has grown by 300 lbs, fuel economy is slightly improved.
The Highlander has improved appreciably in many areas, the most significant of which is the inside.

Toyota designers and engineers spent thousands of hours to create a better vehicle for their customers, and it really shows in the interior. The Highlander's cabin looks like something you'd get in a luxury CUV from Lexus, yet prices start at only $27,000. The fake wood actually looks quite nice in person, and the center stack looks fabulous with its well positioned knobs and buttons set on top of a background of rich-looking colors. A 3.5-inch display screen was added on all models above the base trim, and it provides useful information like fuel economy data, time and temperature.

Customers asked for a second-row seat that converts into captains chairs, and Toyota responded with what they call flexible seating. The middle section of the second row actually stows away into the front middle console (above). The third row seats, meanwhile, are very usable, and large enough for many adults. Engineers designed a headrest that can be easily put into place by anyone sitting back there, and it can be brought down by using a pulley that's accessible through the rear hatch. The second- and third-row seats fold perfectly into the floor, and another pulley can be used to bring the third row back up without having to put half your body into the vehicle to reach it. When passengers are in the third row, they can quickly fold down the second row seats by pulling a lever that's positioned on each side wall of the vehicle.

Toyota also added a power lift-gate and the ability to open the back glass on the hatch, both of which are items that were high up on the list of requests from customers. The one beef we had with the Highlander's interior packaging was the total lack of usable space when all three rows are upright. When there are seven people in a vehicle at the same time, those people generally have a lot of stuff, and without any trunk space, everything hits the floor or stays in people's laps. That's not comfortable, and in an accident those items could be dangerous. There are actually plenty more enhancements to make the 2008 Highlander one of the best-packaged interiors in the business, so we've added video from the Toyota presentation below.

Our drive-time in the Highlander gave us the impression of a smooth, comfortable ride without much to get excited about. The 3.5L V6 had pep, but the steering was predictably light. The added girth and size was well hidden, as the 2008 model felt no larger than its predecessor.

Toyota will undoubtedly sell a whole bunch of Highlanders to families and empty-nesters, as the interior packing coupled with stellar active and passive safety features will be very appealing. We look forward to having some time with the Highlander in the Autoblog Garage for a longer look.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 8 Years Ago
      What a graceful way to incorporate 2 cup holder to the interior. LOL, where did they out source their design? China?
      • 8 Years Ago
      I think the new Highlander looks like a fatty, bloated Rav4 (hardly the definition of style). The former model never triggered anything for me... till I saw the Mercedes Benz GL class arrive -a virtual stylistic clone of the old Highlander. Shallow, sure, but it made me appreaciate the Highlander for its simple, blocky masculine style.

      To me, the old one was big. The new one is 3" wider, 4" longer and 250+ Lbs heavier. Fat is tired. Not cool.
      • 8 Years Ago
      Typically Toy-ugly and uninspiring, not altogether surprising, considering that it's a derivative of the Camry. Probably have the same issues with the sludging engines and special "service bulletins". Buy a GM or Ford CUV and stop sending money to the country of the rising meatball.
      • 8 Years Ago
      That center "seat" in the middle row sure looks comfy...
      • 8 Years Ago
      $27,000...without much to get excited about.
      • 8 Years Ago
      So why does Toyota have this and the 4Runner? Isn't that going after the same market- just like Chevy with the Equinox and the TrailBlazer?
        • 8 Years Ago
        A friend of mine loves his 4Runner. I was just being facetious since there are always posts about how GM / Ford have redundant vehicles, ie; Equinox / TrailBlazer, when they serve different buyers just as the 4Runner and Highlander do.
        • 8 Years Ago
        "So why does Toyota have this and the 4Runner?" The Highlander has little offroad capability and a very small tow rating. The 4Runner is capable offroad (within its angle limits) with a locking center differential and low range. Yes, I do take my 2003 4Runner offroad. The 4Runner also has a 7000 lb tow rating.

        The 4Runner is also larger inside than the previous generation of Highlander. It appears that the new Highlander is larger than the previous generation, however.
      • 8 Years Ago
      I like the way these new 4x4's come with a dual opening slots at the back where the glass bit can open on its own and the whole rear door can also lift if required.
        • 8 Years Ago
        Actually, this is something different then other lift gate glass. The glass and door both hinge to the body, on most SUVs the glass hinges on the door, so if you open the lift gate with the glass open, it goes really high. This way, the glass is less likely to get damaged on low garages. The Toureg/Cyanne is the same way.
        • 8 Years Ago
        SUVs have had that option for years. The Ford Explorer as always had rear lift and rear opening glass since its introduction in 1990 and it still has it today, even with power lift. Ford's Escape also has dual opening rear lift and glass since its introduction in 2001 and the All-New 2008 Escape still has both. Just because Toyota finally decides to put something on its vehicles for the first time does not make it new.
      • 8 Years Ago
      its funny that almost everyone seems to agree that the highlander is bland and boring... and yet if you ask people who actually own the darn thing, i'm positive most of them love it. and there are tons of these things on the road, so assuredly, there are tons of people who love this beast. such a weird paradox...
      • 8 Years Ago
      I sat in one the other day and it felt very comfortable
      and questioned why is their still a 4 Runner. My guess is that it depends on people's taste, but I have a feeling that Toyota will either phase out the 4 Runner or bring out something different like an SUV to fall below the RAV4.
      Perhaps a smaller FJ Cruiser would be a good pick!!!!!!!!
      • 8 Years Ago
      Better than the previous Highlander, but still the automotive equivalent of water crackers.

      If I were in the market for something along these lines, it'd be hard to keep me out of a Mazda CX-9.
      • 8 Years Ago
      Doesn't the Tahoe get the same fuel economy or darn close? The whole unibody thing for fuel economy doesn't make sense as a selling point if it doesn't get a noticable bump in fuel economy. Because you are giving up towing.

      Now if the selling point is a more car like ride then you probably have an decent arguement. Though I am sure that trucks are getting more refined every year due to competition in the large truck segment.

      Correct me if I am wrong.
        • 8 Years Ago
        Ratings for 4wd vehicles from the (new) EPA estimates:
        08' highlander: 17 city/23 highway
        07' tahoe: 14 city/19 highway
        highlander hybrid: 27 city/25 highway

        highlander: 18/24
        tahoe(4.8L V8): 14/19
        tahoe(5.3L V8): 14/20

        Keep in mind that the highlander only has a v6 and the Tahoe only has a 4-speed. I wouldn't really place them in the same class, the Tahoe seems like a much larger and more powerful vehicle. This is clearly for those who are too embarrassed to buy a minivan.
        • 8 Years Ago
        The Tahoe might get similar fuel economy in EPA tests but for some "odd reason" (wonder why), they are far off in the real world. I drove a 06 Highlander 3.3 V6 last summer for 3000 miles and averaged 22MPG with 4 passengers and packed to the roof with luggage. I don't think I've seen a Tahoe pull that off yet.
      • 8 Years Ago
      starts at ONLY $27,000?? am i the only one that thinks this is high for the amount of car you get?
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