• Nov 20, 2007
2008 Toyota Highlander – Click above for high-res image gallery

The Highlander's undergone a nearly Kafka-esque transformation from its start as essentially a Camry wagon with all-wheel-drive and extra ride height. For 2008, Toyota's middle-child 'ute has been bulked up into more of a maxi-cruiser than previously. At first glance it appears what's emerged from the chrysalis is a grotesquely overinflated Forester, but the new Highlander is more butterfly than cockroach.



All photos ©2007 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.



The styling does bear an uncanny resemblance to the Subaru Forester, but in person the scale of the 2008 Highlander separates it from Fuji's small CUV. The stance is far more purposeful than the previous Highlander, and there are plenty of little easter eggs hidden in the lines that will delight for months. One of the marks of good design is that it continues to surprise as it reveals itself over time, and living with the Highlander is punctuated by regular moments of "hey, look at that!"



The Highlander has been bulked up considerably, occupying a similar space as the 4-Runner. Measuring just an inch shorter than the 4-Runner (188.4 vs. 189.2 inches), the Highlander is just as wide and nearly as tall. As you'd expect, the unitized construction of the Highlander pays dividends once you move inside. All the measurements that equal passenger comfort; headroom, legroom, and hiproom are superior to the body-on-frame 4Runner. Only third row hiproom in the 4Runner is superior to the Highlander, which bests its truck-based stablemate significantly when it comes to accommodating the human form.



The Highlander is exceedingly well thought out for the way people use their vehicles. At every turn, the details have been considered and that's a joy for the end user. The interior is a big improvement over its predecessor, and the materials and design have taken a sizeable step forward. The four shower-sized knobs for the radio and ventilation system are wonderful in practice, and their damped motion feels expensive when you give one a twist. From where the driver sits, there's command over the three-zone HVAC system. The front seat passenger gets his own temperature knob, and folks in the rear also get their own climate controls, able to be engaged or disengaged by driver's master controls. The up-down button for the blower fan would have been better executed as a small knob, as would the mode switch to direct airflow.

Also marginally maddening is the integrated audio/navigation system. The menus are moderately Byzantine – it took three days to find the radio presets, for example – and the navigation system itself is only okay, in our opinion. The map display and operation isn't as easy as a Nissan or Ford nav, and loading or using the CD changer is confusing. You have to endure the self-animated LCD screen when adding or removing discs, and it's a bit of a fiddly routine to have to sit through just to get to the music.



While we didn't immediately love operating the entertainment system, that doesn't make it bad. The JBL speakers spread about the interior are augmented by a subwoofer, and it sounded great pounding out our favorite Little People songs while cruising around with the family. Families are definitely Toyota's bogey for the Highlander, and it's got the function and features to please. It starts with the little things, like the four cupholders in the front compartment, two with rubber inserts to secure smaller beverages, the light effort it takes to deploy or stow the third row, even the slick way the latch in the 2nd row's center position self-retracts with a hidden cable when you fold it down to an armrest. There's another alternate center armrest for the second row that hides away in its own drawer. The alternate offers cupholders and cubbies, a nice bit of versatility. There are remote levers in the cargo area that allow you to drop the 2nd row seats down with a light tug, too. The load floor is large and flat when you hide the seats, and the cargo area levers are a nice touch when you're loading 2x4s at the home center in a driving rain. Also nice in a deluge is the motorized hatch, which might be mistaken for supreme laziness until that time you've got your hands full of stuff. Convenience is the Highlander's strong suit.



The seats in all positions are comfortable, though the legroom drops off in stages as you move toward the back of the vehicle. The third row can accommodate adults, just not tall ones. The manageable (but still large) dimensions of the Highlander mean that you can either fill it up with people or stuff, but not both. The third row consumes the cargo area when in use. The retractable load cover and very nice carpeted mat also presented a challenge when using the third row. They're best left at home if you've got seven people to cart, but you don't always have advance warning when you're going to have to go into "mass transit" mode. We ended up rolling up the mat and wedging the cargo shade in (just barely) behind the hatch.

Even without a full frame and heavy-duty differentials underneath, the Highlander weighs about the same as the 4-Runner. Both vehicles are over 4,000 pounds; a four wheel drive Highlander Sport like we drove weighs in at 4,255 pounds, says Toyota. You feel that weight from behind the wheel. The overall feeling of the Highlander was very reminiscent of some full-frame vehicles we've driven. There's a vibratory sensation you get from behind the wheel – the steering column quivers a bit over bumps, for instance – that struck us as a tip of the hat to manly truckness, rather than any type of structural deficiency. Handling was good, though. Body roll is present, of course, but well reined in, and the ride is comfortable. Here's where that car-based platform pays dividends. The Highlander may be big and heavy, but it carries its avoirdupois differently than a truck-based hauler, leaving the end user with a vehicle that rides smoothly and can round corners at moderate velocities without requiring outriggers to stay upright.



There's plenty of power on tap, delivered in smooth fashion from the 2GR-FE 3.5 liter V6. The throttle can be twitchy when puttering around town or pulling away from stops, sometimes snapping everyone's head back when you just wanted to pull serenely out of the coffee shop parking lot. Mileage is also a bit trucky, high teens to low 20s is about all you can expect. The five-speed automatic is a smooth operator, although it's among the ranks of trannies that hate kicking down. It used to be that a little squeeze moved the kickdown cable enough to effect a snappy downshift, especially with the Aisin Warner units in Toyotas. No more. Modern-day electronically-controlled autos sometimes take an eternity to deliver what you've requested.

The steering is needle-bearing smooth, with a precision feel from lock to lock. There's not much information from the road surface making its way up to the wheel rim, but you don't miss it here. Highway slogs are a little busy when you're manning the Highlander's helm. The steering demands frequent small corrections, keeping the driver working harder than is necessary. Maybe a couple camber and toe tweaks in the front alignment would help, but we doubt that anyone's going to experiment. As far as gripes go, our complaint about the steering is relatively mild, and when you're surrounded by the rest of the goodness baked into the 2008 Highlander, it's easy to become an optimist.



The thing with the Highlander is that it's a great station wagon in the vein of the Wagon Queen Family Truckster. Nobody makes a full-size three-row wagon any more, and it's doubtful that one would sell very well, anyway. People still need a vehicle with space to haul bodies and boxes, so every manufacturer has whipped up a trucky-looking wagon-thing. Big wagon utility without the wood-paneled stigmata of yore has the crossover segment hotter than the core of a nuclear reactor. The popularity of the segment, plus Toyota's improvements to the Highlander figure to make it a popular buy in the high 20's to mid 30,000 dollar range.



All photos ©2007 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 32 Comments
      • 7 Years Ago
      Ok so let me understand this. It weighs just as much as a 4-Runner (over 4000 lbs) and there's vibration in the steering wheel but yet this ok?

      This chimpanzee re-designed atrocitiy is being given a pass because former models were reliable if not slightly under powered and reliable. But the market place is changing, with better choices, like GM's Acadia and Buick's Enclave and there is no excuse for this excessively overbloated oaf.
        • 7 Years Ago
        I had a 1st-gen Highlander hybrid as a media ride, and that left me unmoved. This new model is *much* improved. Yes, it's big, and yes, the GM Lambdas are direct competitors. They're also large and heavy vehicles. The Lambdas are extremely competitive with this Highlander, so it would behoove anyone thinking of this type of vehicle to drive the Outlook/Enclave/Acadia, too. BTW: The Lambdas aren't featherweights, either. Heck, the Vue tips the scales at 4,200 pounds.
        • 7 Years Ago
        Yep, the Lamdas are good to check out also. I agree with you guys.
      • 7 Years Ago
      As crossovers go, I think the Highlander is a competitive choice and should be on the test drive list. However, I hate the fact that these crossovers get portlier and bigger with every redesign with nothing smaller to replace them. The RAV4 is a perfect example of bloating in redesign. Hopefully, the new Highlander is more durable than the Tundra.
      • 7 Years Ago
      How come nobody has commented on HOW UGLY this beast is? This thing violates all standards of good design, with a plethora of mis-shapes, poor symmetry and general tastelessness - a trend that seems to be affecting all Toyotas. Good reliability can only take you so far, and when you have to make excuses for it's insane ugliness it's only a matter of time before if affects sales. It looks like a spiritual brother to an AMC Matador! Or Pacer!

        • 7 Years Ago
        Not enough glass to be called Pacer like, But I do see the goofy Matador resemblence in this edition of the Highlander.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I think it looks pretty good actually. At least it looks better than the old model, which was quite boring. Plus, I'm sure the USA will like its styling, seeing as how this one wasn't actually drawn by Japan, but by people in California. Those wheels are quite big too, to come out of Toyota.
      • 7 Years Ago
      If you're into uninspired imported tin, then you really ought to LOVE the Hyundai Santa Fe and Veracruz... twice the vehicle for the price or the Kia Sorento for that matter. The Highlander's 'organic' design is plain ugly. The Koreans are going to give Toyota the run for their money! For me, I prefer Yankee tin-- Edge, MKX, Grand Cherokee. To each his own, but it's hard to be the leader and Toyota's crown is looking a little shabby these days.
      • 7 Years Ago
      boca--yes-oaf! and meat loaf too...over 4000 lbs!
      Tooheavy and at 37K too much.
      • 7 Years Ago
      The Highlander does not look that bad, but Toyota could've done a lot better. What's with the generic styling lately anyway? At least it looks better than the new big Lexus SUV which looks deflated. As for its competitors, I really like the exterior of the Edge, but the interior is cheap (as if the Escape's). If they could've just used the same materials as the (cheaper) Fusion, the vehicle would be much more well-rounded. I guess Ford make the Fusion in Mexico, so I guess they can spend more on the car and less on the labor!
      • 7 Years Ago
      nasty looking car,would'nt buy it at all.the headlights are really ugly,the car looks kind of boxy which i hate.the exhaust pipe,what the heck is up with that..id rather buy a hyundai over this ugly crap.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I rented a 2006 FWD Highlander upon recently returning from the States (still have it until I buy a car), and it is horrible.

      So much body roll, tons of wind noise in the cabin at high speeds and the way it drives it abysmal.

      I hope the 2008 is better, because unless it's totally better this time around, that POS has put me off Toyota for a long time.
        • 7 Years Ago
        returning to the states*
      HotRodzNKustoms
      • 7 Years Ago
      Personally, I rather have nearly any other CUV in the price range Mazda CX 7/9, Lincoln's, but the top of my list is the GMC Acadia and the Buick version. I don't think there is a CUV on the market that can match the Buick as far as what CUV do I want to see sitting in my driveway.
        • 7 Years Ago
        @HotRodzNKustoms
        On the top of your list, and you don't know the name? Say it with me Buick Enclave.

        There should be two segments of crossovers:

        Toyota Highlander, GM Lambdas (Outlook, Enclave, Acadia), Hyundai Veracruz, Subaru Tribeca, Mazda CX-9 and other 7 seater CUVs

        Hyundai Santa Fe (5 seater), Toyota RAV4 V6 (5 seater), Nissan Murano, Ford Edge Mazda CX-7 and other 5 seater CUVs.

        Note Santa Fe and RAV4 both include optional 7 seater.
        HotRodzNKustoms
        • 7 Years Ago
        @HotRodzNKustoms
        well excuse me for being a tad lazy.
        Personally I think independent rear suspension and unibody construction is what makes a CUV a CUV in the first place.
      jobo
      • 7 Years Ago
      Dan Roth,you give a very good report,very netural,and to the point> I have a 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid LTD,which was purchased on Nov 5th,last number in vin 1064 which makes it in the first or second run,so far runs like a sewing machine and I have found no flaws. It really burns me up to read some of the stupid remarks people make a bout vehicles they have never driven,owned or hope to own. Maybe this is the outlet to get their jollies off. Thanks again for the review. Jobo
      • 7 Years Ago
      I'm surprised that ugly beast actually fits inside a garage.
        jobo
        • 7 Years Ago
        No problem with the garages,I have three of them so I just squeese it beside my wifes ES350,and my daughters Solara Convertible.JOBO
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