2009 Toyota Highlander Expert Review:Autoblog
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.
New Car Test Drive
Recently redesigned SUV is comfortable and convenient.
The Toyota Highlander is a family hauler that's smooth and comfortable with generous space for passengers and cargo. The Hybrid model delivers excellent fuel economy with minimal emissions, while a new four-cylinder engine for 2009 offers decent fuel economy at a lower price point. An available V6 engine delivers smooth performance and respectable fuel economy.
Completely new for 2008, the current Highlander is larger than the previous-generation in every significant dimension.
New for 2009 is a brand-new four-cylinder engine. It displaces 2.7 liters, makes 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, and delivers attractive EPA fuel economy ratings of 20/27 mpg City/Highway. It has a variable intake manifold and Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) to optimize torque and fuel efficiency and to deliver strong response at all engine speeds. The new four-cylinder is matched with a six-speed electronically controlled automatic overdrive transmission, and is available only with two-wheel drive. Otherwise, the Highlander is unchanged for 2009.
A versatile cabin adds to the attractiveness of the Highlander as a family vehicle. The second row can slide forward and back, and the third-row seat is hospitable for children and capable of carrying adults. Getting in and out of the first two rows is easy, and Toyota provides both a walk-through and a fold-and-slide-forward second-row seat to ease access to the third row.
In addition to the new four-cylinder engine, there are two other powertrains. A 3.5-liter V6 delivers 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. The 3.5-liter V6 is buttery smooth, as is its five-speed automatic transmission, which downshifts seamlessly to provide ample passing punch. Front-wheel-drive Highlanders with the 3.5-liter V6 are EPA-rated at 18/24 mpg City/Highway, while all-wheel drive models are rated slightly lower at 17/23 mpg.
The Highlander Hybrid has a 270-hp gas/electric powertrain that provides smooth, plentiful power. The gasoline engine is a 3.3-liter V6 that delivers 208 horsepower and 212 pound-feet of torque and is matched to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT). In combination with the electric motors, the complete Hybrid powertrain can deliver 270 horsepower to the driving wheels. The Hybrid is rated at 27/25 mpg City/Highway.
Gasoline-only Highlanders come standard with front-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive available for customers who want all-weather capability and enhanced safety. Hybrids come standard with all-wheel drive.
The Highlander is a so-called crossover SUV, meaning it's built more like a car than a truck. The Highlander is based on the architecture of the Toyota Camry midsize sedan. As a result, the Highlander offers a quiet cabin and a luxurious ride quality. Overall, we found the Toyota Highlander to be a pleasant way to carry a group of people.
The 2009 Toyota Highlander offers a choice of three powertrains, three trim levels and front or all-wheel drive. The base Highlander ($25,705) comes with the 2.7-liter four cylinder engine or a 3.5-liter V6 ($27,600). The Highlander Sport ($30,000) and Limited ($33,070) come standard with the 3.5-liter V6. The all-wheel-drive models all have the 3.5-liter V6, and are available in base ($29,050), Sport ($31,450), and Limited ($34,520) trim. Highlander Hybrid models come standard with all-wheel drive and are available in base ($34,700) and Limited ($41,020) trim.
The Highlander comes standard with cloth upholstery; air conditioning; three-row seating for up to seven passengers; a 40/20/40 second-row seat with a removable center section that can be stowed under the first-row center console; a fold-flat third row; AM/FM/CD with six speakers and MP3; power windows, door locks, and mirrors; remote keyless entry; cruise control; variable intermittent wipers; rear defogger with variable intermittent wiper; rear spoiler; tilt/telescope steering wheel; two front and one cargo-area 12-volt power outlets; fog lights; and 245/65R17 tires on alloy wheels.
Hybrid models get Toyota's Smart Entry System that includes keyless entry and starting, a 3.5-inch multifunction display screen that includes a rear backup camera, a clock, tire-pressure display, air conditioning readout, and outside temperature and trip computer information, in addition to all the hybrid-related features. Also, base Hybrids come standard with two seating rows; the third row is optional.
Sport models add 245/55R19 tires, sport-tuned suspension, opening rear glass, a rear tonneau cover, cargo area levers to fold the second-row seats, and the multi-function display.
Limited models upgrade with leather upholstery, 10-way power adjustable driver's seat and four-way power front passenger's seat, front dual-zone automatic climate control, and Homelink universal transmitter, foldable power outside mirrors with puddle lamps. Limited models also come with opening rear glass, a rear tonneau cover, cargo area levers to fold the second-row seats, and the multi-function display. Limited models ride on the standard suspension, but they get the 245/55R19 tires and 19-inch wheels.
Limited Hybrid models come with the same features as the Limited.
Options include leather upholstery ($1,490 for two rows, $1,840 for three rows), a navigation system in combination with a JBL audio system ($2,530), front dual-zone climate control ($375), automatic rear air conditioning ($585), heated front seats ($440), upgraded JBL audio with nine speakers and a Bluetooth hands-free cell phone link ($630), sunroof ($850), power rear tailgate ($400), rear DVD entertainment ($1,700), several other options, and numerous packages that combine individual options.
Safety features on all models include dual front airbags, front side-impact airbags for thorax protection, head-protecting curtain side airbags that cover all three seating rows, a driver's knee airbag, active front headrests, tire-pressure monitor, antilock brakes, traction control, antiskid control, and hill-start assist. Hill descent control is standard on AWD models.
The Toyota Highlander is in the heart of the midsize crossover SUV market, and is about the same size as the Honda Pilot. Highlander's 95.4 cubic feet of cargo room is more than all but a handful of competitors in the popular midsize class.
The Highlander fits in the middle of Toyota's four-pronged midsize SUV lineup. It features softer styling than the 4Runner midsize SUV and the retro-styled FJ Cruiser. Truck-based platforms, rugged suspensions and low-range transfer cases make 4Runner and FJ Cruiser highly capable off road. The Highlander is based on the same architecture as that of the Camry and Avalon sedans. Highlander's all-wheel-drive systems are designed for taming slippery pavement and wintry conditions, not for climbing rocks and traversing rough terrain. Likewise, the Toyota Venza is a mid-size vehicle that further blurs the line between wagon and SUV. (Whether you call these vehicles SUVs or wagons seems like a specious argument to us, and we could argue either side. The point is whether the vehicle meets your needs.) Also based on the Camry platform, the Venza is even more carlike than the Highlander.
The design of the Highlander is clean, and accented on each side by a character line that leads into pronounced wheel arches. The look is more SUV than station wagon, and the available 19-inch alloy wheels add to the muscular stance.
Alloy wheels come standard, so every Highlander looks well-equipped. Hybrid models are differentiated by blue-tinted lighting, a special grille, and unique alloy wheels.
Climb into the driver's seat of the Highlander and you are greeted by a quality, upscale cabin. Fit and finish are excellent and the design is attractive. There are more hard plastic finishes than in a Lexus, but those plastics are nicely grained and assembled with care.
The secondary controls are easy to spot, and they move with precision. A 3.5-inch screen displays trip computer and climate control information on all but the base model. This same screen displays the image from the rear backup camera whenever you shift into Reverse. The picture is very small, but it could help the driver avoid making the tragic mistake of backing over a child and in everyday use it speeds parallel parking or backing up to a wall.
Opt for the navigation system, and the camera is projected onto the larger navigation screen, making the image easier to see. This is a far useful tool than the standard screen when it comes to backing up. This screen also displays some of the audio controls, adding an extra step or two when changing stations, but the system works very well.
Cup holders abound, with 10 cup holders scattered throughout the cabin. Larger bottle holders are provided in the doors, handy for large water bottles. There's also plenty of storage for small items.
Hybrid models have some exclusive interior touches. The gauges are trimmed in blue instead of red, and a power meter replaces the tachometer. Displayed either on the multifunction screen or the navigation screen are Consumption and Energy Monitor information. The Consumption screen displays fuel economy in real time and five-minute increments, and the Energy Monitor screen employs a schematic to show when the gas engine and electric motors are in use. It may be fun to watch these screens, but be careful because they can distract attention from the road.
Many buyers prefer SUVs because the high seating position lets them see over traffic. The Highlander's elevated ride height and upright seating position give it that desirable SUV trait but with easier step-in than what's found in older, truck-based SUVs.
Head and leg room are generous in the first and second rows. Up front, the leather seats are comfortable, and visibility is good to all corners.
The second-row captain's chairs are comfortable, and the Highlander has a handy removable center seat that can be replaced by a center console. The area between the second-row seats can also be left open to provide a walkthrough to the standard third row. Either the center console or the center seat can be stowed beneath the front seat center console.
The third-row seating is aided by second-row seats that can slide forward. Adults can fit, but the seat cushion is set low, so it's still not ideal for long trips. Access to the third row is easy from the passenger's side, as the second row captain's chair flips and slides forward in one motion. The driver's side chair folds flat, but doesn't slide forward far enough to allow passengers to walk through.
For cargo space, the second- and third-row seats fold flat to open up a very useful 95.4 cubic feet. Tethers and levers are provided in the cargo area to make folding and unfolding the seats a breeze. The available separate opening rear glass is a nice convenience, and the load height is low for an SUV, making it easier to load groceries, duffle bags, and other cargo.
The Toyota Highlander is a pleasant vehicle to drive. Most notable is the ride quality, which is luxurious or soft, depending on your viewpoint. Even with the available 19-inch wheels, the suspension smoothes all but the most jarring bumps. There is a bit of unwanted float on highways and on winding roads, though, and some folks find it too soft. Sport models and Hybrids have slightly more road feel, but are still quite comfortable, making them a better choice who find the standard suspension too soft.
The suspension emphasizes a soft ride over taut handling. All models lean when cornering and braking. Steering feel is light, but the response is somewhat slow. We would not describe the Highlander as nimble. We prefer the Sport model's slightly firmer ride because it doesn't allow as much lean and is still comfortable. The Nissan Murano offers better handling prowess. Traction control and electronic stability control come standard on the Highlander to help keep you on your intended path in slippery conditions or if you enter a corner too fast. Just always remember to look and steer where you want to go.
The brakes feel a bit soft but provide fine stopping power thanks to Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist.
The all-wheel-drive system in the gas models provides a full-time 50/50 front/rear torque split. In Hybrid models, the AWD system is front-drive biased, but when it detects slippage, the rear-mounted electric motor can kick in to deliver up to 25 percent of the available power to the rear wheels. Both systems will help you get the kids to school on snowy days.
The 3.5-liter V6 propels the Highlander front-drive models from 0 to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds and all-wheel-drive models in 7.8 seconds. A manual shift gate also allows choosing a lower gear for more immediate power delivery. From inside the cabin, the V6 can barely be heard, emitting only a refined growl under hard acceleration.
The Hybrid's powertrain is called Hybrid Synergy Drive, and it mates a 3.3-liter V6 with three electric motors for a total of 270 horsepower. The transmission is a continuously variable automatic that constantly adjusts gearing ratios instead of changing gears.
The Hybrid version feels a bit more responsive off the line, but in reality it isn't as quick as the standard versions, accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds. Driving the Hybrid is different than driving a standard V6 model. You start to notice those differences when you turn the key and nothing happens. Rest assured, it's ready and operational. The gas engine just doesn't start until it's needed. The gas engine shuts off at stoplights but starts again as soon as you step on the accelerator. Under the right conditions (full battery charge and proper coolant temperature), you can press the EV button and drive the Hybrid up to two miles at less than 25 mph on electric power only. That can be a big benefit in stop-and-go traffic. The Highlander Hybrid is the first Toyota hybrid to offer an EV button in the United States. Hybrid models also have an ECON button that reduces throttle response to improve fuel economy. The continuously variable transmission feels natural. It has a standard drive mode, which allows the Hybrid to freewheel down hills, as well as a B mode, which uses engine compression to slow the vehicle when the driver's foot is off the throttle. B mode helps recharge the battery pack. The Hybrid powertrain is a little rougher than the standard V6 but is still quite refined.
In all models, wind noise is well-checked, and the only notable interior noise is some tire hum on rough pavement.
The Toyota Highlander offers generous room for people and cargo, a choice of powertrains, ample performance and good fuel economy. Hybrid models offer excellent fuel economy, particularly in the stop-and-go traffic of major metros, along with extremely low emissions. Add in Toyota's reputation for reliability and resale value, and the Highlander is a wise choice for active families.
Kirk Bell filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after driving Highlander models around Scottsdale, Arizona.
Toyota Highlander base trim level, 2WD, four-cylinder ($25,705); 2WD, V6 ($27,600); 4WD, V6 ($29,050); Sport trim level, 2WD, V6 ($30,000); 4WD, V6 ($31,450); Limited trim level, 2WD, V6 ($33,070); 4WD, V6 ($34,520); Hybrid, base, ($34,700); Hybrid, Limited ($41,020).
Options As Tested
Leather Seat Package ($1,840) includes leather upholstery for three rows; Navigation System ($2,530) includes JBL premium audio system with nine speakers, four-disc in-dash CD changer, compass, Bluetooth hands-free cell phone capability; power rear liftgate ($400).
Toyota Highlander Sport 4WD ($31,450).
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