After more than a decade of wild growth and nearly limitless prosperity, Toyota experienced an unthinkable 2010 – the bandwagon derailed in a very ugly, very public way. Embarrassing recalls played their role in the Japanese automaker's uncharacteristic slide, but even though that public black eye is beginning to heal, Toyota is still grappling with an aging product lineup. The Camry and Corolla still sell in massive numbers, but they're growing long in the tooth. Admittedly, the latter received a very mild refresh for 2011, but the competition has caught up with each in every category that counts. It's much the same story for Toyota's truck and SUV portfolio, where the RAV4, Tacoma, FJ Cruiser and Tundra are hardly spring chickens.
Compounding the issue is the lukewarm response to some of its newly refreshed. The styling remains staid. The interiors are no longer class-leading. The powertrains and fuel economy have done little to separate them from the rest of the pack. Still, not all Toyota models are headed off the reservation. The redesigned Sienna has been well-received and is doing good work on the sales floor. The same can still be said for the Prius and the redesigned 4Runner, which is selling far better than its predecessor. The subject of Toyota's latest refresh and the vehicle featured here, the 2011 Highlander, has been consistently successful over its lifespan. Will new tweaks to the seven-passenger crossover help this perennial top-seller stay near the top of the pack, or could the lack of a more comprehensive redesign relegate this CUV to also-ran status?
Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Shunk / AOL
With over 92,000 sales in 2010, it's clear that CUV shoppers are at least considering the Highlander. In fact, the only three-row crossovers that have been more successful are the Chevrolet Traverse and Honda Pilot, with 107,000 and 102,000 units sold respectively. To keep customers streaming into the showroom, Toyota has updated its bread-and-butter CUV with updates like bolder projector-style headlamps and standard three-row seating. Limited-spec models like our tester start at $36,575 in front-wheel drive guise and $37,375 with all-wheel drive, and all trim levels receive a standard power liftgate, satellite radio and connectivity features including Bluetooth and USB. Each Limited model also comes with standard heated front seats and a no-charge power moonroof. Among the options checked off on our $43,635 all-wheel drive tester included a $4,630 infotainment package that bundles together a nine-inch navigation screen, rear seat DVD and a premium JBL sound system. Other standard features on the Limited trim level include 19-inch wheels, a 10-way power driver's seat and tri-zone climate control.
New features usually help move more models, but refreshed aesthetics do a lot to bring customers to dealerships. In that spirit, the Highlander has been given a thorough nose job for 2011, with a chiseled beak that gives a more muscular appearance. An aggressive new lower air dam has been added, along with attractive new fog lamps, a freshly stamped hood and convex headlamp covers that closely resemble those of the new-for-2010 4Runner. But while the headlamps on the 4Runner look like woefully unkempt eyebrows, the same look is far better resolved on the Highlander. Out back, there haven't been many changes, though the tail lamps have been slightly reworked. We've seen more thorough exterior refreshes from other companies as of late, but Toyota has pulled off a fresh, attractive look without breaking a sweat, or the bank.
It's a good thing Toyota's piggy bank is free of fissures, as that's left more dough to upgrade the Highlander's interior, right? Well, not so much. Outside of additional standard features like heated seats and various tech upgrades, the Highlander's cabin is largely carryover. Thankfully, the front seats are still comfortable and reasonably bolstered. Controls and ergonomics are still well thought-out. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is still a pleasure to grip. And our favorite touch? The Highlander's glovebox is Mammoth Cave huge.
At the same time, the dash continues to lack any manner of soft-touch materials. The center armrest is covered with soft touch leather, but it's not the plush cowhide you'll find in similarly priced crossovers like the Ford Flex Limited. The same can be said for the anonymous looking leather seats – two seconds after leaving the cabin, you forget about them entirely, and you can only describe what they're like under hypnosis. At least they don't leave your back knotted up.
Speaking of seats, the Highlander's second- and third-row accommodations are pretty trick. For instance, both rows have the ability to fold completely flat, revealing 95 cubic feet of cargo space. That's nearly 30 more cubes than the similarly sized Dodge Journey and a dozen more than the much longer Flex. Want captain's chairs? Toyota has engineered a removable middle seat that stows neatly into a storage bin below the center armrest. We've created a short video to show how easy it is to operate (above). While we liked how well thought-out the storage solution is, we weren't as thrilled with the actual seat. It's actually indented compared to the other two squabs, and it's only about seven or eight inches wide – far too narrow for most backsides, and the ones that fit should typically be anchored to a booster seat. We don't know of many boosters that fit in such a tight space.
Then there is the third row. It's elevated to give occupants the feeling of spaciousness, but no amount of elevation can trick adult-sized passengers into feeling comfortable back there. And with that third row in use, there is only 10 cubic feet of space available for cargo. That's about enough space for four small bags of groceries, which is fine most of the time, but on a trip, passengers will have luggage at their feet. The significantly larger yet similarly priced Chevy Traverse, on the other hand, offers 24 cubes, while the Honda Pilot holds 18.
On the tech front, our tester was equipped with a USB port and Bluetooth, enabling drivers to pair up mobile phones and plug in their iPod. We found the rear seat entertainment system to be well-executed, with simple controls and quality headphones that worked without requiring a trip to the owner's manual. The optional JBL sound system was similarly excellent, with crisp, clear music that filled the cabin. But while the tech story is a page-turner, in the end, antagonism wins the day. For example, while the new nine-inch nav is nicely backlit and visually impressive, navigating the menus occasionally proved to be as difficult as finding the destination without a map. What's more, the touchscreen was hard to operate, requiring unusually firm pressure on the screen to elicit a response. And if you use the head unit to change radio stations, you must first press on the tuning knob at the far end of the center stack, giving drivers one more reason to take their eyes off the road. The same can be said for the Multi-Information Display, which sits at the crest of the console. The small yet colorful display houses vehicle information ranging from fuel economy to climate control settings, but we'd prefer that information migrate over into our line of site between the gauges.
So you've gathered that we're not completely impressed with the Highlander's interior, but what about the driving experience? The Highlander retains the same 3.5-liter V6 that Toyota employs in most of its car-based models. The carryover six-cylinder continues to offer 270 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 248 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 revolutions, backed by a five-speed automatic (curiously, if you want a six-speed automatic you'll have to step down to the 2.7-liter inline-four). Five forward gears isn't exactly cutting edge, but Toyota engineers have tweaked this tried-and-true powertrain to the point of near perfection. Shifts are seamless and power-delivery is smooth, effortlessly propelling this nearly 4,300-pound machine.
The Highlander's chassis and suspension are up to the task as well, with reasonably responsive handling that can still soak up most bumps in the road. Those looking for a slightly more athletic driving experience can specify the slightly firmer Sport model. Stopping is a similarly effortless affair, and the 2011 Highlander now comes equipped with a brake override system that kills the throttle in the event that both pedals are pressed simultaneously. The Highlander's electronic power steering is minimally engaging, but that's expected (and in many cases, preferred) by CUV owners. Its turning radius is also less-than-ideal, but this is also typical of mid-size crossovers
Our Limited tester also boasted a 4WD badge on the boot, but a more apt moniker would be full-time AWD. After all, there is no low-range gear and you certainly won't hear a grinding sound when turning on dry pavement. We would have loved to experience the foul-weather benefits of this system first-hand, but saw only dry pavement during our evaluation. Inevitably, driving all four wheels dings the fuel economy numbers a bit, as the Limited 4WD model manages middling EPA numbers of 17 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. Our tester managed to hover between 19 and 20 mpg, about par for the course in this segment. If that's not good enough, there's always the Highlander Hybrid, which starts at $37,490 and boasts a combined rating of 28 mpg.
After a week with the 2011 Toyota Highlander, we came away impressed with its updated sheetmetal and pleased with its all-around driving characteristics. Where does the Highlander come up short? For starters, the mostly unchanged interior struggles to keep up with the best the segment has to offer. Beyond that, this well-regarded crossover compromises too much space in an effort to call itself a seven-passenger crossover. The disappearing second row seat is too small to be comfortably used by most on long journeys, and the convertible captain's chairs simply aren't as plush or comfy as dedicated thrones. Third-row seating is also too cramped for extended travel, and with a full complement of passengers, the cargo area is too space-challenged for real-world use. And yet, we know there are plenty of Toyota loyalists and new consumers who will be more than happy to live with these shortcomings – and precious few of them will make frequent use of the third row anyhow.
Ultimately, the refreshed Highlander remains an imperfect but attractive option in one of America's most hotly contested segments – but only just.
Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Shunk / AOL
New Car Test Drive
Family-friendly in any weather.
The Toyota Highlander is a midsize SUV that's smooth and quiet underway, with a versatile cabin that seats seven. Highlander is a crossover SUV, meaning it's built more like a car than a truck, while feeling nice and big like a truck SUV. It's based on the platform of the Toyota Camry midsize sedan.
All Highlanders were extensively revised for 2011, with freshened styling and upgraded audio and safety systems. There are no additional changes to the 2012 Highlander.
The 2012 Highlander comes with a choice of powerplants. The base 2.7-liter four-cylinder makes 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, and delivers EPA fuel economy ratings of 20/25 mpg City/Highway. It's matched with a 6-speed electronically controlled automatic overdrive transmission, and is available only with two-wheel drive.
The optional 3.5-liter V6 is extremely smooth and delivers 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. Also smooth is its 5-speed automatic transmission, which downshifts seamlessly to provide ample punch for passing. Front-wheel-drive Highlanders with the 3.5-liter V6 are EPA-rated at 18/24 mpg City/Highway; Highlander AWD (all-wheel drive) models are rated slightly lower at 17/22 mpg, which is about what we got in the AWD V6 we drove, including a 300-mile freeway run.
There's also a Highlander Hybrid, whose gas/electric powertrain uses three electric motors: One to drive each axle, for AWD, and a third to regulate the electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT). The Highlander Hybrid's gasoline engine is essentially the same 3.5 liter V6, but with port, rather than direct, fuel injection and milder tuning producing 231 horsepower and 215 pound-feet of torque. But add in the additional punch of the electric motors, and the total system horsepower is 280. EPA estimated fuel economy is 28 mpg, city or highway. Unfortunately, we found it difficult to achieve that during our winter test drive using power accessories full blast.
Highlander offers a quiet cabin and a comfortable ride, while being a pleasant way to carry a group of people, with generous space for passengers and cargo. A versatile cabin adds to its attractiveness as a family vehicle. The second row can slide forward and back, and the third-row seat is good 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.
The 2012 Toyota Highlander offers a choice of three powertrains, three trim levels and front or all-wheel drive. The base Highlander comes with the 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine ($28,090) or a 3.5-liter V6 ($29,245). Highlander SE also comes with either the four-cylinder ($32,695) or 3.5-liter V6 ($33,850). Highlander Limited ($35,595) comes standard with the V6. All of these models are front-wheel drive.
All-wheel-drive models all have the 3.5-liter V6, and are available in base ($30,695), SE ($35,300), and Limited ($37,045) trim. Highlander Hybrid models come standard with all-wheel drive and are available in base ($38,140) and Limited ($43,795) trim only.
Highlander comes standard with air conditioning; cloth upholstery; 40/20/40 second-row seat with a removable center section that can be stowed under the first-row center console; 50/50 third-row seating with rear climate control; AM/FM/CD with six speakers, MP3/WMA playback, and an auxiliary input jack; power windows, door locks, folding mirrors and remote keyless entry; cruise control; variable intermittent wipers front and rear; rear defogger; rear spoiler; tilt/telescope steering wheel; two front and one cargo-area 12-volt power outlets; daytime running lights; and 245/65R17 tires on alloy wheels.
Hybrid models add fog lights; and 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.
Highlander SE also adds fog lights and a 3.5-inch multifunction display screen, plus leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and display controls; leather seats with heat for the front row; power tilt/slide moonroof; SiriusXM satellite radio, USB port, and other audio upgrades; Homelink universal transceiver; opening glass in the rear hatch; rear tonneau cover; a lever in the cargo area to fold the second-row seats; lighted vanity mirrors; visor extenders; second-row reading lights; heated outside mirrors: and a power liftgate.
Highlander Limited models upgrade with tri-zone automatic climate control; 10-way power driver's seat; four-way power front passenger's seat; Smart Entry; and interior wood trim. The Limited models are distinguished with more chrome and bright trim than other models, and bold 19-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels wearing 245/55R19 tires. Hybrid Limited models come with the same features as the Limited.
The Tech Package ($1835) for base models includes most of the electronic and convenience features from the SE, but skips the leather upholstery and moonroof. A Leather Package ($2305) for the base Hybrid adds leather, the moonroof, and a few additional conveniences. The base Hybrid can also be fitted with 19-inch alloy wheels ($1020). A Cold Weather Package ($60) for either base model adds heated exterior mirrors and a windshield wiper de-icer. A power liftgate ($400) is also available. Hybrid, SE, and Limited models can be ordered with voice-activated navigation ($2650). Hybrids, Limiteds, and Hybrid Limiteds can add rear-seat DVD entertainment, or a premium JBL stereo ($650). Tow packages are available ($200).
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, daytime running lights, tire-pressure monitor, antilock brakes, traction control, antiskid control, and hill-start assist. Smart Stop automatically reduces engine power when the brake and accelerator pedals are applied simultaneously. Downhill assist 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. 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.
The Hybrid has its own grille and front bumper fascia: Dominated by horizontal slots, it looks high-tech, maybe even a little futuristic; while the standard Highlander front end prominently features a more truck-traditional, six-sided grille. Both grilles are plastic, as they almost all are nowadays, but the Highlander grilles are clearly so. The foglamps on the SE and Limited have odd silver eyebrows that seem reversed, as they travel toward the center of the car. Makes you want to swap the lights from left to right. Hybrids make the “eyebrows” less obvious by having them sweep from the bottom of the lamps; and by tucking the entire foglamp assembly inside a vertical nacelle.
The Highlander has a quality, upscale cabin. The seating position is way up high, and forward visibility excellent, without losing the corners of the car. The seats are comfortable on three-hour trips, but they're pretty flat and could use more body contour.
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 multi-function screen at top center on the dash displays the trip computer and climate control information; it's optional on the base model and standard on all others. This same screen displays the image from the rear backup camera whenever you shift into reverse. It's the smallest rearview camera screen we've ever seen, except for those tiny ones in the rearview mirror. We watched it carefully as we backed toward a chain-link fence around a driveway one dark night, and if we hadn't stopped and looked over our shoulder to double-check, we would have backed into the fence even with the rearview camera.
With the optional navigation system, the camera is projected onto the larger navigation screen, making the image much easier to see. This is a proper rearview camera. This screen also displays some of the audio controls, adding an extra step or two when changing stations, and adding distraction. The voice navigation messed up big time, when we used it. It misguided us past an easy freeway interchange we knew by heart. And it repeatedly and annoyingly interrupted our radio listening, to warn of traffic delays ahead that didn't exist. Overall, however, the Toyota navigation system works better than most.
Highlander Hybrid models have some exclusive interior touches. The gauges are trimmed in a soothing blue instead of raspy red, and a power meter replaces the tachometer. Displayed either on the small 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.
The elevated ride height and upright seating position give Highlander that desirable SUV trait but with easier step-in than older, truck-based SUVs.
The front seats are comfortable, and visibility is good to all corners. Head and leg room are generous in the first and second rows.
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.
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. Cup holders abound, with 10 cup holders scattered throughout the cabin, with bottle holders in the doors. There's plenty of storage for small items.
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. Hybrids have slightly more road feel, but are still quite comfortable, making them a better choice for those 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. The Nissan Murano offers better handling. Traction control and electronic stability control come standard on the Highlander.
The 3.5-liter V6 propels the Highlander front-wheel-drive models from 0 to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds, 7.8 seconds with all-wheel drive. A manual shift gate allows choosing the gear you want. From inside the cabin, the V6 can barely be heard, emitting only a refined growl under hard acceleration. In all models, wind noise is well-checked, and the only notable interior noise is some tire hum on rough pavement.
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, and we did just that.
We tested a Highlander in the Pacific Northwest in the middle of the winter. We drove around for two days on icy roads with our Hybrid, and it performed brilliantly, both to provide traction and to stop the vehicle safely. We tackled steep icy hills and the all-wheel-drive did its thing to keep moving the car forward without noticeable slipping. We charged down those icy hills and floored the brake pedal, and the ABS stopped the Highlander as quickly as possible. We tested the steering during ABS braking by making S turns while it was sliding on the ice. The Highlander's control was perfect.
One of our test vehicles was fitted with Toyo A20 Open Country all-season tires, P245/55R19, not even snow tires, wrapped around handsome 10-spoke 19-inch alloy wheels. We recommend winter tires for the best traction on snow.
We hung it out in icy curves (at relatively slow speeds), and the stability control kept the Highlander true to its intended path. What a wonderful feeling of security on those icy roads: whether accelerating uphill, hard braking, or around curves, the Highlander covered us.
We also drove a V6 Highlander Limited, on the same icy roads a few days later, and it too took everything in stride. It used similar 19-inch Bridgestone tires, the Dueler H/L brand, not the winter Blizzak tires. The anti-lock brakes in the Limited were rougher than on the Hybrid, with more noise and pedal vibration. At one point sliding down a steep icy hill at 3-4 mph, ABS fully engaged, we tried to steer away from the snow-covered ditch at the side of the road, but the front wheels continued to slide and not steer; apparently there is a limit, when they say you can steer with ABS engaged. So we tapped the DAC button by the shift lever, and Downhill Assist Control kicked in. It's standard equipment on AWD models. We totally took our feet off the pedals, the steering in the front wheels came back, and we maintained that safe crawl to the bottom of the icy hill. Look Ma, no feet.
The Hybrid powertrain, called Hybrid Synergy Drive, mates a 3.5-liter V6 with three electric motors for a total of 280 horsepower. The powertrain is a little rougher than the standard V6 but is still quite refined. The transmission is a continuously variable automatic that constantly adjusts gearing ratios instead of changing gears.
Like all hybrids, when you first turn the key, nothing seems to happen. But it is ready and operational. The gas engine just doesn't start until it's needed. However for us it was needed virtually all the time. We drove our Hybrid around town in cold weather for a week, and the gas engine was needed to power the accessories. Stopped at a red light, at the drive-through window at the bank, anywhere: the gas engine kept running. We averaged 18.2 miles per gallon for that week, rarely reaching 35 mph. If the EPA gets 28 mpg in the city, their city must include a lot of 25-mph zones with no stoplights.
Under the right conditions (full battery charge, warm day, not using heat or air conditioning), you can press the EV button and drive the Hybrid up to two miles at less than 25 mph on electric power only. For example, looking for a parking space at the mall. The Highlander Hybrid is the first Toyota hybrid to offer an EV button in the U.S. We suggest using it around town, more than we apparently should have.
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 more engine compression to slow the vehicle when the driver's foot is off the throttle, while recharging the battery pack more aggressively.
The Toyota Highlander offers generous room for people and cargo, a choice of powertrains, ample performance and decent fuel mileage. The V6 engine with 5-speed automatic transmission is extremely smooth, and with fuel mileage nearly as good as the four-cylinder at a price only $1155 more, it's good value. The Hybrid model offers a proven powertrain with increased fuel mileage and lower emissions. With Toyota's reputation for reliability and resale value, the Highlander makes sense for active families.
Sam Moses reported from Oregon's Columbia River Gorge; Kirk Bell reported from Chicago.
Toyota Highlander ($28,090); Highlander SE ($32,695); Highlander V6 ($29,245); Highlander SE V6 ($33,850); Highlander Limited V6 ($35,595); Highlander AWD V6 ($30,695); Highlander SE AWD V6 ($35,300); Highlander Limited AWD V6 ($37,045); Highlander Hybrid ($38,140); Highlander Hybrid Limited ($43,795).
Fukuoka, Japan; Princeton, Indiana.
Options As Tested
Navigation System ($2,650) includes JBL premium audio system with nine speakers, 4CD, compass, Bluetooth hands-free cell phone capability; tow prep package ($220); all-weather floor mats ($245); roof rail crossbars ($229).
Toyota Highlander Limited 4WD ($37,045).
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