New & Used Toyota Highlander: In Depth
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With seats for up to eight passengers and a choice of four-, six-cylinder and hybrid drivetrains, the Toyota Highlander is a great choice for families that wouldn't consider a minivan. Sized above the Toyota RAV4 and Venza crossovers, with nearly as much space as the Sienna minivan, the Highlander competes with vehicles like the Nissan Pathfinder, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, and Chevrolet Traverse.
MORE: Read our full review of the 2014 Toyota HighlanderThe Toyota Highlander first went on sale in the U.S. as a 2001 model. That original Highlander bore very plain styling, inside and out--hardly related to the related Camry sedan, more like the Subaru Forester in its boxy, upright stance. The compact overall length of the 2001-2007 Highlander had many advantages, though--among them a usefully tall interior space and great visibility. Relatively lightweight and equipped with a choice of either a 160-horsepower four-cylinder engine or a 220-hp V-6, the 2001-2003 Highlander also came with a choice of a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic on four-cylinder models; the V-6 version came only with the four-speed automatic. All-wheel drive was a popular option.
In the 2004 model year, the Highlander gained a new 3.3-liter V-6 with 230 hp, and a five-speed automatic. The four-cylinder powertrain was carried over. The Highlander also added a third-row seating option, giving it added flexibility over the five-passenger Ford Edge and Honda Pilot. A very slight makeover heralded these updated versions. In 2006, a mild-hybrid edition of the all-wheel-drive V-6 Highlander was introduced, but fuel economy benefits were slim. The system shared its electric batteries and motors with the Lexus RX400h, also new that year.
A new Toyota Highlander arrived for the 2008 model year, and it's something of a mixed blessing. Fans of the pragmatic original will find the new generation much larger but also much softer in driving feel, though also more impressively finished inside. The four-cylinder version makes 187 hp and is paired with a six-speed automatic, but it's no longer as refined as Toyota's small fours used to be. There's a big, automatic-shifted, 270-hp V-6 option--and it's better suited to the hefty new Highlander. Dynamically, neither version feels very connected or responsive--a problem aggravated with the latest Highlander Hybrid and its feeling-free electric power steering.
Initially, for this generation of Highlander, Toyota had planned to shift assembly from Japan to a new facility underway in Blue Springs, Mississippi. The downturn in the global economy and in car sales put that plan on hold; the plant, still unoccupied today, may one day manufacture the Prius hybrid. For 2008, Toyota imported Japanese-built Highlanders; as of the 2010 model year, Toyota now sources U.S. editions from its Indiana assembly plant.
Toyota extensively updated the Highlander for the 2011 model year with a standard third-row seat on non-Hybrid models, and a new front-end look that mimics the one on the Venza crossover. The Hybrid edition, which we've again driven this past year, saw its gas-engine displacement increased from 3.3 liters to 3.5 liters, which improved fuel economy while netting 10 additional horsepower, for a total of 280 hp.
For 2013, Toyota introduced new Display Audio systems with a USB port as well as Bluetooth audio and hands-free calling connectivity, even on base models. Then Toyota added a 2013 Highlander Plus model that slots between base and SE models, adding useful features such as a trip computer, cargo cover, roof rails, and second-row reading lamps.
For the new model year, the 2014 Toyota Highlander has received an entirely new look--one that's more assertive and truck-like than ever before. Still the largest crossover in the Toyota lineup, the Highlander doesn't grow all that much in any direction, but it looks much bigger as a result of the new sheetmetal. The new cabin's patterned after the one in the new RAV4, and Toyota's Entune brings with it a large LCD screen for the dash. Powertrains are carried over: there's a four-cylinder, a six-cylinder, and a hybrid V-6, all automatic. All-wheel drive is offered only on the V-6 models. Gas mileage is expected to stay the same. Inside, Toyota claims it's carved out more interior space, and has installed more features, but the hide-away center seat on the middle row has been deleted in favor of a plain bench seat or two captain's chairs.