New & Used Toyota Highlander: In Depth
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The Toyota Highlander is a mid- to full-size crossover SUV, and a great choice for families that won't consider a minivan.
With seats for up to eight passengers and a choice of four-, six-cylinder and hybrid drivetrains, the Highlander tops out a Toyota crossover family that includes the Venza and RAV4. It offers up nearly as much interior space as the Sienna minivan.
The Highlander is a rival for vehicles like the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, 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.
Safety is often a concern of families buying crossovers like the Highlander, and Toyota doesn't disappoint. Eight airbags are included on all models, as is a rearview camera system. More advanced options include a lane-departure warning system, parking sensors, and blind-spot monitoring, some of which help it earn better scores rom the safety agencies. The IIHS has named the Highlander a Top Safety Pick+, its highest honor, while the NHTSA gives the model a five-star overall score, with only a demerit or two in the whole of the testing.
The Highlander has been carried over unchanged for the 2015 model year.