New & Used Toyota Highlander: In Depth
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The Toyota Highlander first went on sale in the U.S. as a 2001 model. That original Highlander wore very plain styling inside and out. Though Camry-based underneath, the first Highlander bore more of a resemblance to the Subaru Forester, with its boxy, upright stance.
The Highlander is a fine alternative choice for families not interested in minivans. In fact, the Highlander offers nearly as much interior space as Toyota's Sienna minivan. The Highlander straddles the line between mid- and full-size crossover SUVs, is relatively maneuverable and offers comfortable seating for up to eight over its three rows. The Highlander is a rival for vehicles like the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, and Chevrolet Traverse.
The Highlander's choice of four-cylinder, six-cylinder, and hybrid drivetrains provides the most flexibility within the Toyota crossover family. The Highlander is at the top of that lineup, which also includes the Venza and RAV4.
MORE: Read our full review of the 2016 Toyota Highlander
The compact 2001–2007 Highlander had many advantages, though--among them a usefully tall interior space and plenty of glass for 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 this generation.
The Highlander received a new 3.3-liter V-6 for the 2004 model year; the engine made 230 hp and was paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. The Highlander's four-cylinder carried over from before. An optional third-row seat also was made available in 2004, providing more seating options than in competitors like the Honda Pilot and Ford Edge. The 2004 model also received slight aesthetic tweaks. For 2006, the big news was the addition of a mild-hybrid version of the V-6 all-wheel-drive Highlander; the system and its batteries and motors was shared with the Lexus RX 400h, which was also introduced that year. Both models offered only small improvements in fuel economy over their standard V-6 counterparts.
A new Toyota Highlander arrived for the 2008 model year, with changes that can be considered somewhat of a mixed blessing. Fans of the pragmatic original found the new generation much larger but also much softer in driving feel, though also more impressively finished inside. The four-cylinder version made 187 hp and was paired with a six-speed automatic, but it was no longer as refined as Toyota's small fours used to be. There was a big, automatic-only, 270-hp V-6 option, which was better suited to the hefty second-generation Highlander. Dynamically, neither version felt very connected or responsive--a problem aggravated by that generation's optional Hybrid powertrain and its feeling-free electric power steering.
Toyota had initially planned to shift assembly for this generation of Highlander 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 was repurposed for Corolla assembly after some delayed and changed plans. For 2008, Toyota imported Japanese-built Highlanders; as of the 2010 model year, Toyota is now sourcing 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 2011 Hybrid edition saw its gas-engine displacement increased from 3.3 liters to 3.5 liters, improving fuel economy while netting 10 additional horsepower, for a total of 280.
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. A 2013 Highlander Plus model was also added, slotting between base and SE models and adding useful features such as a trip computer, a cargo cover, roof rails, and second-row reading lamps.
The 2014 Toyota Highlander 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 didn't grow all that much in any direction, but it looks much bigger as a result of the new sheetmetal. The latest cabin is patterned after the one in the new RAV4, and Toyota's Entune brings with it a large LCD screen for the dash. Powertrains were carried over: there's a four-cylinder, a six-cylinder, and a hybrid V-6, all using automatic transmissions. All-wheel drive is offered only on the V-6 models. Gas mileage stayed the same on four-cylinder models but improved slightly with the V-6. Inside, Toyota managed to carve out more interior space and installed more features; one of our favorites was lost in the transition, however, as the hide-away center seat on the middle row was 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 in that department. 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 from 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.