2010 Toyota Highlander Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
March 8, 2010

The 2010 Toyota Highlander's appeal has grown even more massive with the addition of a fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine for base models.

TheCarConnection.com has driven the 2010 Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid to bring you this hands-on review that covers styling, performance, safety, utility, and features from on-the-road observations. TheCarConnection.com's editors also researched reviews from other sources to give you a comprehensive range of opinions from around the Web-and to help you decide which ones to trust. High Gear Media drove a manufacturer-provided Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid to produce this hands-on road test.

The Toyota Highlander was completely redesigned for 2008. In the process, it grew a full size larger than the previous version, from compact to mid-size, adding an optional third-row seat in the process. It's a popular family crossover, with the unusual feature of an available hybrid model, which only the compact Ford Escape and the luxury Lexus RX line offer. The base 2010 Highlander starts at $25,855, the 2010 Highlander Hybrid at $34,900, and the line competes with the Honda Pilot, the Chevrolet Traverse, the Mazda CX-9, and the (five-seat) Ford Edge.

Like many Toyotas of recent years, the styling of the 2010 Highlander and Highland Hybrid has grown more rounded but no more distinctive. With the exception of the space-age Prius hybrid, Toyota vehicles rarely stand out, and that includes the Highlander. While the interior is well built and offers all the amenities buyers expect, it's not particularly stylish-which seems to be just fine with hundreds of thousands of Highlander buyers.

The base engine on the 2010 Toyota Highlander is a new 187-horsepower, 2.7-liter four-cylinder paired to a six-speed automatic. It provides acceptable performance and decent fuel economy, although it's not quite as silky and responsive as the smooth, torquey 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 that's the optional engine. Toyota may call its five-speed automatic the "Super Intelligent Electronically Controlled Transmission," but its lethargic downshifts, even in manual mode, drains some zest out of the big V-6.

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The EPA rates the four-cylinder model, which is only available in front-wheel-drive form, at 20 mpg city, 27 mpg highway. The V-6 model returns 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway in front-wheel-drive trim, with the addition of mechanical all-wheel drive lowering it to 17 and 23 mpg, respectively.

The 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid shares a powertrain with the much pricier, ritzier 2010 Lexus RX 450h. It uses a specially tuned 3.3-liter V-6 paired with two electric motors where the transmission would go, plus one more electric motor that provides all-wheel drive by powering the rear wheels. The gasoline engine is smooth and refined, and when combining gasoline and electric torque, the hybrid system produces 270 horsepower. This gives the 2010 Highlander Hybrid quick V-8-style acceleration, even though it's larger and heavier than previous editions. The EPA rates the Highland Hybrid at 27 mpg city, 25 mpg highway.

The 2010 Highlander isn't particularly a driver's car. The Sport model makes an effort at good driving dynamics, but the base and Limited editions are too softly sprung to be interesting on a twisty road. The electric power steering offers zero feedback, and the springs and dampers feel mushy. With 8.1 inches of ground clearance and available all-time four-wheel drive (with a 50/50 torque split), the Highlander has the goods to get through a muddy driveway or deep snow, along with rutted trails. The Highlander Hybrid's all-wheel drive, however, which replaces mechanical drive with an electric motor to power the rear wheels, runs at least a theoretical risk of cutting out when it's most needed-since the control software will shut down the motor if it tries to draw too much power under extreme conditions.

Toyota makes good use of the space inside the 2010 Highlander. American-sized adults can fit just fine in the second row, especially when the rear bench seat is configured like individual buckets. The second-row arrangement is more versatile than is typical for mid-size utility vehicles, with a Center Stow Seat providing a spot for a third (small) person. When it is stowed in a rattle-free cubby under the front console (which takes less than 15 seconds), the space remaining between the outboard rear buckets is wide enough to provide access to the two-person foldable third-row bench. As for that third row, an adult wouldn't want to sit back there for more than a few miles, but the space is large enough for the kids who will ride in it to sports practice and other after-school activities.

In both NHTSA and IIHS tests, the 2010 Toyota Highlander ranks as one of the safest vehicles on the road. The 2010 Highlander earns perfect five-star ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in three of four impact tests: front driver, side driver, and side rear passenger impacts. The only test in which it doesn't earn five stars, for front passenger impact, results in a still-impressive four-star rating. Both front- and all-wheel-drive versions of the standard 2010 Highlander are rated four stars for rollover. In tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the Toyota Highlander garners the highest possible rating of "good" in every test conducted, although the IIHS did not test roof strength for the 2010 Toyota Highlander or Highlander Hybrid.

The 2010 Toyota Highlander comes equipped with a wide range of very desirable features. What's more impressive is how many of those features are included as standard fare-especially on the higher trim levels. The 2010 Toyota Highlander offers three trim levels: base, Sport, and Limited. The Sport model replaces the base 17-inch six-spoke alloy wheels with 19-inch five-spoke wheels, adds a fold-flat second-row seat and number of appearance features, and provides a 3.5-inch multifunction display in the instrument panel. The Limited picks up leather-trimmed power seats, various luxury appearance items inside and out, keyless entry, and a garage-door transceiver. Options include various sound systems, a power moonroof, a navigation system, a power tailgate, and a host of other convenience and luxury fittings.

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