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At the midway point in its lifespan, the 2011 Toyota Highlander is ready for some change. Not radical change, mind you--it's a Toyota, after all, and a best-selling seven-seat crossover to boot. For the errand-addled shoppers who need big, benign vehicles like the Highlanders, a light update to the front end and a mild upgrade to the Hybrid's powertrain are enough to digest in one year, anyway. They're already late for soccer practice.
The Highlander was new for the 2008 model year, and when it arrived in showrooms, it had clearly stepped up a size class, going from the ranks of the Ford Edge into a whole other realm filled with vehicles like the Honda Pilot, the Mazda CX-9, and the Chevrolet Traverse. In that set, the Highlander was, and is, one of the more anonymous entrants. It's rounded and curvy, but not voluptuous--although the new Venza-inspired front end is a smart step in a more stylish direction. The cabin feels better than it looks: it's not particularly stylish, either, but it works.
The Highlander's base four-cylinder churns out 187 horsepower, and with front-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic, it's just adequate when toting more than a person or two. Fuel economy is decent, not stellar. The same is true of the much more lusty 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 Highlander--or would be true if the V-6's five-speed automatic didn't drain so much zest out of it. EPA ratings are mid-pack for all Highlanders save for the Hybrid model, which gets a boost from 3.3 liters of engine displacement to 3.5 liters this year. As a result, net horsepower rises to 280 hp, and fuel economy bumps up to 28/28 mpg, quite good for the class, if you can achieve it with a careful right foot.
None of the Highlanders are particularly exciting to drive. In particular, the base version is quite softly spring, and on all the electric power steering offers zero feedback. The optional four-wheel-drive system does give it a chance at slogging through a muddy driveway, deep snow, or 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.
As big as it seems, the Highlander makes good use of its space. Even bigger adults will fit in the second row--and that seat has a clever middle seat that stows inside the front console when not needed, leaving a walk-through to the third-row seat. No adult will want to sit in that third row for more than a few miles, but the space is large enough for children to feel comfortable.
The Highlander hasn't yet been rated under the new crash-test scoring system introduced this year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)--which has updated its criteria, too--says the Toyota Highlander earns its highest possible rating of "good" in every test conducted, and thus gets a Top Safety Pick award.The non-Hybrid Highlander offers three trim levels: base, SE, and Limited. All have cruise control, power features, and this year, a newly standard third-row seat. The Sport model adds a 3.5-inch multifunction display in the instrument panel, satellite radio and a USB port. The Limited picks up leather-trimmed power seats. On Hybrids, the base and Limited trims apply. Options include various sound systems, a power moonroof, a navigation system, a power tailgate, and a host of other convenience and luxury fittings.