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The 2012 Toyota Highlander is one of the best-selling vehicles with a third-row seat, and it's easy to see why. For a base price of well under $30,000, the very substantial Highlander offers lots of usable space, a comfortable ride, and most of the features busy parents want. And for some extra loot, the Hybrid model brings fuel economy figures approaching 30 mpg to this big utility vehicle.
The Highlander got just a little larger but clearly stepped up a size class when it was last redesigned, for 2008, moving up from the likes of the Ford Edge to true three-row crossovers such as the Chevrolet Traverse. But big and bland are the operative words; even in that the Highlander remains one of the more anonymous entrants. It has sleek, somewhat rounded sheetmetal, but it's a bit slab-sided and far from voluptuous. The front-end now fits in more clearly with Toyota's cars like the Camry and Venza, and its rear styling is much cleaner than the cluttered, spare-tire-adorned RAV4. Inside, the Highlander's cabin appointments appear downright drab in many of its guises; but it arguably feels better than it looks.
There are essentially three powertrains available on the 2012 Highlander. Its base four-cylinder produces 187 horsepower, and it does just fine with front-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic. While it can deal alright with heavier loads, too, fuel economy isn't stellar. The same is true of the much more lusty 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 Highlander--though the five-speed automatic seems to take some wind out of it. EPA ratings are all mid-pack for all Highlanders save for the Hybrid model. With an engine displacement now at 3.5 liters, and net horsepower 280 hp for the hybrid system, this model is the way to go for those who want something very big, yet green: fuel economy bumps up to 28/28 mpg.
As for the driving experience, don't expect much from it. All of the Highlander models tend to lull you into simply setting the cruise control and conversing with passengers; it's very softly sprung, and the electric power steering tends to be light—too much so, we've observed, on the highway. The optional four-wheel-drive system does give it a chance at slogging through a muddy driveway, deep snow, or rutted trails; Highlander Hybrid models get a different AWD system that uses electric motor power exclusively at the rear wheels.
The 2012 Highlander looks big from the outside, and it delivers on that impression inside. 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.
Those concerned about safety won't have anything to worry about here. The Highlander has been named a Top Safety Pick from the IIHS, with top scores in all categories, and it gets a mix of four- and five-star ratings in the tougher new federal tests. The roster of safety features is up to par in this class, too, with downhill assist control and hill-start assist on AWD models.
Three trim levels are offered for non-Hybrid Toyota Highlander models: base, SE, and Limited. All have cruise control, power features, and a third-row seat. A 3.5-inch multifunction display, satellite radio and USB port are added in the SE, while the Limited gets leather-trimmed power seats. Base and Limited trims apply to Highlander Hybrid models, with equipment roughly in synch. A power moonroof, a navigation system, sound-system upgrades, and a power tailgate are among the many option possibilities that can potentially drive the bottom-line price up by thousands.