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The Toyota Highlander works hard to satisfy the people-moving needs of families--and that's it. It doesn't try to be exciting or rugged. It handles most of the chores you'd assign to a minivan, even though it doesn't carry a pair of sliding side doors or their associated stigma. The Highlander simply rolls along safely, and comfortably, presenting a good value in base trim levels, steering a little too firmly into luxury territory when it's stuffed with hybrid components or too many features.
The 2013 Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid excel at people-toting--although they're neither quite as spacious nor quite as refined inside as some other three-row models like the Ford Flex or Chevrolet Traverse. A wide range of people--from busy moms to geriatric empty-nesters--are going to appreciate the Highlander's ride height, and the height of its seats. In front or in the second row, they're easy to climb into (or easy to lift a child into), and their wide, soft, and flat contours make getting in easy, even if they don't give you much side support in the corners (you're not going to racing around them anyhow). There's a swell amount of interior storage, and both the second and third rows fold forward flat. A cargo cover is included in all versions from the new Highlander Plus trim on up, and with the seats flipped forward there's up to 95.4 cubic feet of total capacity (or 94.1 in the Highlander Hybrid).
All that space needs a wrapper, and the Highlander's is just serviceable. Distinctive styling isn't its strength--its practical, spacious interior is. The current version of the Highlander, with us now since 2008, has looked a bit derivative--or at the very least, drawing a little too literally in equal parts from Toyota's car and truck sides and ending up with an appliance that lacks any real flair of its own. That said, there's a certain honest, straightforward charm about the Highlander, once you get past its lack of flair. There's little doubt the Highlander is unexciting on the outside; and for the most part the same rings true inside. The Highlander's well-built, well-equipped cabin puts all the controls where they need to be, without all that much heed to fashion.Highlander Hybrid models are distinguished from the gas-only Highlanders, only if you look close enough. Mostly, it's differently shaped fog lamps, some blue plastic and chrome trim that draw the visual line between the versions.
There are essentially three powertrains available on the 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. The Hybrid now has a 3.5-liter V-6 and makes 280 hp altogether, and it's the way to go for those who want something very big, yet green: fuel economy bumps up to 28/28 mpg.
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.
For 2013, Toyota has added a new Highlander Plus trim, between the Base and SE versions, while the Limited trim remains at the top of the lineup. Even base versions include a new display audio system with a USB port, Bluetooth audio streaming, and Bluetooth hands-free calling connectivity. Extra equipment on the Plus includes a multi-information display with trip computer; second-row reading lamps; a rear backup camera; black roof rails; a cargo cover; a lumbar adjustment for the driver's seat, and one-touch second-row seat folding. Spend up to the Highlander Limited, and the convenience scale tips with leather-trimmed power seats, navigation, 19-inch wheels, three-zone automatic climate control, dual power front seats, and the Center Stow Seat, as well as woodgrain trim. Major options include a JBL premium audio system and a rear-seat entertainment system.