- Four-cylinder, six-cylinder, or hybrid
- Second-row flexibility
- Solid connectivity features
- Good third-row access
- Powertrains running in place
- Will hybrid's real-world mileage vary?
- Dash can look busy
- New design is better, but by how much?
The 2015 Toyota Highlander offers a versatile and stylish alternative to the minivan, with available all-wheel drive and a thoughtfully designed interior.
The Toyota Highlander is one of the better three-row crossover SUVs on the market. Redesigned for 2014, it now looks more rugged than in previous editions--but it remains a car-based derivative of the family of vehicles that includes the Camry, Avalon, and Venza.
The Highlander is a more civil alternative to the Toyota 4Runner and a roomier option for those who find the RAV4 too small or need an extra row of seating. The Highlander continues to offer a very fuel-efficient hybrid model, as well as a base four-cylinder and optional V-6 in mainstream models.
For its third take, the big utility vehicle adopts a new look that owes some of its cues to a slew of competitive vehicles that occupy the grey area between crossovers and SUVs. We see some Dodge Durango and BMW X5 in the side view--and oddly enough, lots of Mitsubishi in the maw-like grille and the exaggerations around its wheel wells and at the sills. The cabin skips that ambiguity--it's all car, and it's directly inspired by the cockpit in the current RAV4. There's some Teutonic-themed dash action, and a pleasing jumble of lines and textures.
The Highlander's powertrains are carried over from the previous generation. The 2.7-liter four-cylinder in base models is the same engine found in the smaller RAV4. Coupled to a six-speed automatic and offered only with front-wheel drive, the engine generates in 185 horsepower and acceptable acceleration, but gets strained easily past legal highway speeds and loads of more than two passengers.
A 270-hp V-6 can be paired with a six-speed automatic and a choice of front- or all-wheel drive for good, not great, acceleration. With the V-6 engine is installed, the Highlander can be rated to tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Hybrid models mate the six with an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (eCVT) and through-the-road all-wheel drive for a net 280 hp that feels only adequate, thanks to an additional 350 pounds of curb weight.
The Highlander's driving dynamics were long overdue for attention, and the front-strut and independent-rear suspension are tuned for less lean and more ride firmness that doesn't lapse into Euro caricature. Electric power steering is now standard, and the all-wheel-drive system can ship around torque from front to rear when the vehicle's yaw sensors detect a more engaged driver. Eighteen-inch and 19-inch wheels will be on the order sheet, for those more adventurous types.
At 191.1 inches long, on a 109.8-inch wheelbase, the Highlander's stretched by three inches over the prior version, but none of it comes between the wheels. There's a half-inch more width, in what was already a fairly large vehicle--though one that's still noticeably smaller than competitors like the new Nissan Pathfinder.
The Highlander's cabin is much quieter and calmer than before. Thicker acoustic glass damps powertrain noise, and insulation in the floor blots out vibrations, suspension chatter, and tire squawk. A very useful tray now dominates the dashboard, allowing storage of small items like phones or purses--there's even a cord pass-through to connect electronics to the audio and power ports below.
Depending on options, the Highlander can seat up to eight passengers, just like a minivan. The front row on all models features bucket seats separated by a large tambour-covered console. In row two you'll find either a three-person split-bench seat with a recline feature, or a pair of captain's chairs. The previous generation's "Center Stow" seat is gone, replaced by a flip-up cupholder tray, but the second-row bench seat does slide to improve access to the reclining third-row seat, which has 4.3 inches more width for better comfort but a dearth of headroom. Toyota has also carved out more cargo space behind the three-person third-row bench.
The 2015 Highlander includes a total of eight airbags as well as a standard rearview camera. Hill-start assist is also included. The IIHS calls it a Top Safety Pick+, and it's earned a five-star overall score in federal testing (albeit not with five stars in all categories). Among the safety options are blind-spot monitors, a lane-departure warning system, and parking sensors. Visibility is better than in the previous generation, thanks to repositioned pillars and bigger rear-quarter windows.
All 2015 Toyota Highlanders come with an Entune connectivity kit, and Bluetooth to go with the usual power features and conveniences, all for a base price of just under $30,000 before destination.
Higher trim levels package in features like automatic high-beam headlights; heated and ventilated front seats; heated second-row captain's chairs; a JBL audio system; a navigation system; a power tailgate with a programmable lift height; and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with gaming inputs.
Highlander Limited crossovers approach $45,000; the Hybrid Limited peaks near $50,000.