With four-cylinder, V-6 and hybrid powertrains on tap, the Highlander caters to cheapskates (and we mean that in the best possible way), Pottery Barners and agenda-driven greens. What it doesn't do is excite any of those drivers.
The base Highlander powerplant is Toyota's 187-horsepower, 2.7-liter four-cylinder. It's paired to a six-speed automatic. On both the base and the Highlander SE crossovers, the four does its best to provide acceptable performance and decent fuel economy. It's far from silky-smooth, and it barely keeps acceleration to 60 mph under 10 seconds when you add more than two people to the mix.
Stepping into the Highlander V-6 reminds you why this is the default powertrain, for now, for the majority of seven-seat wagons. Toyota's 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 is standard on the Limited and optional on the lower trim levels--and it's a smooth, torquey piece, with all the strength needed to pull up to seven people (or to town up to 5,000 pounds, with an optional towing package). The five-speed automatic strapped to its back isn't so nice: Toyota may call its five-speed the "Super Intelligent Electronically Controlled Transmission," but its lethargic downshifts, even in manual mode, drains some zest out of the big V-6.
The Highlander Hybrid benefits from a power grab this year. And while the V-6 it pairs with batteries and motors grows from 3.3 liters to 3.5 liters, it fares better in fuel economy while netting 10 additional horsepower, for a total of 280 net horses. It's also fitted with the technology freak's version of all-wheel drive: two electric motors where the transmission would go, plus one more electric motor that provides all-wheel drive by powering the rear wheels. All these pieces knit together for V-8-style acceleration, with a baked-in "EV" driving mode that allows you to coast on battery power alone for a handful of miles. However, the Hybrid does run 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.
Gas-only Highlanders also can be ordered with four-wheel drive. 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.All told, even with the V-6's rippling torque, the Highlander is no driver's car. The SE 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.