2012 Toyota Highlander Performance

7.0
Performance

Excitement is off the options list, but the Toyota Highlander comes in driving flavors that will appeal to frugal shoppers, Restoration Hardware buffs, and green-agenda drivers.

In its least expensive form, the Highlander derives acceptable power from a 2.7-liter four-cylinder with 187 horsepower, coupled to a six-speed automatic and powering the front wheels. The four isn't as smooth as it could be, and 0-60 mph times are just a tick or two under 10 seconds, but it's a relative bargain, since few other crossovers of its size even offer a four-cylinder drivetrain.

A soft suspension gives the Highlander predictable but unenthusiastic handling--but the V-6 is torquey.

Most buyers will spend up to the V-6 version, which competes directly with the likes of the Pilot, Traverse, and the new Explorer. It's a 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter six that's an option on models below the Limited, where it's standard. The six's torque is strong, the engine's smooth, and for towing, it provides the power to pull up to 5,000 pounds (with an add-on package). It's teamed with a five-speed automatic that could use an extra gear and some new software: we think its shifts are sluggish, and the gears are staged for gas mileage, not to extract maximum swiftness.

The Highlander Hybrid benefited from a power grab last year. The V-6 it pairs with batteries and motors grew from 3.3 liters to 3.5 liters, and counter to logic, maybe, it fares better in fuel economy while netting 10 additional horsepower, for a total of 280 net horses. The updated Hybrid'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.

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