Although the 2009 Toyota Highlander is virtually unchanged from the 2008 version, the new addition in the lineup is a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine available on base models (the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is covered in a separate review). Other than the available new powerplant, the 2009 Toyota Highlander is still the same very capable, though also thoroughly uninspiring, SUV that bowed last year.
The 2009 Toyota Highlander is available with two engine choices. Car and Driver reports that base Toyota Highlander models come standard with "a new 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine with 187 horsepower," while Edmunds states that "a 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V6" that "delivers strong, smooth acceleration in any situation" is also available. ConsumerGuide adds that "models with the conventional V-6 engine have good all-around power," but reviews read by TheCarConnection.com indicate the four-cylinder will deliver significantly worse acceleration and passing ability. Although no publications have yet tested the four-cylinder, Car and Driver reviewers "don't expect it to move the roughly 4000-pound Highlander with any real gusto" and claim that "the V-6 is far better suited to hauling around a Highlander loaded to the gills with occupants and their stuff."
Each of the two engines available for the 2009 Toyota Highlander lineup comes with its own unique transmission. ConsumerGuide reports that "the four-cylinder pairs with a six-speed automatic transmission, while V-6 versions use a five-speed automatic." The extra gear for the four-cylinder won't help it overcome the significant power disparity between it and the V-6, but it does help improve fuel economy. In addition to the gearing options, Car and Driver says "the Highlander is available with front-wheel drive or with automatic four-wheel drive," though the four-wheel drive "is available only with the V-6 and adds nearly 200 pounds and roughly $1,500 to the price."
Fuel economy is almost always a sore spot when it comes to SUVs, and despite some improvements over the first-generation Toyota Highlander, the V-6-equipped 2009 Toyota Highlander still can't break the 20-mpg barrier in city driving. The EPA estimates that V-6 Toyota Highlanders with front-wheel drive will get 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, while the AWD versions get 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. For the fuel-conscious who don't want to spring for the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Toyota's new four-cylinder option "could get an extra 3 to 5 mpg," according to Car and Driver, though no official figures are available at this time.
The 2009 Toyota Highlander offers up competent—though not exciting—driving characteristics. While many reviews read by TheCarConnection.com deride the boring driving experience behind the wheel of the Toyota Highlander, Edmunds appreciates that the Highlander is "still easier to drive than most midsize SUVs, even those of the crossover variety." Edmunds adds that the "steering is light enough to make it easy to maneuver in tight spaces," but Cars.com reviewers can't stand the "lifeless, artificial steering feel." The Detroit News effectively sums up the professional opinions by citing the Highlander's "solid, but not precise, feel."
When it comes to ride comfort, few SUVs can match the 2009 Toyota Highlander. ConsumerGuide reviewers report that the ride quality is "among the best in class." In addition to its comfort virtues, ConsumerGuide praises the Toyota Highlander because "the brake-pedal feel is firm and progressive." Popular Mechanics agrees, calling the brakes "precise and quick."