The base engine on the 2010 Toyota Highlander is a new 187-horsepower, 2.7-liter four-cylinder paired to a six-speed automatic. It provides acceptable performance and decent fuel economy, although it's not quite as silky and responsive as the smooth, torquey 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 that's the optional engine. Toyota may call its five-speed automatic the "Super Intelligent Electronically Controlled Transmission," but its lethargic downshifts, even in manual mode, drains some zest out of the big V-6.
Car and Driver reviewers "don't expect [the four-cylinder] 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." 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.
ConsumerGuide also notes 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 improves fuel economy, though it doesn't make up for the power deficit. As well as transmission 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."
The EPA rates the four-cylinder model, which is only available in front-wheel-drive form, at 20 mpg city, 27 mpg highway. The V-6 model returns 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway in front-wheel-drive trim, with the addition of mechanical all-wheel drive lowering it to 17 and 23 mpg, respectively.
The 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid shares a powertrain with the much pricier, ritzier 2010 Lexus RX 450h. It uses a specially tuned 3.3-liter V-6 paired with two electric motors where the transmission would go, plus one more electric motor that provides all-wheel drive by powering the rear wheels. The gasoline engine is smooth and refined, and when combining gasoline and electric torque, the hybrid powertrain produces 270 horsepower. This gives the 2010 Highlander Hybrid quick V-8-style acceleration, even though it's larger and heavier than previous editions. The EPA rates the Highland Hybrid at 27 mpg city, 25 mpg highway.
The 2010 Highlander isn't particularly a driver's car. The Detroit News effectively sums up the professional opinions by citing the Highlander's "solid, but not precise, feel." While many reviews read by TheCarConnection.com deride the driving experience, Edmunds appreciates that the 2010 Highlander is "still easier to drive than most midsize SUVs, even those of the crossover variety." The Sport 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. 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."
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. The Highlander Hybrid's all-wheel drive, however, which replaces mechanical drive with an electric motor to power the rear wheels, runs 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.
When it comes to ride comfort, few SUVs can match the 2010 Toyota Highlander. ConsumerGuide reviewers report that the ride quality is "among the best in class." In addition to its comfort virtues, Popular Mechanics calls the brakes "precise and quick," and ConsumerGuide agrees, praising the Toyota Highlander because its " brake-pedal feel is firm and progressive."