Don't even consider the 2013 Toyota Highlander if driving excitement is a priority; you're not going to find it here. But if you have frugal ways; want capable, refined family performance; or want one of the greenest vehicles for a large family that doesn't flaunt it, there's a Highlander to fit the bill.
At the base level, the Highlander is powered by a 2.7-liter four-cylinder making 187 horsepower. It's coupled to a six-speed automatic drives the front wheels. This version of the Highlander is by no means quick or fast--expect 0-60 times of nearly ten seconds--but the price is relatively low; it's quite fuel-efficient; and the powertrain is relatively smooth despite taking its time.
We think most Highlander shoppers will be happiest with the V-6 version, which comes standard on the top-of-the-line Limited and is optional on the others; it more directly competes with the likes of the Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, and Ford Explorer, and has the confidence for passing or quick takeoffs, even with a full load. The 3.5-liter V-6 makes 270 horsepower and has plenty of accessible torque right in the low- and middle revs, where the five-speed automatic can make good use of them. We think the transmission's shifts could be quicker, and it's geared a little tall to prioritize gas mileage, but it's a relaxed highway cruiser and has a tow rating of up to 5,000 pounds.
The other choice, which costs about $10k more than the other models, is the Highlander Hybrid. It pairs a 3.5-liter V-6 with batteries and motors. It fares better in fuel economy while netting 10 additional horsepower, for a total of 280 net hp. This system, when you also get all-wheel drive, has a unique arrangement with two electric motors where the transmission would go, plus one more electric motor for the rear wheels.
Highlander Hybrids accelerate strongly, while they also offer a baked-in "EV" driving mode that allows you to coast on battery power alone for a handful of miles; but don't expect the Hybrid's all-wheel drive system to be a serious mud-churner; its motors may overheat and the software will shut down those motors down.
Gas-only Highlanders also can be ordered with four-wheel drive, too. 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.Across the entire lineup, the Highlander feels responsive enough, but is no driver's car, with the electric power steering offering little feedback and the suspension settings quite mushy. Larger, lower-profile wheels in the Limited model do give the Highlander a very slightly more engaging personality.