As was the case with the RAV4, the Highlander's powertrains are carried over from the previous generation. One's an overlap: the 2.7-liter four-cylinder in base models is the only engine found in the smaller RAV4. Coupled to a six-speed automatic and offered only with front-wheel drive, the engine turns in 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque.
Toyota says only about five percent of you will be interested in this base version. It's a price leader, mostly. While the four-cylinder Highlander accelerates reasonably and smoothly, it's configured without many of the features and options found on the V-6 models--features like all-wheel drive. Gas mileage is barely better than the V-6, too.
Of those, the far more common version will be the standard 3.5-liter six, with 270 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque, also teamed up with a six-speed automatic and in this case, a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. It's not the quickest alternative in the class--a turbocharged Ford Flex will blow all four doors off--but the Highlander's V-6 a smooth, fairly quiet commodity, uncontroversial in every dimension, with gas mileage that's no penalty versus the four-cylinder.
The Highlander we'd choose least often is the Hybrid. Compiled from a 231-hp version of the 3.5-liter V-6 and a pair of motors in front and one in back, the Hybrid nets 280 hp and pairs with an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (eCVT). All versions have through-the-road all-wheel drive, which means the gas power goes to the front wheels, while electric power passes only to the rear wheels. Adding 350 pounds of mechanical gear drags on the Hybrid's acceleration, putting it in four-cylinder territory--while we've struggled to hit any of its estimated fuel-economy figures in previous-generation Highlanders.
The Highlander's driving dynamics were long overdue for attention. The last edition had copious body roll and uncommunicative steering. Toyota has reworked the front-strut and independent-rear suspension for better handling, and much of the Highlander's substantial body lean has been tuned out. Ride quality is no longer cushy, but it's on the correct side of firm for a vehicle in this size class, though we'd avoid the optional 19-inch wheels to keep road ruts in check.
The Highlander's firmer-feeling electric power steering can even be called pleasant. It's as if all the invisible handling screws have been tightened a few complete turns, without ruining its family-wagon fundamentals.The Highlander also can be rated to tow up to 5,000 pounds, so long as the non-Hybrid V-6 engine is installed; four-cylinder versions are rated at a puny 1,500 pounds.