At 191.1 inches long, on a 109.8-inch wheelbase, the Highlander's stretched by three inches over the prior version, but none of it comes between the wheels. There's a half-inch more width, in what was already a fairly large vehicle--though one that's still noticeably smaller than competitors like the new Nissan Pathfinder.
The Highlander can seat up to eight passengers. In front, the chairs are like many we've sat in recently: better in softer, plusher fabric than in their leather-wrapped cousins, especially when ventilation is factored in. As much as we love the cooling effect, the feature takes the place of some valuable padding. To get power adjustment on both front chairs, by the way, you'll have to spend for the priciest Limited edition.
Behind the front buckets, separated by a tambour-covered console almost big enough for a gym bag, the Highlander totes five or six. The second row's either a three-person split-bench seat with a recline feature, or a pair of captain's chairs. The recline function's a good thing for tall passengers--we had to set the seatback at a slight angle to create headroom under one Highlander's standard power sunroof.
We admit we'll miss the "Center Stow" seat Toyota has offered in the past Highlander. It had a section in the middle bench seat that tucked away into the console, creating a pass-through to the third row. There's a flip-up cupholder tray to fill the space left behind, between captain's chairs. The new seat's less functional in that way, but it does slide on a track for good adjustability.
It can either nibble away its own leg room or increase it, taking up space from the reclining third-row seat, which has 4.3 inches more width for better comfort but hardly any more headroom, rendering it a place for tweens and kids, and not many other people.
It's more critical that Toyota has carved out more space behind the third-row bench for cargo. The third row folds flat, and out of the way so the crossover can be loaded up: there's up to 13.8 cubic feet behind the third row, 42.3 behind the second row, and 83.7 behind the front two seats--enough for a set of bunk beds or a round of extreme couponing.
The desire to put a Highlander through those paces is diminished, though. With each generation it's become nicer, quieter, calmer, and the leap in this generation's more marked than the last. Thicker acoustic glass damps powertrain noise, and insulation in the floor blots out vibrations, suspension chatter, and tire squawk. The soft-touch materials on the dash are rich, the woodgrain convincing, the tray formed into the dash a truly useful spot for all kinds of small electronics. It's come a long way from the boxy, utility-drawer 2001 Highlander.