In the world of plain boxes, boxes don’t come any plainer than the Toyota Highlander. Its styling wasn’t so much drawn as cleaved; it looks like a block of Wisconsin cheddar with four wheels attached and a Toyota emblem stuck on the front. In its base, four-cylinder, two-wheel drive form, the Highlander is unpretentious enough to, by definition, lack the pretense necessary to qualify a car-based vehicle as an SUV. The base Highlander, no matter what Toyota, its dealers or anyone else says, is in fact a station wagon.
A really fine, useable, wholly sensible station wagon.
Big, but not too big
Sitting on a 106.9-inch wheelbase and stretching out 184.4 inches in overall length, the Highlander isn’t particularly large. Sure it’s more than eight inches shorter overall than Toyota’s Land Cruiser and 19.5 inches shorter than the behemoth Sequoia, but its wheelbase is also 0.2 inches shorter than the Camry’s and it’s 4.8 inches shorter overall than that sedan. The Highlander is tall, however. Not counting roof rails, the two-wheel drive Highlander is a full 65.7-inches tall – that’s 7.8 inches loftier than the basic Camry. And that height translates into interior volume.
The Camry’s slightly longer wheelbase leaves it with incremental advantages over the Highlander in front and rear leg room, but the Highlander has it covered in head room and swamps it in cargo capacity. The Camry’s trunk is rated at just 16.7 cubic feet, while the Highlander has 38.5 cubes behind its rear seat when it’s up; it swells to 81.4 cubic feet when that seat is folded forward. The Highlander can’t match the humongous Sequoia’s 128.1 cubic feet of total cargo volume, but at 3485 pounds the base Highlander is 1585 pounds lighter than a base Sequoia SR5 (and just 189 pounds more than a base Camry LE).
2002 Toyota Highlander
That the Highlander is so close to the Camry in weight and general dimensions indicates how closely related the two vehicles are. That relationship extends to the powertrains where the two share both base four- and optional six-cylinder engines.
The base 2.4-liter, DOHC, 16-valve is an all-aluminum unit also used in the redesigned 2002 Camry and featuring Toyota’s VVT-i electronic variable valve timing system. Rated at 157 horsepower in the Camry, aboard the Highlander it carries two horsepower less (exhaust and intake system differences account for the slight drop in output). In the Highlander the only transmission offered is a four-speed automatic transmission.
What’s shocking about the Highlander with the four-cylinder engine aboard is how completely satisfactory the combination is. The new four is stunningly smooth, relatively quiet and all 163 pound-feet of its peak torque seem available from just off idle until redline. Instrumented testing would surely show that the four-cylinder Highlander is far less than quick, but in daily part-throttle operation it keeps up with traffic, cruises unobtrusively on the freeway and handles loads with aplomb. And on top of that, it carries a thoroughly impressive EPA fuel economy rating of 22 in the city and 27 on the highway. Is the four thrilling? No way. A solid everyday companion for people who care about things like initial purchase price and fuel economy more than breathtaking acceleration and nth-degree mechanical refinement? Yup.
The Highlander’s optional 3.0-liter, DOHC, 24-valve V-6 gets the VVT-i system and so it makes 220 horsepower (the same as the Sienna minivan) instead of 192 horses available from the otherwise almost identical V-6 in the Camry. Yes, the V-6 is smoother than four (heck, it’s smoother than most dairy products) and, with 65 more horsepower, of course it’s quicker. But in the base Highlander it bumps the sticker price up $1,451 and drops EPA-rated fuel economy down to 19 in the city and 23 on the highway. In the real world, saving $1,451 at purchase and saving money on fuel throughout the vehicle’s life matter.
2002 Toyota Highlander
Return of the Camry wagon
With MacPherson struts up front and another set of struts with links in the back, the Highlander underside is just as conventional, though not identical, to the Camry’s. And that results in ride motions, handling and reflexes that are, well, very Camry-like.
In two-wheel-drive base form the Highlander feels light and precise in its reactions to driver input. The rack-and-pinion steering isn’t particularly quick, but it offers decent feedback through the plastic-covered wheel and it’s markedly better than the four-wheel-drive Highlander Limited V-6 we’ve driven. Push the Highlander into corners hard and the tires begin a mild squeal that seems to say, “For what bizarre reason are you driving this vehicle this hard?” Understeer is, as it is on the Camry on most front-drivers, what emerges when the adhesion limits of standard P225/70R16 all-season radials (steel wheels are standard, alloy wheels almost a mandatory option) have been exceeded.
The relentless Camryness continues inside the Highlander. The interior is an amalgam of Camry and Lexus RX300 design cues, ergonomics and surface textures. Instrumentation sits within three circular gauges sunk into the dash and the shifter extends down from the dash in a very RX300ish manner. All the switches are familiar Toyota pieces and fall to hand easily and intuitively. The seats are bolt upright, big enough to accommodate even the widest hiney, lack much contouring and are covered in just-short-of-Kevlar cloth. This is the sort of high-quality interior built to withstand everything from toddler spillage through teenage malicious abuse without turning into a rotting mess. And should those kids need protection, side-impact airbags built into the front seats are an available option in addition to the mandated front-impact airbags.
With big door openings and just 6.9 inches of ground clearance, the Highlander is easy to get in and out of, and one of the few “five-passenger” vehicles that actually feels like it could accommodate five passengers. In the way it drives, the way it takes passengers, and the way it handles cargo the Highlander feels much more like the much -beloved ’93 to ’96 Camry wagon (the last Camry wagon sold in the U.S.) than it does like a “real” SUV like Toyota’s own 4Runner, Land Cruiser or Sequoia.
2002 Toyota Highlander
Ultimately, the Highlander is actually better than a true Camry wagon would be, since the Highlander isn’t burdened with carrying over the sedan’s sheetmetal or window glass. Think of it as a Camry wagon the way a Camry wagon would be built if they didn’t have to build a Camry sedan too.
Lots of value, not much SUV
Throw all the available options on a V-6, 4x4 Highlander Limited and the price will bounce up over $35,000. But the four-cylinder, 4x2 base Highlander starts at less than $24,000 and a little restraint shown in ordering options (A/C and power windows are already standard) will produce a decent, comfortable machine wearing 16-inch alloy wheels at somewhere near $27,000–$28,000 if you can’t live without the moonroof. That’s a solid value in a world where it’ll take $30,000 to find a competitive SUV of comparable everyday utility and quality.
With two-wheel drive and sparse ground clearance, the bass Highlander should only venture off-road only if there’s something big and inevitable on the road in front of it on the road. Again this isn’t really an SUV, but an outstanding station wagon with plausible deniability. Even if you know that it’s a station wagon, you can tell everyone it’s an SUV and they’ll believe you.
Base price: $23,880; as tested, $27,980
Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 145 hp
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 184.4 x 71.9 x 65.7 in
Wheelbase: 106.9 in
Curb weight: 3485 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 22/27 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front air bags; optional side-impact air bags, front safety belt pretensioners, four-wheel ABS, daytime running lights, rear window wiper/washer
Major standard equipment: variable intermittent wipers, rear defogger, air conditioning, front reading lights, dual vanity mirrors, cargo area light, AM/FM cassette CD stereo, power door locks, power windows, power mirrors, cruise control, power steering, tilt-adjustable steering wheel, front and rear cupholders, front and rear door pockets, front and cargo area 12-volt power outlet, front console with storage
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles