Toyota’s Highlander just can’t seem to take itself too seriously. This is a car-based SUV that’s sorely lacking in the pretentiousness department. In fact, as we’ve said, it almost lacks enough pretenses to qualify as a crossover SUV at all. In its heart, the Highlander knows that it’s really a Camry wagon.
For 2004, Toyota has tweaked many of the Highlander’s details, added their instantly ubiquitous 3.3-liter V-6 engine to the menu, and bolted in a third row seat. But they still haven’t given it an attitude, and that’s just fine.
2004 Toyota Highlander
2004 Toyota Highlander
Incorporating Toyota’s VVT-i variable valve-timing system, throttle-by-wire and every other current engine technology, the all-aluminum, DOHC, 24-valve 3.3-liter V-6 is rated at 230 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of peak torque in the Highlander, just as it is in the Sienna. There’s nothing particularly aggressive about this engine except it’s puppy dog-like eagerness to be liked. It operates in virtual silence, delivers a seamless stream of torque and doesn’t use too much fuel. The transmission’s shifts are so subtle they’re almost inferential and the gearing seems just about perfectly chosen for suburban spelunking.
The new 3.3-liter V-6 makes the buttery, 220-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 offered in last year’s Highlander seem like so much fetid margarine and should produce performance about equivalent to the 3.5-liter V-6-powered Honda Pilot. But for those unwilling to step up to the V-6, the 160-horsepower (up five ponies from last year), 2.4-liter, DOHC, VVT-i four is still around as well. Mated to a four-speed automatic, the four is perfectly adequate for urban use in front-drive Highlanders, though it can be strained when asked to contend with an all-wheel-drive system and/or climb a long grade while fully laden. The four isn’t exciting, but it’s an alternative not offered by the Highlander’s direct competition.
Toyota, awesome marketing machine that it is, can sometime be tone deaf to the features buyers want. How it managed to put the Highlander on the market in 2001 without a third-row seat is just one example. But Toyota is also not above filling its omissions and is now offering a third-row seat as an option on the 2004 Highlander.
Just bolting a third-row seat to the existing floorpan still would have left the Highlander at a competitive disadvantage as buyers are now demanding that third-row seats fold flat into the floor just like the Honda Pilot’s. So Toyota redesigned the back half of the Highlander’s floor, reconfiguring the fuel tank into an eccentric shape in the process in order to accept a seat that burrows down just as snugly as the Pilot’s.
The Highlander’s third-row seat isn’t a place anyone bigger than a four year-old would want to spend a lot of time. Leg room is a dead heat between the Pilot and Highlander at 30.2-inches, but the Honda has the Toyota covered in virtually every other dimension back there, including a substantial 5.6-inch advantage in shoulder room and a massive 6.6-inch advantage in headroom. Virtually all of the Pilot’s additional rearmost seat room can be traced directly to the fact that it was designed from the outset to accommodate the third seat and therefore has, for instance, a roof that rises in the back to open up for the backbenchers. On the other hand, the Highlander’s roof has a drooping rake to it that squeezes down on top of the where rearward passengers heads should be. It also means the Pilot has – rather optimistically – seat belts enough for three passengers back there while the Highlander has them for two.
2004 Toyota Highlander
For a stopgap, the Highlander’s third row seat is pretty elegantly engineered and includes a reclining feature. But it’s still a stopgap.
Sheetmetal boxes don’t come much more squarely cut than the Highlander’s and that doesn’t change for 2004. However Toyota has given it a new grille, new bumpers, new headlights with “overlapping cylindrical elements,” new taillights that make it a box with some 21st-century flair. It’s generally better looking than the 2003 edition, but not that different.
Inside there’s some new fabrics used on the upholstery and new door and dash trim. There was nothing wrong with the Highlander’s interior before (though the shifter is a bit awkwardly located) and it’s only gotten better this year and a DVD rear entertainment system is now offered for parents who don’t want to sing with their kids during long trips. In fact the interior is so tastefully done and comfortable that some buyers made actually prefer its restrained styling to that of its more expensive brother, the RX330.
Base Highlanders ride on steel 16-inch wheels but most buyers will up for alloys in the same size and the line-topping Limiteds get 17-inch alloys. MacPherson struts hold up the Highlander at all four corners and produce a comfortable and controlled ride, if not the hunkered-down cornering of a sports machine. Should the driver do anything really dumb, there are stability control, traction control, ABS, brake assist, and electronic brake force distribution aboard to save the fool.
This is a quiet cruiser for those who want a Camry wagon with just enough SUVness to let them avoid the wagon stigma; don’t ask it to be what it isn’t designed to be.
Good enough for now?
The 2004 Highlander isn’t going to inspire much passion among its buyers, but it will coddle every one of them in comfort through years — nay, decades — of reasonable transportation duty. The extra power is nice, and the third-row seat will keep a few buyers from scurrying over to the Honda store, but this is fundamentally the same vehicle as it was before and that’s plenty good.
But it also makes one hungry for the next step in Toyota’s evolution of the crossover SUV into the perfect consumer product. Will they play catch up when they design the next Highlander? Or leap ahead of everyone else?
2004 Toyota Highlander V-6 4x4
Base Price: $27,390
Engine: 3.3-liter V-6, 230 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 184.6 x 71.9 x 68.3 in
Wheelbase: 106.9 in
Curb weight: 3935 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 18/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes
Major standard equipment: Cruise control, power windows and door locks, tilt steering wheel, center console
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles basic; five years/60,000 miles powertrain