- Strong acceleration
- Impressive fuel economy
- Quiet ride and powertrain
- Clever second-row seat arrangement
- Suspension is too soft for most tastes
- Electric steering lacks feedback
- Optional third-row seat is cramped
- Traction control can't be turned off
The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid sticks with the same formula that has worked so well for the 2008 Highlander hybrid—a spacious, feature-laden cabin and very efficient full-hybrid powertrain that lends serious environmental credentials to anyone behind the wheel.
The Toyota Highlander was completely redesigned for 2008 and grew a full size larger than the previous version. Its styling grows even more rounded but less distinctive, and while the interior feels like a quality piece, it's not a style standout either.
Toyota makes great use of the added space inside the 2009 Highlander. Two rows of seats are standard, but a three-row arrangement is optional. American-sized adults can fit just fine in the second row, especially when the second-row room proved ample for American-sized men, especially when the standard rear bench seat was configured like individual buckets. The second-row arrangement is more versatile than is typical for mid-size utility vehicles. A Center Stow Seat provides a spot for a third (small) behind, but when stowed (an action that takes less than 15 seconds) in a rattle-free cubby under the front console, the space between the outboard bucket seats is wide enough to provide access to the two-person foldable third-row bench. While an adult wouldn't want to be in the third row for more than a few miles, the space is plenty large for the kids that will be crawling back there for their ride to soccer.
While we’re still big fans of the smooth, torquey 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6, a new 187-horsepower, 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is now standard on the base models of the 2009 Toyota Highlander and provides acceptable performance with better fuel economy, even if it isn’t quite as silky and responsive. A five-speed automatic handles shifting duties, but even though Toyota calls it the "Super Intelligent Electronically Controlled Transmission," its lethargic downshifts, even in manual mode, drains some zest out of the big V-6.
The 2009 Toyota Highlander certainly won’t appeal to driving enthusiasts; dynamically, the Sport makes an effort, but base and Limited editions are too softly sprung to be interesting on a twisty road. Plus, the electric steering offers zero feedback, and the springs and dampers feel mushy—though not queasy like the cars of yore.
Off-road ability isn’t expected from carlike utility vehicles such as the Highlander, but with its more traditional appearance comes modest trail chops. With 8.1 inches of ground clearance and available full-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.
2009 Toyota Highlander
The 2009 Toyota Highlander very functional, but not particularly stylish.
The 2009 Toyota Highlander is virtually indistinguishable from last year's model, which was the first year of the second-generation Toyota Highlander. Reviews read by TheCarConnection.com prove that the design is a bit uninspiring, but like most Toyota models, it certainly won't offend.
For the 2008 introduction of the new Toyota Highlander, Edmunds says that Toyota gave its mid-size SUV a "top-to-bottom redesign." MyRide.com points out the biggest change: "a sleeker skin that also makes it easy to distinguish this new Highlander from the boxier outgoing model."
The 2009 Toyota Highlander lineup is available in three trims, which ConsumerGuide cites as "Base, Sport, [and] Limited." Kelley Blue Book reviewers are among the most positive regarding the 2009 Toyota Highlander's exterior, reporting that "it is an attractive vehicle that is designed more to blend into the automotive landscape than stand out from it." Popular Mechanics, however, feels that the Toyota 2009 Highlander is less attractive, claiming it "[resembles] a minivan." Car and Driver reviewers find that the new Toyota Highlander "features more aggressive and muscular styling," though that's not saying much in light of the ultra-conservative styling of the first-generation Toyota Highlander.
The Toyota Highlander's interior is better received than the interior, considering that most reviewers heaped compliments upon the interior styling. Edmunds appreciates that "the control layout remains simple and easy to understand," while ConsumerGuide raves about the "large, easy-to-read gauges." Kelley Blue Book reviewers are impressed by how the 2009 Toyota Highlander's interior "is at once conservative, functional and attractive." Popular Mechanics reviewers feel "the layout and detail of the instrument panel tilt toward the functional, with larger dials and clear labeling of controls. We liked the added bonus of the information window that sits atop the IP, relating bits of info on MPG, tire pressure, compass reading, ambient temperature, back-up camera, clock and more." Not everyone sees the Toyota Highlander in such a positive light, however; Cars.com says that "SUVs like the Mazda CX-9 and Hyundai Veracruz boast some impressively upscale interiors. In comparison, Toyota falls a bit short," even though "the chrome accents and electroluminescent gauges look terrific."
2009 Toyota Highlander
The V-6-equipped 2009 Toyota Highlander pulls like an SUV should, but the poor steering feel means that the Highlander is far from invigorating.
Although the 2009 Toyota Highlander is virtually unchanged from the 2008 version, the new addition in the lineup is a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine available on base models (the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is covered in a separate review). Other than the available new powerplant, the 2009 Toyota Highlander is still the same very capable, though also thoroughly uninspiring, SUV that bowed last year.
The 2009 Toyota Highlander is available with two engine choices. Car and Driver reports that base Toyota Highlander models come standard with "a new 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine with 187 horsepower," while Edmunds states that "a 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V6" that "delivers strong, smooth acceleration in any situation" is also available. ConsumerGuide adds that "models with the conventional V-6 engine have good all-around power," but reviews read by TheCarConnection.com indicate the four-cylinder will deliver significantly worse acceleration and passing ability. Although no publications have yet tested the four-cylinder, Car and Driver reviewers "don't expect it to move the roughly 4000-pound Highlander with any real gusto" and claim that "the V-6 is far better suited to hauling around a Highlander loaded to the gills with occupants and their stuff."
Each of the two engines available for the 2009 Toyota Highlander lineup comes with its own unique transmission. ConsumerGuide reports that "the four-cylinder pairs with a six-speed automatic transmission, while V-6 versions use a five-speed automatic." The extra gear for the four-cylinder won't help it overcome the significant power disparity between it and the V-6, but it does help improve fuel economy. In addition to the gearing options, Car and Driver says "the Highlander is available with front-wheel drive or with automatic four-wheel drive," though the four-wheel drive "is available only with the V-6 and adds nearly 200 pounds and roughly $1,500 to the price."
Fuel economy is almost always a sore spot when it comes to SUVs, and despite some improvements over the first-generation Toyota Highlander, the V-6-equipped 2009 Toyota Highlander still can't break the 20-mpg barrier in city driving. The EPA estimates that V-6 Toyota Highlanders with front-wheel drive will get 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, while the AWD versions get 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. For the fuel-conscious who don't want to spring for the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Toyota's new four-cylinder option "could get an extra 3 to 5 mpg," according to Car and Driver, though no official figures are available at this time.
The 2009 Toyota Highlander offers up competent—though not exciting—driving characteristics. While many reviews read by TheCarConnection.com deride the boring driving experience behind the wheel of the Toyota Highlander, Edmunds appreciates that the Highlander is "still easier to drive than most midsize SUVs, even those of the crossover variety." Edmunds adds that the "steering is light enough to make it easy to maneuver in tight spaces," but Cars.com reviewers can't stand the "lifeless, artificial steering feel." The Detroit News effectively sums up the professional opinions by citing the Highlander's "solid, but not precise, feel."
When it comes to ride comfort, few SUVs can match the 2009 Toyota Highlander. ConsumerGuide reviewers report that the ride quality is "among the best in class." In addition to its comfort virtues, ConsumerGuide praises the Toyota Highlander because "the brake-pedal feel is firm and progressive." Popular Mechanics agrees, calling the brakes "precise and quick."
2009 Toyota Highlander
Comfort & Quality
A few minor complaints about materials aren't enough to keep the 2009 Toyota Highlander from scoring very high here, thanks to its versatility and space.
The 2009 Toyota Highlander earns rave reviews for its spacious, comfortable interior and good construction inside—though reviewers’ comments conflict on the apparent quality of the materials used.
ConsumerGuide reviewers provide the perfect introduction for the 2009 Toyota Highlander, remarking that "Highlander is a competent, refined, family focused SUV that offers great practicality, cargo and passenger versatility, and evident quality."
The first thing that passengers in the Toyota 2009 Highlander will notice is the comfortable seating arrangement within the cabin. Cars.com says the 2009 Toyota Highlander will "accommodate up to seven" with its standard three rows of seats, but "you can drop the third row in order to save a little cash, reducing seating capacity to five." ConsumerGuide proclaims that the front seats "are nicely supportive, and there's ample headroom and legroom" for tall occupants. Kelley Blue Book says "the reclining second-row seats also slide 4.7-inches fore-aft and offer a lift-out middle seat cushion for pass-through into the rear row." Edmunds reviewers are particularly impressed by that innovative middle seat, "which allows owners to easily stow the center section of the 40/20/40 second-row bench seat, thus providing walk-through access to the third row. The '20' section simply slides into its own cubby under the front-seat center console." Speaking of the rear third row, Car and Driver reports that "the latest Highlander's third row is spacious enough for smaller adults to use."
In addition to the impressive occupant space, the 2009 Toyota Highlander offers a large amount of interior storage. Edmunds says the "center console between the front seats has four cupholders and a wide storage bin. Forget laptops; the glove box could fit a small desktop computer." ConsumerGuide is impressed by the "top-notch small item storage" inside the 2009 Toyota Highlander, although "there's only grocery-bag space behind the third-row seat." However, the third row does fold easily to create a much larger space for gear in the back of the Toyota 2009 Highlander.
Like most Toyota vehicles, the 2009 Toyota Highlander has generally high-quality materials and construction. ConsumerGuide declares that the new Highlander Toyota has "above-average-grade plastics and comfortable cloth upholstery," although they point out "the fuzzy headliner feels cheap." MyRide.com agrees, commenting that the "interior materials and craftsmanship are generally of a high-quality, though we were a bit disappointed by the amount of hard plastic on the dash." Taking a negative approach is Cars.com, which says interior quality on the 2009 Toyota Highlander suffers because "most areas are trimmed in hard plastics," and "the textures lack the appeal of the stuff in several competitors."
Solid construction, a Toyota hallmark, has served to create a very serene driving environment inside the 2009 Toyota Highlander. ConsumerGuide finds few problems with noise levels, claiming that the Toyota Highlander is "generally quiet, though wind and road noise are noticed at highway speeds." MyRide.com reviewers agree, reporting that the Highlander Toyota has "an interior that's very nearly as quiet as the best luxury crossovers we've driven."
2009 Toyota Highlander
Top-notch safety complements the 2009 Toyota Highlander’s family practicality.
It's hard to perform much better in crash tests than the 2009 Toyota Highlander. The Highlander's safety credentials don't end there, however, since it also comes equipped with a wide range of standard safety equipment.
In both NHTSA and IIHS tests, the 2009 Toyota Highlander emerges as one of the safest vehicles on the road today. The Toyota Highlander 2009 earns perfect five-star ratings from NHTSA in three of four impact tests. The only test in which it doesn't earn five stars, for front passenger impact, results in a still-impressive four-star rating. In IIHS tests, the Toyota Highlander garners the highest possible rating, "good," in every test conducted, and it meets all the criteria required of a Top Safety Pick.
Regarding safety features, Cars.com reports that the 2009 Toyota Highlander comes "standard with four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system." Edmunds adds that "all major safety equipment is standard," and ConsumerGuide says the equipment includes "curtain side airbags that cover all seating rows, front side airbags, and a driver knee airbag." Anyone who plans on taking their Toyota Highlander off-road will also be glad to hear that the 2009 Toyota Highlander AWD comes standard with "hill descent control," according to ConsumerGuide.
The 2009 Toyota Highlander is, in most regards, a safety standout. However, the one area where reviews read by TheCarConnection.com find fault with the Toyota Highlander is in terms of driver visibility. While ConsumerGuide says "forward visibility is good thanks to an elevated seating position," they add that "rear visibility is impeded by 2nd-row headrests and thick rear roof pillars."
2009 Toyota Highlander
The 2009 Toyota Highlander is suitably tech-drenched even by today's high standards.
Through its extensive research, TheCarConnection.com has discovered that the 2009 Toyota Highlander comes equipped with a wide range of very desirable features. What's more impressive is how many of those features are included as standard fare, especially on the higher trim levels. The 2009 Toyota Highlander is, in the words of Edmunds reviewers, "truly optimized for family use."
According to reviewers at Edmunds, the base version of the Toyota Highlander has "17-inch alloy wheels, privacy glass, a fold-flat third-row seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, air-conditioning, a CD stereo with an auxiliary input jack and full power accessories," all as standard. ConsumerGuide adds that Sport models get a "leather-wrapped steering wheel w/radio controls [and] 8-way power driver seat," while the Limited includes "dual-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery," and "AM/FM radio w/in-dash 6-disc CD/MP3 changer."
As with most vehicles, the really exciting features for the 2009 Toyota Highlander are available as options. Some of the more noteworthy choices include "a navigation system, JBL premium audio, a backseat DVD player, [and] a moonroof," according to Cars.com. For those looking to make a style statement, Car and Driver reports that Toyota offers "optional 19-inch wheels" for the 2009 Toyota Highlander. Kelley Blue Book rounds out the options list by noting that "multi-stage heated leather front seats" and a "power liftgate" are available, along with "Bluetooth phone connectivity."