2011 Toyota Highlander Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
January 22, 2011

The very family-friendly Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid impress us with their space and versatility, but show no sign of enthusiasm.

At the midway point in its lifespan, the 2011 Toyota Highlander is ready for some change. Not radical change, mind you--it's a Toyota, after all, and a best-selling seven-seat crossover to boot. For the errand-addled shoppers who need big, benign vehicles like the Highlanders, a light update to the front end and a mild upgrade to the Hybrid's powertrain are enough to digest in one year, anyway. They're already late for soccer practice.

The Highlander was new for the 2008 model year, and when it arrived in showrooms, it had clearly stepped up a size class, going from the ranks of the Ford Edge into a whole other realm filled with vehicles like the Honda Pilot, the Mazda CX-9, and the Chevrolet Traverse. In that set, the Highlander was, and is, one of the more anonymous entrants. It's rounded and curvy, but not voluptuous--although the new Venza-inspired front end is a smart step in a more stylish direction. The cabin feels better than it looks: it's not particularly stylish, either, but it works.

The Highlander's base four-cylinder churns out 187 horsepower, and with front-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic, it's just adequate when toting more than a person or two. Fuel economy is decent, not stellar. The same is true of the much more lusty 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 Highlander--or would be true if the V-6's five-speed automatic didn't drain so much zest out of it. EPA ratings are mid-pack for all Highlanders save for the Hybrid model, which gets a boost from 3.3 liters of engine displacement to 3.5 liters this year. As a result, net horsepower rises to 280 hp, and fuel economy bumps up to 28/28 mpg, quite good for the class, if you can achieve it with a careful right foot.

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None of the Highlanders are particularly exciting to drive. In particular, the base version is quite softly spring, and on all the electric power steering offers zero feedback. The optional four-wheel-drive system does give it a chance at slogging through a muddy driveway, deep snow, or rutted trails. The Highlander Hybrid's all-wheel drive, however, which replaces mechanical drive with an electric motor to power the rear wheels, runs at least a theoretical risk of cutting out when it's most needed—since the control software will shut down the motor if it tries to draw too much power under extreme conditions.

As big as it seems, the Highlander makes good use of its space. Even bigger adults will fit in the second row--and that seat has a clever middle seat that stows inside the front console when not needed, leaving a walk-through to the third-row seat. No adult will want to sit in that third row for more than a few miles, but the space is large enough for children to feel comfortable.

The Highlander hasn't yet been rated under the new crash-test scoring system introduced this year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)--which has updated its criteria, too--says the Toyota Highlander earns its highest possible rating of "good" in every test conducted, and thus gets a Top Safety Pick award.

The non-Hybrid Highlander offers three trim levels: base, SE, and Limited. All have cruise control, power features, and this year, a newly standard third-row seat. The Sport model adds a 3.5-inch multifunction display in the instrument panel, satellite radio and a USB port. The Limited picks up leather-trimmed power seats. On Hybrids, the base and Limited trims apply. Options include various sound systems, a power moonroof, a navigation system, a power tailgate, and a host of other convenience and luxury fittings.
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2011 Toyota Highlander

Styling

They're evolving toward handsome--but for now, the 2011 Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid are more forgettable than most big crossovers.

The Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid have been getting some work done, as the polite euphemism goes. It's a mini-lift at best, since the Highlander's hood and fenders are reshaped, but no other metal has been touched. From the windshield back, it's almost indistinguishable from the 2008 models. With the exception of the space-age Prius hybrid, Toyota vehicles rarely stand out, and that includes the Highlander--but the new front end does help matters. It has some of the flair applied to the Venza wagon, and a few more angles and creases so spotters will be able to distinguish it from the 2010 models.

A few small distinctions divide the Hybrid models from the gas-only Highlanders, too. Mostly, it's differently shaped fog lamps, some blue plastic and chrome trim that draw the visual line between the different versions.

Call it unexciting--and you'd be right--but the Highlander's well-built, well-equipped cabin puts all the controls where they need to be. It's not particularly stylish, which seems to be just fine with hundreds of thousands of Highlander buyers. A simple binnacle covers the primary gauges, which are tucked into cut tubes of plastic, and Toyota's traditionally large buttons and knobs drive the climate and audio controls. A band of metallic plastic trim changes to woodgrain on the Limited version, which also dons leather for its seats, which warms up the interior immensely. A small LCD screen houses the rearview camera on some trim versions; a bigger LCD on models with navigation dominates the center stack, giving some relief to the Highlander's thick dash.

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2011 Toyota Highlander

Performance

Poor steering feel and a soft ride lead to uninspired handling in either the 2011 Toyota Highlander or its Hybrid edition.

With four-cylinder, V-6 and hybrid powertrains on tap, the Highlander caters to cheapskates (and we mean that in the best possible way), Pottery Barners and agenda-driven greens. What it doesn't do is excite any of those drivers.

The base Highlander powerplant is Toyota's 187-horsepower, 2.7-liter four-cylinder. It's paired to a six-speed automatic. On both the base and the Highlander SE crossovers, the four does its best to provide acceptable performance and decent fuel economy. It's far from silky-smooth, and it barely keeps acceleration to 60 mph under 10 seconds when you add more than two people to the mix.

Stepping into the Highlander V-6 reminds you why this is the default powertrain, for now, for the majority of seven-seat wagons. Toyota's  270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 is standard on the Limited and optional on the lower trim levels--and it's a smooth, torquey piece, with all the strength needed to pull up to seven people (or to town up to 5,000 pounds, with an optional towing package). The five-speed automatic strapped to its back isn't so nice: Toyota may call its five-speed the "Super Intelligent Electronically Controlled Transmission," but its lethargic downshifts, even in manual mode, drains some zest out of the big V-6.

The Highlander Hybrid benefits from a power grab this year. And while the V-6 it pairs with batteries and motors grows from 3.3 liters to 3.5 liters, it fares better in fuel economy while netting 10 additional horsepower, for a total of 280 net horses. It's also fitted with the technology freak's version of all-wheel drive: two electric motors where the transmission would go, plus one more electric motor that provides all-wheel drive by powering the rear wheels. All these pieces knit together for V-8-style acceleration, with a baked-in "EV" driving mode that allows you to coast on battery power alone for a handful of miles. However, the Hybrid does run at least a theoretical risk of cutting out when it's most needed—since the control software will shut down the motor if it tries to draw too much power under extreme conditions.

Gas-only Highlanders also can be ordered with four-wheel drive. With 8.1 inches of ground clearance and available all-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.

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All told, even with the V-6's rippling torque, the Highlander is no driver's car. The SE model makes an effort at good driving dynamics, but the base and Limited editions are too softly sprung to be interesting on a twisty road. The electric power steering offers zero feedback, and the springs and dampers feel mushy.
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2011 Toyota Highlander

Comfort & Quality

The 2010 Toyota Highlander ranks high in comfort and quality despite a few complaints about materials, thanks to its versatility and space.

Toyota makes good use of the space inside the Highlander, and fits it with three rows of seats surrounded by plenty of head and leg room.

In front, the Highlander's cloth buckets (leather as an option, or on Limited versions) are wide and flat, without much lateral support. Headroom soars, even with the optional sunroof. Even in the second row, American-sized adults will be able to spread out--or recline, since the seats tilt back almost five inches for a restful long-distance riding position. The middle row also has one of the Highlander's most thoughtful touches: dubbed the Center Stow Seat, this available middle seat is a fold-away perch that stows inside the front center console when it isn't needed, leaving behind a walk-through to the third-row seat.

Until this year, the Highlander could be ordered as a five-seat wagon. The third-row seat is now standard, and it's the usual mixed bag, compromised in the same ways other three-row vehicles are. No adult would want to sit on the vinyl-upholstered bench for very long; it's roomy enough for kids who can entertain themselves, and small adults who don't know any better.

Behind the seats, the Highlander offers a swell amount of interior storage. The center console is vast and deep, and bins on the doors will easily hold iPads and game controllers. And while the Highlander can only boast a narrow strip of cargo space behind the third-row seat, it can be folded flat to expose a deep, spacious cargo well that leaves room for five passengers plus a Tums-inducing visit to Costco.

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2011 Toyota Highlander

Safety

The 2010 Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid score at the top of the pack for safety, always an important selling point for family vehicles.

The Highlander comes with the usual standard safety features, and options for others, but its crash-test scores aren't all in yet.

In tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the Highlander garners the highest possible rating of "good" in every test conducted. Since it's also passed the new roof-crush standard added to the IIHS' checksheet this year, the 2011 Highlander earns the insurance industry-funded group's "Top Safety Pick" award, too.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has altered its star-rating system for 2011, too. As of this writing, the Highlander hasn't been tested. We'll update this review when results are published.

The Highlander's long list of standard safety equipment includes dual front, side and curtain airbags, as well as a driver knee airbag; daytime running lights; downhill assist control on 4WD models; and hill-start assist. A rearview camera is standard on the SE, Limited and both Hybrid models, and it's an option on the gas-only base Highlander.

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2011 Toyota Highlander

Features

The 2010 Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid offer a long list of standard features, even before the higher trim levels and optional equipment.

The Highlander bundles up a useful list of standard features, even on base versions.

With the new year, the base "Highlander Grade" model adds standard keyless entry. It joins other gratis features like cloth seats, cruise control, power windows/locks/mirrors, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, and a CD player with an auxiliary jack.

The former Sport model now is supplanted by the Highlander SE. On top of the base model's standard features, the SE adds a USB port, satellite radio, and Bluetooth with audio streaming, along with leather seats in the first and second rows, a power driver seat, a power moonroof, fog lamps, and a power tailgate. A 3.5-inch LCD monitor appears atop its dash, too.

The Limited picks up leather-trimmed power seats, 19-inch wheels, three-zone automatic climate control, dual power front seats, and the Center Stow Seat, as well as woodgrain trim.

The Highlander Hybrid comes only in Base and Limited trim. The base Hybrid sports the gas-only version's features, with add-ons including UV-reducing glass and the 3.5-inch LCD display that shows its rearview camera's readouts. It also comes with Bluetooth, XM satellite radio and a USB port. The Hybrid Limited tops off the Highlander range with 19-inch wheels, more chrome trim, and a power liftgate.

Options on various models include a navigation system, real-time traffic, a towing package, and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.

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2011 Toyota Highlander

Fuel Economy

Fuel economy in the V-6, four-wheel-drive model isn't great, but the Highlander pays it forward with four-cylinder and Hybrid models.

The Highlander isn't an ordinary crossover vehicle. Its four-cylinder and hybrid editions give it an edge in our Green ratings, and in the EPA's fuel economy tests.

For the 2011 model year, the EPA rates the four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive Highlander at 20/25 mpg. On V-6 versions with front-wheel drive, the Highlander checks in at 18/24 mpg, and with four-wheel drive, the big Toyota crossover slumps to 17/22 mpg.

With the changes to its gas engine, the Highlander Hybrid could have lost ground in the fuel economy standings--but it doesn't Though it's bored and stroked out for 10 more net horsepower, the Hybrid's fuel economy actually increases to 28/28 mpg for the new model year. That's up from the 2010 ratings of 27/25 mpg.

While Toyota is working on an all-electric version of its seven-seat RAV4 crossover with Tesla Motors, it's not expected to build a Highlander EV.

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