You’d be hard-pressed to find a more agreeable, large-scale family mobility unit than the Toyota Highlander.
While it’s highly unlikely you’ll hear gushing praise on their driving dynamics, the good ones excel at simply making your life easier.
Born as it was of practicality, this segment offers very little in the way of excitement, nor is it generally expected. Let’s face it, despite all the marketing attempts to have you believe otherwise, full-size crossovers are really little more than minivans – albeit in a more appealing package.
While it’s highly unlikely you’ll hear gushing praise on their driving dynamics, the good ones excel at simply making your life easier. With its smooth power delivery, composed handling and extensive range of creature comforts, the Highlander is a prime example.
A week’s test drive with this type of vehicle is usually approached in the same manner with which one tackles household chores or paperwork – with dutiful resignation. You can pretty much rule out being emotionally influenced in any way, the best you can hope for is a sense of satisfied well-being. And that’s okay. Excitement and adventure are the icing on a life well-lived; health and welfare are the cake.
The Highlander underwent a big refresh back in 2014. Its first impression is one of sensibility. Large and reassuringly solid, it’s the vehicular embodiment of everybody’s favourite character actor, say Uncle Ben, in a respectable navy suit. There’s enough chrome to prevent it from looking stodgy, but flashy it’s not. It is, however, respectably handsome in a purely platonic sort of way. It’s certainly light years more attractive than the mesh-faced model of a decade ago, which resembled a giant, ocean-going filter feeder.
Our tester is top of the line Limited V6 AWD. Base, front-wheel-drive models start at $33,555 but this fully loaded Highlander rings in at $48,840 when you factor in freight and taxes.
While the large, blocky outline gives the Highlander a rugged, purposeful look similar to the Toyota 4Runner or Land Cruiser, it’s actually more closely related to their cars. Instead of the body-on-frame construction of a truck-based SUV, the Highlander is a unibody crossover with a front-wheel-drive bias.
There are two engine choices (three if you count the hybrid), a 3.6L V6 and the 2.7L four-cylinder also found in the RAV4. Our tester came with the V6, producing 270 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. This powertrain also comes with a choice of either front-wheel or all-wheel drive.
At the Limited trim level, the cabin features enough dark leather to upholster a man-cave. There’s nothing overtly luxurious about it, but the plump hides and level of quiet impart a sense of comfortable well-being. Thick acoustic glass and strategic use of sound deadening let very little in the way of noise or vibration enter the cabin.
First and second rows feature a pair of captain’s chairs, and there’s an optional folding third row. That extra third row is a great selling feature for large families, but it’s rather awkward and only meant for little people. Overall cargo space of 1,189 L is reduced to 368 L with the third row up.
Front-row passengers get heated and ventilated seats with rotary dials to control the temperature.
The middle row is a lot like flying business: the heated leather captain’s chairs have a hidden tray table that pops up in the middle.
Two thumbs up for a fairly intuitive infotainment system in a time where many are ergonomically baffling. The climate knobs are large and straightforward. I particularly liked the shelf space below the dash – perfect for cellphones, notebooks or sunglasses, it’s a feature not often seen outside the utility van segment. Below the console is a hidden cubby that’s great for purses, laptops or other valuables.
There’s a raft of safety equipment including rearview camera, blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert and eight airbags. Next year’s model will include as standard Toyota’s TSS suite of safety tech featuring Pre-Collision System (with forward collision warning and automatic emergency brake), lane-departure alert, automatic high beams, Pedestrian Pre-Collision System and dynamic radar cruise control. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) has named the Highlander a Top Safety Pick for its five-star rollover score.
While the upcoming 2017 models will also come with an all-new eight-speed transmission and a bump of 25 horsepower, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this current powertrain is buttery smooth and oozes tranquility. The suspension (MacPherson struts up front and double wishbone with in back) is supple enough to absorb ruts and bumps with aplomb, but without wallowing in the corners. It’s far from stiff, but robust enough to keep its composure during quick lane changes, or over tight off-ramps. Of particular note is the steering: although it doesn’t provide a lot of feedback, it was well-weighted in comparison to the current trend of overly boosted and rather light setups.
I had a week of glorious summer weather during my Highlander road test, but I’d also taken it home during our three-row crossover comparison back in April. We’d just been the recipients of one of those “last of the season” snow dumps, which gave me a chance to appreciate the heated steering wheel and all-wheel drive. I’d have preferred a set of true winter tires instead of the All-Terrain rubber, but we got through the thick, heavy snowfall that left others futilely spinning their tires. While previously a full-time four-wheel-drive system, the current Highlander’s all-wheel-drive setup is “on demand” with torque distribution sending up to 50 percent of its power to the rear wheels if needed. “Lock mode” keeps that 50/50 torque distribution for speeds up to 40 km/h, and “Snow Mode” starts the vehicle in second gear for less torque and more stability on snow and ice. There’s also a “Downhill Assist Control”, which holds speeds to a 4 to 6 km/h creep. It’s a solid tank of a winter vehicle.
With so many excellent vehicles to choose from – Kia Sorento, Nissan Pathfinder, Honda Pilot and Mazda CX-9, to name a few – it’s definitely a buyer’s market. The Pilot offers the most versatility and room for a big family, the Sorento has more style and the CX-9 is the most engaging of the bunch. But the Highlander does a good job of quietly treading the middle ground of reliability and respectability.
|Peak Horsepower||270 hp|
|Peak Torque||246 lb-ft|
|Fuel Economy||13.0/9.8/11.6 (L/100km, cty/hwy/cmb)|
|Cargo Space||368, 1,189 w/ third row down|
|Model Tested||2016 Toyota Highlander Limited V6 AWD|
|Price as Tested||$48,840|