While the Highlander is a car-based crossover, it breaks from recent trends and has styling that is more related to Toyota’s tough trucks than their cars. It has a muscular front face and bulging flared fenders that make it look very much at home out in the wild.
The silhouette is still conservative as you would expect from Toyota. Simple lines and a more masculine stance than some of its competitors give the Highlander a bit more SUV credibility, and 8” of ground clearance with 22” degrees of approach angle back up look.
The interior is simple in its design, no wild stylistic overtures here. The dash is laid out in an upright fashion which gives a traditional SUV feel. Seats are high enough to give you a commanding view over the hood, but you don’t feel perched on top of the vehicle.
Our Limited Highlander came with leather trimmed seats, steering wheel and shift lever. The 8-way power driver seat even had adjustable thigh support which made tailoring to both large and small drivers a breeze.
Fit and finish are second to none all around the cabin, with trim and grab points having a solid buttoned down feel that is not that far from more expensive brands. The simulated woodgrain trim makes no large effort to appear real, but is handsome none the less.
Our tester had the most recent version of Toyota’s new Entune enabled touch screen navigation system which isn’t as intuitive as we would like. Trying to get to the navigation and entering addresses requires a number of menu level steps that require a learning curve, not as direct as some competitors. The 9 speaker JBL sound system however sounded as good as you would expect.
The rear seat area gets its own set of controls for the HVAC and has generous room for three passengers. Rear seats can adjust fore and aft, and the backs also recline.
Its squared off rear flanks allow for three row seating for a total of seven passengers. The third row is spit 50/50 which is good as when the seats are up, cargo capacity is virtually eliminated. The second row seats fold down with a 40/20/40 split. When down they allow for a large flat cargo hold that can swallow up quite a bit.
The third row seat also offers enough leg room to be credible for adults. Second row seats tumble forward for a relatively easy entry and exit, and pull levers are located so rear passengers can get themselves out on their own if need be.
Fully loaded at nearly $41,000 however we really felt it was missing a number of features its competition now offers for the same money. These include things like radar based driver aids such as lane keeping assistance and cruise control, ventilated seats, and a panoramic roof.
Though the Highlander looks the truck based SUV part, it drives just as smoothly and refined as a sedan. The chassis is well tuned and solid, giving a premium feel behind the wheel around town and on the highway.
Being mid-sized, it’s easy to maneuver in crowded spots and isn’t likely to intimidate most drivers when angling for a tight parking space. A back-up camera makes getting back out all the much easier.
Road noise is hushed and the powertrain is as sewing machine smooth as they come. Toyota’s venerable 3.5 liter V6 with 270 horsepower churns quietly under the hood, delivering power through a 5-speed automatic transmission.
Fuel economy for our all-wheel drive Highlander is rated at 17 mpg city, 22 mpg highway, and 19 mpg combined. We averaged about 21 in our week of testing, not bad. We expect if it had a more modern 6-speed automatic transmission, it could do even better.
With all-wheel-drive and reasonable approach angles, we took the Highlander to our testing ground to see how well it articulates over moguls and more challenging terrain. The suspension and chassis was well composed and did well on the unpaved surfaces.
For 2014, the Highlander gets an all new re-design and will have a completely new all-wheel-drive system that we expect will offer up more dynamic traction characteristics than this one.
In fairness the Highlander was never meant to be an off-road warrior, but a versatile vehicle that can survive in winter and low traction conditions. And as you can see it can still get you to more places than just a shopping mall.
For a full review and photo gallery, see our report on ActivityVehicle.com