For a decade, the Toyota Highlander has supplied a smooth, carlike driving experience, room for mom, pop and several kids (a third row seat), and a pleasing, but not radical appearance. It’s the tall, station wagon companion to the ubiquitous Camry sedan.
For 2011, Toyota gives this popular ride a mid-cycle sprucing up without making any significant changes. The most obvious visual news is the redone front end, which follows trends to more “exciting” styling on all vehicles. New head- and taillights update the body that was all-new for 2008.
Underneath, a four-cylinder engine is now available in the mid-level SE model. Moving a two-ton vehicle with a 2.7-liter, 187-horsepower four-cylinder engine may make it less sprightly than when it’s motivated by the 3.5-liter, 270-horsepower V6, but it does result in an average 2 mile-per-gallon improvement and a slightly better Greenhouse Gas score.
Speaking of which, the 3.5-liter Highlander earns EPA numbers of 18 City, 24 Highway (average 20mpg). I averaged 19.6. For Green Vehicle numbers, the car gets a 6 for Air Pollution and a 4 for Greenhouse Gas-about what you’d expect. The four-cylinder pushes the Greenhouse Gas score up to a 5.
If you’re really interested in a more efficient vehicle and don’t need to carry seven people with the standard third-row seat, you can opt for Toyota’s smaller RAV4, of course, or go for the Highlander Hybrid. It cost more, but when I tested one against the standard vehicle three years ago, it delivered 44 percent better fuel economy-23.5 mpg average against 16.1 mpg. The Hybrid version jumps to 28 City and 28 Highway-and the Green Vehicle numbers are a satisfying 8 and 7.
The Highlander can be two-or all-wheel drive. My tester was a two-wheel drive model. There are traction advantages to having all four wheels gripping the road, but for most normal driving it may not be worth the extra cost and fuel consumption to have it. Many SUVs today are two-wheel-drive because they are never taken off road.
My tester this time around was a brand new Sizzling Crimson Mica SE model-the volume seller between the base Highlander and the Limited top level. It had the 3.5-liter engine, running through an electronically managed five-speed automatic (no manuals available). It jumped out and ran down the road with ease-especially with just me in the car. It felt like it would handle a full passenger load well.
It’s really easy to just step into a car like this and go. The controls are big, solid, and easy to understand. The seats have power adjustment, including lumbar, but the steering wheel is adjusted manually. The interior surfaces are all hard, except for a slim door pad, and the seats are firm as well. Other than electric window switches that seemed insubstantial, everything looked and felt strong and protective-as you’d expect and appreciate in a family vehicle.
It’s good to know that Toyota’s Star Safety System is there working for you, with various electronic devices to keep you on the road. These include enhanced Vehicle Stability Control, which automatically adjusts engine output and braking force at each wheel under certain conditions while also supplying steering assistance in the appropriate direction using Electric Power Steering.
The car comes standard with seven airbags, too, so if an accident is unavoidable, you’ll likely walk away from it. This is becoming normal these days-and welcome. As announced by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation in April, traffic fatalities in 2010 were the lowest since 1949, despite a significant increase in miles driven. It’s still nearly 33,000, but with active and passive safety features, the trends are heading in the right direction.
The three levels of Highlander offer the usual additions as you move up. On the outside, the SE adds a power sunroof, convenient lift-up glass hatch, fog lamps, and more. Inside, leather on the seats, steering wheel and shift knob add an upscale feel, and you get a multi-function display, illuminated mirrors on the sunvisors, and much more.
The Limited model adds chrome trim, 19-inch alloy wheels (in place of 17s) and more on the outside while loading up the interior environment with three-way automatic climate control, further upgraded leather seats, and additional goodies. It’s mighty close to a Lexus at this point.
Prices for non-Hybrid Highlanders start at $28,900 for the base two-wheel-drive model and go up to $37,855 for the four-wheel-drive Limited. A number of option packages are available at each level. My SE tester came to $34,565. The Hybrid model starts at $38,950. All prices including shipping.
If you’ve got a big family and really don’t want a minivan, the Indiana-built Highlander should be high on your list of considerations.