The look is new from the outside and seven passengers get a new view from a standard third row of seating in the revised popular Toyota crossover called Highlander. Sandwiched in between the RAV4 and the 4Runner, the Highlander actually feels more like the last generation Sequoia. It got wider at the shoulders and the second row got some needed legroom several years ago. Now it receives a new front fascia, new hood and new flared fenders similar to the new 4Runner.
The ride is very controlled and comfortable for longer trips and the new three-row seating with auto rear climate control keeps it that way. There is an overall focus on entertainment for small and large people alike with optional DVD, headphone plugs, media connections, and power supplies for 12 and 120 volt toys.
As the new ad campaign highlights, kids should have a say in what dad and mom drives. (I hope they actually talk once or twice while driving to soccer practice.) Seats flip and fold for easy access although there is no well behind the third seat due to the off-road nature of the Highlander's rear body and spare tire- like found in the Sienna minivan.
For 2011, the Highlander crossover is available with a 2.7 liter four-cylinder engine in Highlander Base and SE (2WD only) for fuel economy in high 20's. There is still a Highlander Hybrid, and my Limited model that came with full-time four-wheel-drive and the standard 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V6.
Around the Antelope Valley, a trip to San Diego, to LA, and back yielded 21.5 mpg overall, on regular gas. All of these powerplants are a good choice and are relatively close in price. The difference in model MSRP's comes in option packages which drove my test Highlander north of $40,000.
For this money, buyers get a completely automatic all-wheel drive system with no low-range selector but with a hill-decent control and snow mode switch for really slippery stuff. The loaded Limited also came with a new leather-trimmed front seat, seat heaters, leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob, power moonroof, auto-dimming rearview mirror, navigation system, automatic climate control for seven passengers, and great JBL sound system.
The Highlander Base and SE models now have more amenities like a 50/50 split third-row seat and A/C with manual rear climate controls. The new Tech Audio is standard for SE and Limited and optional for Base grade and features a USB port, integrated XM Satellite Radio and Bluetooth®.
The backup monitor, eight-way power driver's seat, tonneau cover, engine immobilizer, flip-up liftgate window, fog lamps and black roof rails can be added with a reasonable package this year. So buyers have more control over the cost of their crossover, however, the new Highlander has moved into a premium crossover segment price point and remains there in 2011 as a real contender.
Still trying to reestablish itself as a leader in vehicle safety, Toyota includes its Star Safety System™ on all its crossovers. This system includes several computer controlled systems like Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control (TRAC), Electric Power Steering (EPS) and the anti-lock brake system (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), and Brake Assist (BA).
The Highlander Hybrid uses a Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system which anticipates tire slippage before a skid or slide spin and helps to make corrections. Add the 8 standard airbags and the Highlander should get people out of trouble even in the ice and snow blanketing the East Coast.
There are many choices of SUV/Crossovers on the market today. Seating for seven, off-road traction, and lots of technical goodies do not separate the choices by much. However, how usable and affordable the whole vehicle becomes in day-to-day driving does seem to separate the choices.
Toyota has made a good effort toward keeping the Highlander in the middle of the pack- if not near the top due to its reliability and price. For me, the bottom line is the overall comfort of the drive and flexibility of the Highlander's interior which keeps it at the top of these mid-size vehicles.