CAREFREE, Ariz. -- In the Arizona desert east of Carefree, twisty Barlett Lake Road wiggles through foothills of the McDowell Mountains, with stacks of sandstone boulders to the left, a mess of desert sand and saguaro cactus to the right plus jagged peaks poking into the horizon.
We're using this winding road to sample the luxurious ride quality and feel the get-up-and-go attitude of a new generational design for Highlander, Toyota's mid-size crossover utility vehicle (CUV).
It envelops the luxurious ride quality and plush comforts of a refined Toyota passenger sedan in the context of a sleek package cast in the format of a sport utility vehicle (SUV) with four passenger doors applied and flexible seating for seven inside a spacious cabin plus cargo space in the back bay with access through a tail-side liftgate.
Highlander's structure and chassis differ from the body-on-frame arrangement used by a SUV because its unitized framework comes from a sedan oriented with front-wheel-drive (FWD) format, and there are car-like mechanical components which eliminate the typical rough ride quality and tough handling hassles associated with a SUV.
For the editions of 2008, Highlander gets a new larger platform derived from Toyota's best-selling large sedans, Camry and Avalon.
Highlander '08 measures four inches longer in the body and three inches wider, with an inch more ground clearance and three inches more added to the wheelbase length.
These structural changes become most apparent in the increased size of the passenger compartment which carves out more room for riders.
Seat configuration is flexible with up to three rows.
New for 2008 editions is the arrangement on the second row, where two captain's chairs with reclining seatbacks have a "Center Stow" seat cushion concealed below a console and convert the two chairs to a three-seat bench.
Further, the space between second-row chairs may be left vacant -- no seat, no console -- to make an aisle for accessing the fold-in-the-floor third-row bench, which is standard for 2008 editions although several trim grades offer optionally a two-row seat package.
Climb aboard and you'll discover Toyota has laced Highlander's cabin with luxurious appointments which position this vehicle closer to the realm of Lexus, Toyota's elite upscale line.
And Toyota has reached deep into its bag of NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) tricks to insulate and isolate the passenger compartment from external discord and mechanical chatter. It's incredibly quiet inside, as Toyota fashions a serene and rattle-free environment.
Despite such tranquility in the cabin, Highlander for 2008 is quite capable of scooting down the road, thanks to a new engine which produces strong muscle for the passing lane and climbs quickly to the realm of illicit speed.
The 3.5-liter V6 -- Toyota's impressive aluminum-block plant -- employs chain-driven dual camshafts with dual VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence) to optimize cam timing and maximize power production at all engine speeds.
As a result, it romps with 270 hp at 6200 rpm and the torque rising to 248 lb-ft at 4700 rpm.
The exclusive transmission is a five-speed automatic with intelligent shift control.
A four-wheel independent suspension system with MacPherson struts and low-pressure gas-charged shock absorbers produces the agile attitude for Highlander but also blocks road harshness from intruding in the cabin.
Steering, through a direct rack and pinion system, draws power assistance through an all-electric device. It eliminates the conventional hydraulic apparatus along with the power losses of an engine-driven pneumatic pump, and also pares excess pounds.
Toyota maxes hardware for safety on Highlander, with seven air bags aboard including curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above side windows.
Standard on all editions is Toyota's Star Safety System, which includes an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA), plus a vehicle stability control (VSC) device and Traction Control (TRAC).
Toyota's design for Highlander's new exterior package appears sleek and shapely, yet the scheme reflects subtle lines and subdued paint colors in the manner of a sophisticated -- and expensive -- vehicle.
The slinky shape of Highlander differs from the upright style of the immediate predecessor. It looks strong and athletic with contemporary forms and a long cabin perched above the horizontal underbody.
The vehicle's expanded width is emphasized up front by a broad grille scored with chrome fins and a low intake valence stretched from corner to corner.
And on each flank there's a crisp character line which ties into bulging -- muscular -- wheel arches.
Built in Japan, Highlander for 2008 rolls ashore with three trim designations and options for FWD or a permanently-engaged all-wheel-drive (AWD) system which splits engine torque 50/50 between front and rear wheels.
Highlander's trim designations are labeled as Highlander Base, Sport and Limited.
Highlander Base rolls on 17-inch alloy wheels with 245/65R17 tires and stocks seats with cloth upholstery, air conditioning, power controls for windows and door locks and external mirrors, a urethane steering wheel with manual tilt and telescope adjustments, cruise control and a remote keyless entry device, variable intermittent wipers and a back window defogger with variable intermittent wiper, foglamps and a tail spoiler, plus an audio kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3 and six speakers.
Highlander Sport models bump up to 19-inch alloy wheels with 245/55R19 tires and earn a sport-tuned suspension. There's a backup camera with multi-information display aboard, and upgraded seat fabrics with eight-way power adjustments to the driver's seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, rear tonneau cover for the cargo bay, and a six-disc CD changer in the dash.
Highlander Limited adds light silver finish to the 19-inch alloy wheels with more chrome highlights on the body and more luxe gear in the cabin. The list includes leather seat upholstery, ten-way power adjustments for the driver's bucket, front twin-zone automatic climate controls, foldable power exterior mirrors with puddle lamps, an interior mirror with auto-dimming feature and a built-in compass, door sill scuff plates, and an anti-theft alarm system.