ANGUILA, Ariz. -- Nubby tires on a new rendition of Highlander, Toyota's mid-size crossover utility vehicle, bite into layers of slippery sand covering a rough track that edges around Eagle Eye Peak in the cactus-littered Arizona desert.
The tall stance of Highlander -- with a ground clearance of eight inches -- allows this wagon to trudge over lumpy trails far from the comfort of smooth pavement.
In addition, it carries an optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) system to maintain traction on all four tires and keep moving forward.
For 2011 editions Highlander scores new front-end styling on the exterior package and more equipment added to the refined passenger compartment including standard three-row seating.
Toyota's design for Highlander's 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.
It also looks strong and athletic carved with contemporary forms and a long cabin perched above the horizontal underbody.
The vehicle's expansive width is emphasized up front by a broad grille scored with chrome fins and a low intake valence also in chrome stretching from corner to corner.
And on each flank there's a crisp character line which ties into bulging wheel arches, while new black rockers with chrome accents run below the flank doors.
Highlander's structure is a unitized framework derived from a sedan oriented with a front-wheel-drive (FWD) format, plus car-like mechanical components. With a long wheelbase and squatty stance, the design sets up a people-friendly interior environment that's as easy to enter as a passenger car, meaning you don't have to hike yourself aboard as with taller SUV wagons.
A spacious cabin carries four doors for passengers and flexible seating on three rows for a seven-person capacity plus cargo space in a back bay with liftgate added.
Highlander's cabin contains luxurious appointments which position the 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.
Assembled in Japan, Highlander for 2011 rolls ashore with three trim designations and options for FWD or a permanently-engaged AWD system.
Highlander's trim designations are labeled Base, SE and Limited.
And Toyota offers choices for powertrains -- a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine designed to deliver good fuel economy scores or a 3.5-liter V6 that romps.
Highlander Base grade and SE tote the aluminum-block 2.7-liter four-cylinder plant which employs dual camshafts with dual VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence) to optimize cam timing and maximize power production at all engine speeds.
It produces 187 hp at 5800 rpm plus 186 lb-ft of torque at 4100 rpm.
The four-pack plant qualifies for ULEV-II (Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) status and delivers fuel economy numbers as high as 25 mpg.
Transmission for the four-pack engine is an electronically controlled six-speed automatic with intelligent shift control and sequential shifting.
Toyota's aluminum 3.5-liter V6 engine becomes the optional power upgrade for Base and SE trims but it's standard for deluxe Highlander Limited.
The V6 also totes dual camshafts with dual VVT-i.
And it zips with 270 hp at 6200 rpm and the torque pushing to 248 lb-ft at 4700 rpm.
The exclusive transmission for Highlander's V6 is an electronically controlled five-speed automatic with intelligent shift control and sequential shifting.
For optional AWD traction, Toyota's electronically controlled system switches continuously and automatically between FWD and AWD for sure-footed traction.
It can distribute the engine torque equally 50/50 between the front and rear wheels for slow-go momentum in dicey situations, as well as apply extra electronic assistance from the hill-start assist control (HAC) or downhill assist control (DAC) devices.
A four-wheel independent suspension system with MacPherson struts, low-pressure gas-charged shock absorbers and front and rear stabilizer bars 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 the cabin surrounded by hidden air bags -- up-front inflators for front seats plus seat-mounted side air bags and one more to shield the driver's knee, then curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above side windows for all three tiers of seats.
Standard on all Highlander 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).
Stock equipment on Highlander Base grade includes 17-inch alloy wheels with 245/65R17 tires, foglamps, a remote keyless entry system, air conditioning, power buttons to motivate the windows and door locks and exterior mirrors, Optitron electroluminescent gauges, cruise control, variable intermittent windshield wipers and rear window intermittent wiper, tilt/telescope steering wheel, cloth seat upholstery, audio system with AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA, three 12-volt power outlets, two front bucket seats with console, a second-row fold-flat bench split 40/20/40 and third-row fold-into-floor bench split 50/50.
Options range from a Tech Package and Cold Weather Package to a touch-screen navigation system, rear-seat DVD entertainment kit and JBL premium audio gear.
The MSRP chart for 2011 Highlander runs from $27,390 (Base 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine with FWD) to $36,345 (Limited 3.5-liter V6 with AWD).