When it arrived in 2001, the first-generation Toyota Highlander was at the forefront of the trend toward crossovers and away from minivans. Six years later, the mid-size crossover SUV segment is overflowing with competitors. General Motors, Mazda, and Hyundai, among others, now offer impressive entries.
Predictably, Toyota isn't waving the white flag in the face of these new challengers. The new Highlander is bigger, more luxurious, and more powerful. Interior volume increases by nearly ten percent, a change that enabled Toyota to offer a trick second-row seating configuration. The standard twin captain's chairs--which are rare in this segment and allow relatively unfettered access to the third-row bench, even when they have child seats strapped to them--easily convert into a three-passenger bench when you install a small seat that otherwise neatly stows in the rear portion of the front seat center console (see below). Cargo capacity behind the second-row seats also increases slightly over the previous model, from 39.7 to 42.5 cubic feet.
Because of this increase in size and features, the Highlander loses its base four-cylinder engine in favor of a standard V-6 that is larger than its predecessor. The engine still is hooked to a five-speed automatic, even though most of its competitors have six gears. Fuel economy is about the same as it was in the old V-6 model, thanks to the more efficient engine and better aerodynamics. Need more miles per gallon? There is also a new Highlander Hybrid (see sidebar).
Slide behind the wheel of the Highlander, and you'll realize that it might be only a matter of time before Toyota's baby steps forward are not enough to stay in front of Hyundai, which has taken recent leaps ahead. The Highlander's body control is poorly managed, and the electric steering system is far too light and offers little on-center feel. At least the Sport model improves steering feel slightly and tightens up body motions while only minimally diminishing ride quality. That said, the Highlander's interior is well laid out and feels almost Lexus-like in terms of luxury.
The GMC Acadia and the Saturn Outlook both offer second-row captain's chairs, along with more interior room than the Highlander, while a similarly equipped Hyundai Veracruz is, overall, nearly as good as the Highlander but costs less. What's more, the Mazda CX-9 is much better to drive. Toyota is going to have to try a bit harder if it intends to retain its status as the king of mid-size crossovers.
A new Highlander also means a new Highlander Hybrid. The gasoline/electric powertrain is mostly unchanged from the previous model, and all-wheel drive is now standard. The EPA combined fuel economy rating of 26 mpg--7 mpg better than the regular, all-wheel-drive Highlander--is the same as the old Hybrid's, but the test doesn't take into account several new features that could allow owners to eke out even better economy: a display that shows how to drive most efficiently, an EV mode that helps keep the Hybrid in electric-only mode longer at low speeds, and an ECON button that smoothes out the electronic throttle for improved fuel economy.Like the regular Highlander, the Hybrid suffers from too much body roll and soggy steering. But its electric brakes are smoother and more intuitive than the similar systems found in many of Toyota's Lexus models.