This is not an attractive vehicle. The headlight protrusions that are proud of the sheetmetal are particularly odd. Just because you can design headlights any which way you wish doesn’t mean that you should. I bring up the styling mainly because so many of the Highlander’s competitors are reasonably attractive, from the Chevy Traverse to the Mazda CX-9 to the Kia Sorento.
One undeniable Highlander strength is the powertrain, a typical silky-smooth Toyota V-6 that works well with the five-speed automatic. (I know, I know, a six-speed automatic would be more like it, but I doubt most Highlander owners know or care how many forward speeds are in their gearbox.) In any case, the Highlander has very strong, smooth acceleration off the line. It’s too bad the steering is lifeless, the ride quality is only so-so, with insufficient body control.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
The Highlander could be a poster child for cars that grow larger from generation to generation. The current Highlander, which debuted in 2008, is four inches longer, three inches wider, and more than 400 pounds heavier than its predecessor. More important, it looks and feels it. Whereas the previous Highlander felt reasonably nimble and maneuverable, the current version feels heavy and overgrown. Contributing to that impression is the Highlander’s steering, which feels dead on center but becomes overly — and irregularly — heavy when you turn the wheel. Despite its heft, the top-of-the-line Limited 4×4 has no shortage of passing power from its 270-hp, 3.5-liter V-6.
The upshot of the Highlander’s size inflation is that there’s a ton of room inside. The second row of seats offers plenty of space, and I could even be somewhat comfortable sitting in the tiny third row for short distances, even though my knees would be up near my chin (and I’m only five-foot-six).
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Forget the white picket fences — it seems contemporary American families dream of transporting their 2.5 children in a vehicle that is both relatively fuel efficient and decidedly not a minivan. As a result, the midsize crossover market has boomed in this country, and will likely to continue to do so for some time to come.
Fresh off an update for the 2011 model year, the Highlander continues to be Toyota’s main entry in this market. At 188.5 inches long, it’s about the same size as the Honda Pilot and a Kia Sorento, but more than a foot shorter than the likes of GM’s three-row crossovers, such as the Chevrolet Traverse and the GMC Acadia.
As part of its recent redo, designers give the Highlander a new shape that is muscular, taut, and slightly more masculine than before (the front fascia, for instance, is evocative of the rugged 4Runner SUV). Interior décor is largely carried over from last year, but is still attractive, well finished, and ergonomically appeasing.
Space, however, remains a prime consideration. The Highlander’s party trick is its flexible seating configuration. The fold-flat third-row isn’t anything new, but the second-row certainly is. A slender seat insert can replace the center console, transforming a pair of captain’s chairs into a three-passenger bench seat. When not in use, the insert (and the rear console) can neatly be stored underneath the driver’s center console.
Like most family-oriented people movers, the Highlander is tuned for a soft, silent ride. Chassis damping is rather soft, which allows for some body roll but a compliant ride on rough surfaces. Toyota’s 3.5-liter V-6 is predictably smooth, as is the five-speed automatic. The combination, when paired with all-wheel-drive, is rated by the EPA at 17/22 mpg (city/highway), which is not terrible for a seven-seat, 4255-pound crossover, and slightly better in the city than both the Pilot and Traverse. Those seeking a greater efficiency can always opt for the hybrid version, which boosts those numbers to 28 mpg across the board.
Those seeking a little extra room for third-row passengers and cargo—or greater towing capacity—are well advised to cross-shop the Traverse, but the Highlander still has a lot to offer. It’s attractive, affordable, versatile, and comfortable. And, best of all, it isn’t a minivan.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
The color of our test car — Toyota calls it sandy beach metallic but it’s really just a drab beige — did it no favors. The Highlander is already a vehicle that is somewhat lacking in visual substance, and this color made it look even more boring, to my eyes.
On the plus side, the interior of the Highlander is quite nice. The control buttons are all well labeled and large enough to be easily manipulated even if the driver is wearing gloves. The stereo system has two large knobs, one to control sound and one to change the station. The volume knob in particular is exceptionally designed — its turns are silky smooth and you can adjust the sound level in almost infinitesimal increments. OK, that just sounds like what a volume button is supposed to do, but really, this one feels much smoother and more high-quality than what you find in most vehicles.
I have no complaints with the powertrain — the 270-hp V-6 and the five-speed automatic are very well matched. Acceleration is smooth and power is more than ample for a crossover.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
2011 Toyota Highlander Limited 4×4
Base price (with destination): $37,155
Price as tested: $43,636
3.5-liter DOHC V-6 engine
5-speed automatic transmission
4-wheel disc brakes with ABS
Hill-start assist/downhill assist control
Leather-trimmed steering wheel
40/20/40 split-fold second row
50/50 split-fold third row
3-zone automatic climate control
AM/FM/XM/CD player with 6 speakers
Options on this vehicle:
Voice-activated touch-screen DVD navigation — $2650
JBL AM/FM 4-disc CD changer
9 speakers with subwoofer
XM satellite radio
Rear-seat DVD entertainment — $1760
Rear-seat audio with 2 wireless headphones
Running boards — $649
Remote engine start — $529
Carpet cargo mat — $315
V-6 towing prep package — $220
Heavy-duty radiator with oil cooler
Transmission oil cooler
Body side molding — $199
Wheel locks — $81
Cargo net — $49
First aid kit — $29
Key options not on vehicle:
Hybrid engine with E-CVT transmission — $8320
17 / 22 / 19 mpg
Size: 3.5L DOHC V-6
Horsepower: 270 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 248 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm
Curb weight: 4464 lb
Wheels/tires: 19-inch alloy wheels
245/55R19 Bridgestone Dueler H/L 400 all-season tires