Today, nearly every successful car company’s lineup features a crossover vehicle, and for good reason: SUVs that ride on lighter underpinnings boast superior gas-mileage figures, a softer ride, and easier ingress and egress. And they achieve these brochure-friendly high points while still offering the requisite all-wheel drive, in-command seating position, and roomy interior of their truck-descended counterparts–though they do lack the towing capacity and off-road worthiness of their beefier brethren. For automakers, these vehicles offer efficient product development, as they invariably share platform and drivetrain elements with other volume models. Sales of the prudent Highlander have increased steadily each year since its release; in 2004, the Highlander was the top-selling crossover sport/ute on the market.
By far the biggest Highlander news for 2005 is the introduction of the hybrid model, the first such SUV with seating for seven. The hybrid is available only as a seven-passenger model with a 3.3-liter V-6 engine mated to two, or in the case of all-wheel-drive models, three, high-speed electric motors. Regardless of how many wheels are driven, overall peak output is 268 horsepower, making the hybrid’s acceleration numbers better than those of the regular V-6 Highlander, which puts out 220 horses. The EPA rates the front-wheel-drive Highlander hybrid at 33 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway, and it’s classified as a SULEV (super ultra low emissions vehicle). Toyota still makes some truck-based SUVs, but as more people gravitate toward car-based and hybrid models, Toyota is leading the way toward having your SUV cake and eating it, too.
Toyota builds Highlanders in three trim levels: base, Limited, and hybrid. These SUVs can be driven by front- or all-wheel-drive systems and fitted with seating for five or seven passengers. Power originates from either a 2.4-liter/155-horse four-cylinder or a 3.3-liter/220-horse V-6 engine. All Highlanders come with power windows and door locks, cruise control, tilt steering, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system, and a rear-window wiper with defroster. Limited models add amenities such as power front seats, an eight-speaker stereo, heated outside mirrors, and an anti-theft system.
Toyota dresses the Highlander’s basic two-box shape with sculpted muscle lines in the body, giving an otherwise boring exterior some character. The Highlander boasts an elevated seating position, without being an overly tall vehicle. Available appearance upgrades include 16-inch aluminum wheels, body-color mudguards, tinted windows, and a rear spoiler.
Ingress and egress are easy slide-in/slide-out maneuvers thanks to the Highlander’s just-right height. Loading luggage into the rear is usually easy, though in tight quarters, the upward-swinging liftgate may not have room to open fully. Hoisting things up to the roof-mounted fastening rails also is also easy, due to the Highlander’s relatively modest 68-inch height.
The Highlander’s interior is generally quiet and comfortable. Visibility is above average thanks to the high perch and thin body pillars. Ergonomics are superb; instrumentation and controls are simple and easy to read. The overall dash design was daring when introduced and has aged well.
Second-row occupants have less legroom than in the Ford Freestyle or Mitsubishi Endeavor, but it’s comparable to that of a mid-size sedan. Two-across seating is quite comfortable, and a third person is manageable. The Highlander also sports ample storage cubbies for front- and rear-seat passengers alike.
The third-row collapsible seat was first offered in 2004. Only children will be able to scramble back there and be comfortable, as only 30.2 inches of knees-in-the-face legroom is available. The back row does get a fan-speed adjustment controls for the rear heating system, along with cup holders. Grab handles and a convenient step in the rear-door opening immensely aid ingress to the third row.
An available rear-seat DVD system can help keep passengers in either back row entertained, and a navigation system is optional to assist front-seat passengers with the journey.
The Highlander has more standard safety features than just about any of its competitors. Toyota bestows all of its SUVs with electronic stability and traction control, anti-lock disc brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, and emergency braking assist. Hybrid models utilize a new, more advanced stability system that operates more transparently.
All seating positions have height-adjustable headrests. In addition to driver and front passenger dual-stage airbags, Highlander offers optional front-side airbags and first- and second-row side-curtain inflatables. Toyota also fits each Highlander with a tire-pressure monitoring system as standard equipment.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Highlander its highest marks (five stars) for front- and side-impact collisions, and the standard stability control system helps mitigate the risk of rollovers.
Toyota powertrains are known for refinement, quietness, and reliability–and the engines in the Highlander are no different. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine isn’t offered on Limited models and is rarely found mated to the all-wheel-drive option. The four-cylinder engine almost always necessitates the five-seat package, while the six-cylinder generally comes with seven seats.
Upgrading to the six-cylinder engine is a tempting performance investment if you can afford the upgrade and subsequent operation costs; its pep is appreciated if you have any enthusiastic aspirations whatsoever, though this engine does require 91-octane gasoline.
Non-hybrid Highlanders are packaged with one of two automatic transmissions: A four-speed comes with the four-cylinder, while a five-speed gearbox is attached to the V-6.
The Highlander has undergone only minor changes since its introduction and still drives comfortably, like its papa, the Camry. That means light steering, soft suspension, and no ambition to hurry. The unibody platform shows its virtues on the road, as a lack of road noise and a supple ride set it apart from the truck-based SUVs of the world, such as Toyota’s own rugged 4Runner.
The all-wheel-drive model can come in handy in winter-weather regions, although front-wheel drive is sufficient for most climates and lowers both the initial price and fuel costs fairly significantly. The V-6 is quick enough to get you in and out of traffic, and it feels robust on the highway. The four-cylinder requires a bit more planning when making passing maneuvers. The Highlander’s brakes and transmissions do their jobs effectively and without drama.
Highlanders come with three-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper and roadside-assistance warranties. The hybrid model’s unique components are warranted for eight years or 100,000 miles.
Why would you pick a Highlander out of the Toyota sport/ute lineup, which will soon number a total of six? Simply put: It rides like a midsize wagon and has more room inside than the sprightly RAV4. In other words, it’s a reasonable way to get SUV space and seating without the excess.
A 2005 IntelliChoice Best Overall Value winner, the Highlander is a great choice for many people, especially small families and recreation-minded urbanites. Consumers who plan on rock-crawling, or at least seeking adventure off the beaten path, however, should probably look into something truck-based like a Toyota 4Runner. Still, the V-6 Highlander can be outfitted to tow up to 3,500 pounds–enough to easily pull a U-Haul trailer to college.
Always a prudent choice, the Toyota Highlander is a safe, refined midsize vehicle with none of the compromises required with a traditional sport/ute.
The socially responsible Highlander hybrid promises improved mileage and performance while showing off the owner’s save-the-planet ideology. Upgrades for all 2005 Highlanders include standard keyless entry, roof rails, and a rear tonneau cover.
If your pocketbook can handle nearly $3,000 tacked on to the Highlander’s price, we’d recommend springing for Option Combination B, which brings side and side-curtain air bags, heated outside rear-view mirrors, and a sunroof. The Tow Prep Package is useful, too.