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