The Highlander has more or less defined the heart of the evolving midsize crossover market. The last gen model, built from 2008 to 2013, remained a best seller right up until its last month of production. As the owner of a 2008 model with six-figure mileage, I was very intrigued as to what Toyota would do with the third generation.
Outside its been butched up very successfully, with a gaping maw of a grill, flared fenders and a chopped roofline to make more men become buyers. Inside it is much plusher, with soft-touch materials used extensively and lots of brightwork, shiny trim and contrast stitching. It’s mostly very successful as an update, though the fake stitches on the steering wheel grate, the audio system isn’t as good, and there is no longer the slick seven or eight passenger seating option—its now captain’s chairs in the second row or a bench. Making up for that to some degree is a stretch in overall length that creates more space for passengers and increases cargo volume. There’s also gobs of new safety tech.
The new Highlander is improved in most areas dynamically as well. It has lost a bit of ride softness; in exchange the body is much better tied down and the steering is miles ahead in its simulation of feel. This is accurate and makes it much easier to pick a path either through a corner or just cruising the superslab. Brake feel and power also seem better.
What hasn’t changed much (and didn’t need to) was the engine; most AWD Highlanders are still powered by the wonderful Toyota 3.5-liter V6, here with 270hp and 248lb-ft of torque. Upgraded is the tranny, which now has six speeds, somewhat offsetting a gain of a few hundred pounds mass to the vehicle. Fuel economy stays about the same, though an “on demand” AWD system claims to eek out a single mpg on the highway. If frugality is really important, go for the Hybrid, which still leads the segment with a real-world 28mpg and prodigious power.
Toyota has scored a bullseye here; it perfectly matches what middle Americans want and need in an SUV. While the Highlander still trails the venerable Mazda CX-9 dynamically, it looks more appealing and has the brand recognition to capture more shoppers. It beats newer entries like the crossovered Nissan Pathfinder as a package; only Honda’s upcoming new Pilot threatens its reign.
EPA ratings: 18/24; 20mpg combined (27/28/28 Hybrid)
Price as tested: $41,960