By Kevin Miller
Last week Toyota dropped off a 2008 Highlander Sport crossover for my evaluation. I spent a week using it to drive my family around town, using it the way a typical family will use the Highlander. The Highlander is an all new, second-generation vehicle for 2008, and in Toyota’s typical pattern of up-sizing its vehicles in the US with each new generation, the Highlander has grown larger. Fortunately, the Highlander has also grown better looking. The Highlander’s exterior styling is fairly attractive overall, with an aggressive look on the 19 inch wheels that are standard on the Sport and Limited Highlanders. The flat sides of the front fenders remind me of first-generation Hyundai Santa Fe, as does the appearance of the tail lamp lenses. During my week driving it, I had several people comment on how “good looking” the car was.
The Salsa Red Pearl vehicle with its attractive tan leather interior impressed me right away. When the vehicle was delivered I spent about half an hour looking it over, checking out the seating, the controls, and various features. I was happy to find the vehicle was equipped with heated front seats, and that it had Bluetooth hands-free phone use integrated to its upgraded JBL stereo head unit; I paired my phone with the vehicle so I could take advantage of the hands-free phone feature. Unfortunately, a week with the JBL stereo upgrade left me wondering how poor the stock stereo must sound- the JBL lacked both clarity and power at higher volumes. I was, however, happy to find the vehicle was equipped with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, AUX input, and XM satellite radio.
I was not quite as happy to learn that access to the third-row seat is only provided by folding the right-rear seatback forward (the left-rear second-row seat does not fold the same way). I tend to put my daughter’s child seat in that position so I can look over my shoulder and talk to her at stoplights. A child seat can’t be put in the center position of the second row either, because it is a very narrow “removable” seat which itself is not wide enough to support a car seat base, and it lacks LATCH connections for child seats. The third-row seat doesn’t’ have LATCH connectors for child seats, so if you had two child seats installed in the Highlander they would likely be in the second row, making access to the third row nearly impossible (as well as making the center seat in the second-row un-usable). The removable middle seat in the second row can be stowed under the center console of the front seat (and replaced by a small plastic console), and squeezing between the two outboard rear seats would then be the only way to access the third row.
Because I planned to use the third-row seat during the week I had the Highlander, I had to install my daughter’s car seat directly behind the driver’s seat, where it is more difficult to turn and talk to her face-to-face. The conversation mirror which is integrated with the sunglasses holder did allow me to see my daughter in the car seat, as well as other passengers in the back of the vehicle.
One of my favorite features on the Highlander was the rear-view camera, whose monitor is in the center of the dashboard. It allowed me to see behind the vehicle while I was reversing, helping me park much closer than I would have been comfortable doing just by looking out the back window (due to the fact that the rear window isn’t very tall). When the vehicle is not in reverse, the camera’s display screen offers time and outside temperature, door-ajar information, and can be set to show various fuel consumption statistics or climate control settings.
The Highlander I tested had dual-zone climate control but not the optional rear-seat climate control. The controls on the center stack had very large knobs to adjust driver and passenger temperature, but a single button marked “MODE” which must be pressed multiple times to cycle through air distribution modes (floor, vent, or defrost) which are displayed on the info screen only when they are being cycled through. That control wasn’t particularly intuitive, but somebody who drives the Highlander daily will grow accustomed to the selection method.
While the information screen does show the climate and fuel consumption information, it is not integrated with the Bluetooth phone system (which displays outgoing or incoming call numbers only on the stereo’s one-line LCD display) nor is it integrated with the Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS). When the TPMS indicator turned on one chilly morning in the Highlander, I tried in vain find the tire pressure readout on the info screen. Unfortunately such a display isn’t available, and the owner’s manual merely states that if the TPMS lamp illuminates, you should stop the car and check the tire pressure with a pressure gauge. I did that, and found that all four tires were exactly at the rated 30 PSI. I then attempted to follow the TPMS lamp reset instructions in the manual, but was unable to reset the system despite three different attempts.
During my week driving the Highlander around suburban Seattle, I appreciated the visibility that comes from the high seating position of a crossover or SUV, and I also appreciated the fact that the Highlander’s visibility wasn’t compromised by huge window pillars. The door-mounted rear view mirrors were large, and provided a clear view of traffic as I was driving, though they were not heated (heated mirrors are an option my test car didn’t have), so on frosty mornings I had to clear the mirrors manually before driving off.
I found the driver’s seat to be wide and flat, and generally unsupportive, and I tended to slide around on the leather upholstery if I took corners too aggressively. . The headrest was tipped too far forward for me to sit up straight in the seat, which was the only thing making the seat uncomfortable. There was plenty of leg room behind the thin-rimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel. The steering wheel had a lot of controls on it- controls for audio volume, presets/tracks, and mode, climate control temperature and fan speed, Bluetooth phone controls, and information screen display mode.
While the instruments and center stack were modern looking and operated with a quality feel, the same cannot be said of the dashboard, glove box, and door panel materials. The top of the dashboard and door panels were made from dark-brown hard plastic with a matte finish, and the bottoms of the dash and doors were made from a harder, shinier tan-colored plastic. The door had padding where a driver’s elbow would rest, but the switch modules farther forward on the doors fit and matched poorly. The vent openings on each end of the dashboard were unattractive squares punched out of the upper dash materials, with visible lines where the mold halves joined in the dashboard factory. While Toyota is a volume brand, plenty of customers would expect better materials in a $36000 vehicle. As was noted in Igor’s post from the New York International Auto Show, interior materials in this class of vehicles are often disappointing, and the Highlander is no exception.
When called upon to haul people around, the Highlander really showed its mettle. It carried six people comfortably (when the 2nd row seats were adjusted forward), had plenty of power around town and on the freeway to keep up with- or even pass- other traffic, and never had a disagreement with the 5-speed automatic transmission. My nearly-three-year-old daughter was able to get in to the Highlander by herself thanks to the standard running boards, and the flat floor across the second row made it easy for her to get to and into her car seat. Several of the parents at my daughter’s daycare were impressed that my daughter was able to get herself into the Highlander, as their body-on-frame SUVs are too tall for their children of the same age to do so.
At the end of the week, as I reflect back over my time with the Highlander Sport, it comes across as a pleasant, unobtrusive vehicle for toting as many as six people around the suburbs. After a week and nearly 200 miles around the suburbs, during which time I averaged 16.4 MPG, I am convinced that plenty of families will be delighted with the Highlander. The vehicle cost $36,114, including optional JBL Stereo with Bluetooth, Leather Seating with heated front seats, Front Automatic Dual Zone Climate Control, Power Tilt/Slide Moonroof, and Reversible Cargo Mat. I didn’t fall in love with it, as Brendan seemed to do with the Buick Enclave earlier this month (though nobody really ever falls in love with a Toyota, do they?), but I found it to be a satisfactory family vehicle that will meet many families’ needs.
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