Review: 2010 Toyota Highlander SE 4X2

By Roger Boylan

The arrival of my latest test vehicle, a 2010 Toyota Highlander SE 4X2, could hardly have been better timed. My daughter was graduating from high school and out-of-state relatives, two of whom had never been to Texas, were arriving for the festivities. As soon as everyone was assembled, I invited them to board the Highlander and on a rainy Friday afternoon we set off. For the next three days, we alternated between academic celebrations and touring South-Central Texas, taking in such diverse cultural attractions as old German settlements, barbecue joints, ancient Comanche encampments, barren mesas, taco bars, and student hangouts. The Highlander was the perfect companion.

The 2010 Highlander family consists of the Base, Sport, SE, and Limited, all except the Base 4-cylinder available with AWD. A Hybrid with AWD is also available; one such was recently tested by Autosavant. Prices range from around $25K for the Base 4-cylinder to slightly north of $45K for a full-boat Hybrid. My test vehicle, an SE 4X2, came in at $32K MSRP. The Base version with 4-cylinder 187-hp engine and 186 pound-feet of torque garners EPA fuel economy estimates of 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined: that sounds OK, but the deservedly more popular mill is the 3.5-liter V6 with 270 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque, harnessed to a seamless five-speed automatic (with manual-shift capacity).

My test SE scooted from zero to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, as timed by my trusty Omega Seamaster. This makes your V6 Highlander one nippy puppy, a good thing when road hogs and other beasts of the highway are bearing down on you. The capable V6 gets reasonable, if not dramatic, fuel economy: I averaged 20 mpg in my usual mix of city and (mostly cruise-controlled) highway driving. Importantly, however, the Highlander takes regular gasoline.

It’s also fun to drive, or as much fun as a 4000-lb. SUV can be. In fact, I enjoyed driving this thing much more than I expected to. Not only is it fast, it’s reasonably maneuverable–although, as with all vehicles of this profile, you wouldn’t necessarily want to toss it through the Nordschleife. But the brakes are great, progressive without being squishy; the ride is smooth as silk; and the steering, although numb around the edges, tracks true and responds well  to input. But amid all the kudos I need to insert a complaint about the excessive sensitivity of the low-pressure tire warning light, which, irritatingly, kept coming on and off, even though the tires, which I repeatedly checked, were fine. Brief trawling through Internet Toyota forums suggests that this is a common problem; apparently the light is calibrated to illuminate when it detects a discrepancy of 2 psi or more among tire pressures, say the front two are at 33 psi but the rear ones are down to 31, a perfectly normal variation, especially in hot-weather touring. Toyota should rectify this annoyance–a minor one, admittedly, but still.

Generally, the vehicle exudes quality inside–not quite Lexus-level, but definitely higher-end Toyota. Visibility is good all around, even with the third-row seat occupied, although the rear roof pillars intrude somewhat. Panel fit is excellent, plastic is abundant but fine-grained and unobtrusive, and the suede-and-metal trim is elegantly understated. Only the headliner disappoints. It looks like the stuff egg cartons are made of, an odd oversight for usually meticulous Toyota designers. But if I hadn’t mentioned it you probably wouldn’t even notice it, especially if your Highlander, like mine, came with the glass moonroof, which distracts the eye. Otherwise, the interior is well-appointed and comfortable, with firm but well-bolstered leather seats (power seats for driver and front passenger). Gauges are large and easy to read, and the high-mounted audio and climate controls are a cinch to operate. My vehicle was wired for XM Satellite radio but lacked an XM receiver, a minor drawback to me but likely to be seen as major by others.

The Highlander abounds in thoughtful and imaginative details. Pop open the overhead cubby for your sunglasses and on the back of the lid you’ll find a bird’s-eye “mommy mirror” ideal for surveillance of kids in the back seats. If the sun’s in your eyes, flip down the sun visors and slide out their built-in extenders. (I don’t know why all cars don’t have those.) Carrying an extra Big Gulp? No worries; the Highlander boasts ten capacious cupholders at various locations fore and aft, four in the front alone (plus bottle holders in the door pockets). The vehicle offers a third-row seat, accessible via the right rear passenger door, that can actually be sat in by humans, albeit those of smaller dimensions. (Unfortunately, the third row doesn’t split, a feature that would enhance its flexibility.) Two such humans, my wife and daughter, were comfortable there for an entire afternoon’s touring. And the second row can accommodate three passengers, thanks to a detachable center section, complete with padding and headrest, that folds and stows under the first-row console when not needed, thereby creating a walk-through mini-aisle between the second-row seats.  The center seat on the second row, because it’s smaller and removable, does sacrifice comfort in the name of flexibility.  The second- and third-row seats can be folded flat by means of easy-to-use straps and handles. With that done, cargo space is a generous 95 cu. ft. (arch-rival Honda Pilot offers 87).

The Highlander is big on safety, too, with electronic brake-force distribution, enhanced vehicle stability control, traction control, brake assist and hill start assist control (to prevent skedaddling downhill backwards, never a good idea). A very useful backup camera is standard on Sport, SE, and Limited models; this, too, should be standard on all cars, especially SUVs. Seven airbags, including a driver’s-knee airbag and rollover-sensing side-curtains, and active, anti-whiplash headrests complete the picture. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety gave the Highlander a top-notch “Good” rating for frontal offset, side-impact, and rear crash protection tests.

Overall, the Toyota Highlander is one of those rare vehicles whose competence is contagious: just driving it made me feel capable and in control. Of course, it has some serious rivals in this most competitive of automotive niches, not only from the good-but-hideous Honda Pilot, but also from the very able Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia/Buick Enclave triplets, the intriguing Ford Flex, and the peppy Mazda CX9. But the clever touches, quality build, strong engine, and evidence of thoughtful attention to detail in the Highlander are what we came to expect of this manufacturer before the series of quality lapses of the past year, Toyota’s annus horribilis, when Highlanders, among other models, were recalled for the unintended acceleration problems that gave a whole new meaning to Toyota’s slogan, “Moving forward.” However, assuming that particular crisis to be over, Toyota has one fine vehicle here, well worth a place on anyone’s midsize-SUV/Crossover shopping list. If I ever draw up such a list, it will be near the top.

Author: Roger Boylan

Aside from being the only Autosavant writer with a Wikipedia page, Roger Boylan is an American writer who was raised in Ireland, France, and Switzerland and attended the University of Ulster and the University of Edinburgh. His novel “Killoyle” was published in 1997 by Dalkey Archive Press and has been reprinted four times. In 2003, a sequel, “The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad,” was published by Grove Press, New York. Roger’s latest novel, “The Adorations,” in which a Swiss professor named Gustave, Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s mistress, the Archangel Michael, and a journalistic sexpot meet at the intersection of history and fantasy, has been published as an e-book and is now available on Amazon.com and other online bookstores. Boylan's light-hearted memoir, "Run Like Blazes," has also been published as a Kindle e-book and is also now available on Amazon.com.

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