By Roger Boylan
My test Highlanders arrive on auspicious occasions. Last year’s came on the weekend of my daughter’s high-school graduation, and was pressed into nonstop service ferrying out-of-state relations hither and yon. This year its ’11 successor, a white (or “blizzard pearl”) front-wheel-drive Limited, rolled up just before Memorial Day weekend, with an agenda nearly as full. Over the following week I covered more than 500 miles across the Texas Hill Country, which, as I’ve pointed out many times in these pages, is the ideal terrain for road tests. It subjects a vehicle to a variety of driving conditions, easy and difficult, the difficult ones including extreme off-road treks and, during our sporadic tropical downpours, near-flood conditions; but it hasn’t rained here in ages, and the Highlander isn’t made for off-roading, at least not in front-wheel-drive mode (AWD is available). It’s made for the solid middle-class family market of solidly middle-class families with between $28K and $40K to spend depending on trim (Base, SE, Limited), and who have a yen for something less domestic than a minivan but not an SUV, exactly… a crossover, that’s it. Something that looks like an SUV, with an SUV’s cargo capacity, but that rides like a car, and almost handles like one. That’s where the Highlander comes in.
In fact, the Highlander was a pioneer among crossovers. Ten years ago there were SUVs but no car-based crossovers; the Highlander—based on a Camry platform then as now, and called the “Kluger” in Japan and Australia (from the German for “clever”)–was the first of the big names. Since then, of course, the market has grown exponentially and includes the GM Enclave / Traverse / Acadia, the Ford Edge and Flex, the Nissan Murano, the Infiniti FX, and the Mazda CX-9. Having driven some of these, I feel reasonably confident in saying that, fine as they may be, the Highlander has lost none of its luster vis-à-vis its competition. Granted, some of the other crossovers may have sportier pretensions (the Murano, the FX), be bigger inside, with seating for up to 8 passengers, as opposed to the Highlander’s 7 (the GM triplets, the Ford Flex), but the Toyota balances everything out well, including price, and it rides like a limo. Or at least a Camry.
Styling is conservative, as is usually the case with Toyotas. However, for 2011, the Highlander’s tail lamps have been tweaked somewhat and the front end has been endowed with headlights that manage both to leer and to bulge. These headlights are becoming standard on Toyotas. I thought the old design looked fine, but those marketing gurus know their markets, don’t they? (Don’t they?) So we also have a new black rocker panel with chrome accent, and a new front grille with odd little triangular indentations in the crossbars, as if they had been nipped at by a shark. But never mind all that; no harm has been done by these redesigned elements, and the Highlander presents as sleek and elegant a profile as you’re going to find in the world of family haulers.
Anyway, it’s under the hood where much of the appeal of my test vehicle lay. The non-hybrid engines are the same on the ’11 models as before: a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine making 187 hp on the base trim (and newly available on the SE); and on the SE and Limited models, Toyota’s fine 3.5-liter V6, bringing 270 ponies along for the ride. Forgive me if I repeat myself, having raved about this powerplant in its other iterations across the Toyota clan, but it’s a gem, and it doesn’t exact that much of a penalty at the pump. The ‘11 Highlander is rated by the EPA at 20 mpg city/25 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined with the four cylinder, and 18 city/24 highway/20 combined for the V6 with front-wheel drive (figures drop to 17/22/19 with the AWD option), all on regular gas. Bearing in mind that this thing weighs around 4000 lbs, these are pretty good figures. My experience bore them out; my average was actually a tad higher, at 20.7 mpg.
In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the forward motion of the V6, which is facilitated by a seamless 5-speed automatic. Early one breezy morning on a dry patch of flat highway, I did 0 to 60 in 7.5 seconds, as timed by my venerable Swiss timepiece. It was such fun I did it again, and could swear I got it down to just a hair over 7. Suffice it to say that with the V6’s 270 horses and 248 lb.-ft. of torque, the Highlander is one peppy crossover. It flattens steep gradients and does well coming down the mountain, too, with prompt and strong braking that demonstrates no fade even after sequential sudden stops. The electric steering is a bit lifeless, but the turning circle is tight, and overall the Highlander is nimble enough to avoid understeer when you plunge into the twisties. And anyway, who buys an SUV or crossover for its sports-car steering?
We took a 250-mile trip west, out San Angelo way and back, and I was as happy at the end as at the beginning, and my passengers just as comfortable, and in near-100-degree temperatures at that. The Highlander’s a/c is superb, with easy-to-use controls in a well laid-out and logical instrument display beneath a dashboard that isn’t overly swathed in plastic, just more so than it would be in a Lexus; but it’s elegantly understated, with pleasantly muted colors and good panel fit. Visibility in all directions is excellent. The front-row seats are easy on the lumbar regions. The second-row captain’s chairs are comfortable enough for long trips and can even slide back and forth. In between them is a disposable console that can be tucked away under the front console, enabling direct access to the kids-only two-seat third row in order for parental authority to be enforced. Another instrument dedicated to maintaining family discipline is the fisheye rear-view mirror that drops down from the overhead console, adding a touch of Big Brother (or Big Mama).
Other high-end features my tester was loaded with were a voice-activated touch-screen DVD nav system, an excellent backup camera with nav screen display, JBL 4-disc CD changer with MP3/WMA playback capability, USB port with IPod connectivity, hands-free phone capability, Bluetooth music streaming, remote keyless ignition, a power moonroof, and so on. The voice nav system, when I attempted to use it, ordered me in a resonant schoolmarmish voice to go in the wrong direction, then kept on interrupting the excellent satellite radio broadcast to repeat its erroneous instructions. This was annoying, so I extinguished the voice and we followed the map. The system eventually sorted itself out and pointed us in the right direction, which we would have found on our own without its help. I wasn’t surprised by the glitch, and ardent readers of these pages know that I’ve never really gotten along with sat/nav systems, so this could have been my own incompetence. But I’ve read about similar glitches in other Highlander reviews, so an upgrade or reboot or something, might be in order here.
The car’s utility—it boasts 95.4 cu. ft. of cargo room–was put to the test when my aging lawnmower fell into a coma out in the back forty and had to be rushed to the clinic. Fortunately, the Highlander was standing by, quivering with eagerness. The second and third rows of seats were a cinch to lower, the second row with one-touch fold-flat levers located in the cargo area, the third row with simple pull tabs. I threw in a tarp and heaved the comatose and very cumbersome old Troy-Bilt on board. There was room to spare, but navigating steep downhill slopes without the mower crashing through a window was a delicate operation. Still, the Highlander lends itself to stealthy tiptoeing as well as to spirited sprinting. We made the trip without incident, and the mower is now ready once again to hack through the weeds in the tropical heat.
Safety is addressed in the Highlander in the usual thorough Toyota fashion, featuring their “Star Safety System” that includes stability and traction control, ABS with electronic brake-force distribution, and millions of air bags (at least eight) mounted on the sides of the seats and in and below the dashboard; a driver’s knee airbag is included. The third row boasts additional roll-sensing side-mounted airbags, a sensible addition to seats that, after all, only kiddies will use. Overall, the 2011 Highlander receives the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety’s highest rating, the resounding accolade “Good,” which is what you want to hear when you entrust any vehicle with the lives of your loved ones.
All in all, I give the Highlander two energetic thumbs up. It’s big enough inside for five adults and two children and their belongings. It’s refined and serene on the highway. It offers a choice of powertrains, which is theoretically great, but with fuel mileage of the smooth and powerful V6 being nearly as good as the four-cylinder’s, and with a price differential between them of little more than $1100, I’d go for the six every time, just to inject some vim into those Sunday drives. (The six sounds great under hard acceleration, too.) And in view of Toyota’s only briefly besmirched reputation for reliability, and a good resale value, the Highlander is one of the best choices out there, whether you’re planning to haul lawnmowers, humans, or the mail.