The Highlander SUV has been in Toyota's lineup for 20 years and currently one of the best-selling vehicles in its class. Developed on the TNGA platform shared with Camry and RAV4, the new Highlander is 2.4 inches longer than its predecessor, but overall width and height are essentially unchanged. Toyota offers several Highlander variants, starting with the base Highlander L ($34,600), followed by the LE ($36,800), XLE ($39,600), Limited ($43,650), and Platinum ($46,850). A 3.5L V-6 powers the front wheels or optionally, all four wheels. The Highlander is also available with a 2.5L inline-4 & hybrid powertrain and optional AWD in the LE, XLE, Limited, Platinum models.
We tested a Highlander Platinum AWD ($48,800) painted in pale blue hue called moon dust ($425). A few other options consisted of floor mats ($318), cargo cross bars ($350) and a universal tablet holder ($99). Adding the $1,120 delivery fee totaled up to $51,112. Significant standard equipment includes leather seats (heated and ventilated in front), power front seats (10-way driver plus lumbar support, 4-way passenger), heated second row seats, heated steering wheel, 12.3-in. touchscreen with navigation, JBL 11-speaker audio system, digital rearview mirror, 20-in. dia. alloy wheels, LED headlights with adaptive front lighting, power liftgate, panoramic moonroof, and in-vehicle Wi-Fi. Notable safety technologies consist of lane departure alert, dynamic radar cruise control, enhanced vehicle stability control, stolen vehicle locator, roadside assistance and automatic collision notification.
Toyota's port and direct-injected (D4S) 3.5L V-6 is standard on all non-hybrid Highlanders, and is mated to an 8-speed automatic. The V-6 gains stop/start capability but the transmission is carryover from the previous Highlander. The all-aluminum six has variable valve-timing (VVT-iE), and can switch to the Atkinson Cycle for greater fuel efficiency. Power and torque ratings are unchanged: 295 hp @ 6,600 RPM and 263 lb.-ft. @ 4,700 RPM. The 8-speed electronically-controlled automatic has both seventh (0.800:1) and eighth (0.673:1) gear as overdrive ratios. Power is sent to all four wheels via a front differential with 3.003:1 axle ratio. Both the Highlander Limited and Platinum benefit from a dynamic torque vectoring all-wheel drive system, while other models have a simpler on-demand AWD setup. The EPA fuel consumption ratings are 20/27 MPG (city/hwy.) for the Platinum AWD. We averaged about 20 MPG in mostly urban driving.
As with other midsize SUVs, the Highlander suspension uses front MacPherson struts and a stabilizer bar, but with the addition of a trailing wishbone link. At the rear is a multilink design with dampers, coil springs, and a stabilizer bar. Steering is via an electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion system. Brakes are all-disc with 13.3-in. dia. rotors front and rear. Standard 20-in. alloy wheels are shod with P235/55R20 Goodyear Eagle Touring all-season tires. Curb weight for the Highlander Platinum AWD is a substantial 4,450 lbs.
As the top model in the range, the Highlander Platinum is luxuriously outfitted with premium materials and superb build quality. The interior color scheme contrasts dark brown dash and upper door trim with ivory seats, lower door and dash panels. Glossy ash gray simulated wood accents on the doors and center console add an unusual hue to the interior color scheme.
The instrument cluster consists of an analog tachometer and speedometer with smaller inset coolant temperature and fuel level gauges. A configurable center LCD screen displays vehicle status information. The leather-wrapped steering wheel has secondary controls for mobile phone, audio, cruise control, lane departure alert, and vehicle status. The rear camera can display directly to the rearview mirror (it can be turned off). The widescreen infotainment touchscreen projects above the dash like a tablet. Audio system volume and tuning knobs, along with climate control settings are readily accessible below the touchscreen. A Qi wireless charging pad on the center console has a sliding cover to conceal a mobile phone. Three USB ports and a 12V power outlet are also located on the center console. Behind the shift lever are the drive mode selector and the terrain control knob with settings for Mud/Sand and Rocks/Dirt. We left the drive mode in Normal for most of our driving; the Sport mode setting adjusts the transmission shift points to higher RPM for faster acceleration.
Cloth or simulated leather seats are standard on lower level Highlanders. Both the Limited and Platinum get perforated leather seats that proved to be superbly comfortable, although we would have preferred greater thigh support. Front headroom is acceptable for occupants up to 5-10" tall. Second row headroom is tight for passengers taller than 5-9", but the seats compensate with generous legroom and excellent support. The third-row seats are acceptable for young children, but even with reclining seatbacks, adults will find the accommodations cramped. Both second and third row seats fold almost flat for maximum cargo capacity. The third-row seats are motorized to fold down and raise using buttons in the cargo compartment.
Mainstream midsize SUVs are intended to be unobtrusive people and cargo haulers, so a quiet, comfortable ride is a high priority. The Highlander's suspension balances compliance and body control effectively, but spring and damper tuning are clearly biased toward ride comfort. Moderate understeer and body roll around curves are typical among other SUVs in this segment, and the Highlander is no different. Subjective braking performance is above average, with a firm pedal and progressive actuation. The steering has moderate assist, but road surfaces are barely palpable through the steering wheel.
Toyota's engineers did a superb job isolating engine noise and vibration from the passenger compartment. Even at full throttle, the V-6 is barely audible in the nearly silent cabin. Toyota's implementation of the fuel-saving engine start/stop is almost undetectable. We could only tell if the engine was off by glancing at the tachometer. The all-wheel drive system eliminates any trace of torque steer or wheelspin on dry roads. Midrange torque is adequate for highway merging, aided by seamless transmission shifts and the close ratio spread between fourth, fifth and sixth gears. On the highway, the Highlander cruises effortlessly at 80 MPH, unruffled by crosswinds and patched pavement. Wind and tire noise are pleasantly hushed, elevating the Highlander as a superb choice for an extended family road trip.
The redesigned Highlander is a clear step up from its predecessor, notably in interior materials and powertrain refinement. However, like other midsize contenders in its class, the Highlander Platinum MSRP exceeds $50K, which is a substantial sum for a family SUV. Value-conscious buyers should consider the more affordable LE or XLE which start under $40K. Toyota customers looking at the Highlander Platinum may want to visit the Lexus showroom and see the RX350L, which is a reasonable alternative at a similar price point.