I’m not a bigger is better sort of guy. My parents used to tell me the best things come in small packages.
So I’m not one to automatically rave about Toyota’s new Highlander because it has grown dimensionally, about 2.5 inches of wheelbase and overall length. But if you’re a larger family looking for a super reliable mid-size sport-utility vehicle to haul seven or eight folks, that extra room is as welcome as a stimulus check.
It means more legroom in row two and a touch more in the always tight confines of row three and the cargo area.
I felt the top-selling Highlander nearly perfect when I tested it a few years back on a long highway drive to Louisville and back. This one was near faultless on a trip to Chicago and Elkhart Lake’s Road America. It’s roomy, quiet as a COVID-closed church, and with enough power to tow 5,000 lbs. while still getting respectable highway gas mileage, an SUV trifecta if you will.
Plus, and I don’t say this lightly, Highlander is a good looking ute. Toyota has worked hard at restyling its lineup for a half dozen years and Highlander reflects the edgy overall design palette Toyota has created. Its nose is especially attractive without being in-your-face mouthy like some brands.
Power comes from its stout 3.5-liter V6 that makes 295 horsepower and 263 lb.-ft. of torque, plus a Sport mode. That power is delivered smoothly through a well synched 8-speed automatic and because this was the top-level Platinum AWD model it was off-road worthy with 8.2-inches of ground clearance and a multi-terrain select system. That means you can rotate a dial to be ready for mud or sand or punch a button for when winter tosses a snowball your way.
Handling is good too with a moderately light feel and the SUV is easy to park and maneuver on winding roads. Ride? Darned good too and the extra couple inches of wheelbase (now 112.2 inches) further aids a ride that was already well controlled.
Toyota also has been one of the leaders, although others are quickly catching up, offering a bevy of safety equipment standard. Here it’s the Safety Sense 2.0 system that includes forward collision mitigation, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, adaptive (smart) cruise control and lane-keeping assist.
While in town or on short highway jaunts you’ll not want to engage the semi-autonomous cruise control that works at keeping the SUV centered in its lane. It can become intrusive and make the vehicle feel like its ping-ponging down the highway. But on a wide-open freeway that’s fairly straight it calms down and you must only keep a couple fingers on the wheel to keep an instrument cluster screen from yelling at you. It basically says, HOLD THE WHEEL, IDIOT, although that’s not the exact wording.
And don’t think this is a criticism only aimed at Toyota’s semi-autonomous system. Most create that ping-pong effect as the car’s steering corrects every time the vehicle is near a center or side lane marker. This was better than some, but still.
Other standard safety features on Highlander include automatic high beams, road sign assist (reads speed limits, etc.), a blind-spot monitor, 360-degree camera, park assist and rear cross-traffic alert. Most of these, except the camera, are pretty much standard gear on most vehicles now.
More pluses include a power rear hatch, giant panoramic sunroof, rain-sensing wipes, and third-row seats. The Platinum model plunks captain’s chairs in the second row, so would only carry seven passengers, but you can get a bench in other trim levels to allow your ute to carry eight. The third-row seat splits and can be folded down from inside the hatch. It’s best for kids and be assured there are plenty of cup holders and air vents back there.
Row two in the test unit had heated seats and climate controls plus a variety of plug-ins for the electronica-addicted. Manual sunshades can be pulled up in row two, there’s storage room under the cargo flgoor and one second row seat added a universal tablet holder, a $99 extra.
Big, comfy and quiet sums up the interior. This snazzy $425 extra Moon Dust (silvery blue) Highlander featured a sharp tan and brown leather interior, the seats being perforated tan leather and then a brown over tan dash and doors with metallic silver tweed dash trim. The thick leather wheel has black gloss trim on its lower spoke and there’s gray fake wood trim on the doors and console. The look is classy.
Seats are powered with mildly contoured bottom cushions and more pronounced contouring for the back cushions. They are easy to adjust and good for a long ride, plus the front seats are heated and cooled. The steering wheel also is heated.
Toyota includes a massive 12.3-inch touchscreen that is incredibly easy to use, and, of course, see. The Platinum model adds an upscale JBL sound system that sounds darned good too.
In addition, Toyota has figured out that we all have a bunch of plug-in items and odds and ends that need a spot to live. So Highlander’s console is large and offers plenty of storage and cubbies, plus a wireless phone charger just inside the armrest. Several plug-ins also are located under the center stack.
About now you’re thinking this reviewer must be paid by Toyota, but no such luck. And I did say early on this is a “nearly” perfect SUV. The concern I have with it, and many other utes is the giant A-pillars that partially block the side view. Yes, there’s a 360-degree camera and sensors all over the place, but I’d like a less encumbered side view.
On to other practical matters, such as gas mileage.
Highlander weighs 4,450 lbs., yet still manages a 20 mpg EPA rating in the city and 27 mpg highway. I managed an even 25 mpg in two 80% highway drives. If you prefer even better, consider the Highlander hybrid with a 4-cylinder engine and electric motor generating 243 total horsepower. The hybrid is rated 29 mpg city and 27 mpg highway.
Pricing runs between $38,200 and $48,250 for the hybrid, while the tested gas-powered Platinum starts at $49,920 with delivery fee. With options it hit $51,112, which is typical for upper end mid-size utes.
A base 2-wheel-drive Highlander lists at $35,720. Adding AWD bumps the price up $1,600 to $1,950, depending on the trim level.
While the Highlander is a winner, know that there are a lot of winners in this mid-size market. Others to consider include the new Kia Telluride (named my Zoomie Vehicle of the Year in February), Hyundai Palisade, Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot.
Shop around but know that Highlander sets a high bar.
Hits: Big, comfy, quiet family hauler with 3 rows of seating. Smooth V6 power w/ Sport mode, good handling and ride, plus panoramic sunroof, off-road settings, wireless charging, huge touchscreen, heated/cooled front seats, heated second row seats, heated wheel, power hatch and full load of safety equipment.
Misses: Thick A-pillars
Made In: Princeton, Ind.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 295 hp
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Weight: 4,450 lbs.
Wheelbase: 112.2 in.
Length: 194.9 in.
Cargo: 16/48/84 cu.ft.
Tow: 5,000 lbs.
MPG: 20/27, 25.0 (tested)
Base Price: $49,920 (includes delivery)
Major Options: Special color paint, $425
Carpeted floor mats/cargo mat, $318
Cargo cross bars, $350
Universal tablet holder, $99
Test Vehicle: $51,112
Editor's note: Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.