The Toyota Highlander offers nearly everything that could be expected from a midsize crossover, including a spacious, family-friendly interior with seating for up to eight, clever technology and convenience features, and a strong reputation for reliability. Numerous trim levels and powertrain options are available, including an efficient hybrid model, and each has a noticeably upscale feel.
Not much changed for the most recent model year of the Highlander. The towing package, which includes an upgraded engine cooling system, a supplemental transmission cooler and a high-output alternator, is now standard on all V6 models.
With midsize crossovers having largely replaced minivans as Americans' people-haulers of choice, interior functionality is a top priority for the segment. It's in this area that the Highlander excels, with a variety of strong points that make it ideal for carrying people as well as cargo.
First off, with a distinctive design, appealing materials and commendable fit-and-finish, the cabin isn't tough on the eyes. There's also substance to go along with the style, as the layout incorporates numerous practical elements - for example, a novel dashboard storage tray provides a convenient place to stow odds and ends, and it also features an integrated cord management system for easy mobile device charging.
An enormous 24.5-liter center console between the front seats affords extra room for life's detritus, while tri-zone air conditioning and 12 cupholders ensure that all passengers are comfy and well-hydrated.
Two different second-row seat designs are available - captain's chairs that bring passenger capacity to seven, and a bench seat that helps the Highlander seat eight - both of which roll forward and fold down to give convenient access to the third-row. An available BlueRay DVD entertainment system makes long journeys more interesting for those in back, and in case there's a fight over what to watch, Mom or Dad can restore order with the "Driver Easy Speak" system, which uses an embedded microphone to feed the driver's speech through the Highlander's audio speakers.
Front seat entertainment comes from the standard "Display Audio" system and its attendant 6.1-inch touchscreen; uplevel models get a larger 8.0-inch display and an App Suite that brings smartphone-based access to Bing search, OpenTable, Pandora radio, Yelp and more.
When the time comes for cargo hauling, the Highlander provides 13.8 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seats, with 42.3 cubic feet available when the rear seats are folded flat. Fold down the second row as well, and there's a full 83.7 cubes to be had.
Powertrains and Fuel Economy
The Highlander is offered with the buyer's choice of three different engines, in addition to front- or all-wheel-drive.
Base model Highlanders are equipped with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder that produces 185 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, while other trim levels come standard with a 270-horsepower, 248 lb-ft of torque 3.5-liter V6.
The small four-cylinder struggles against the Highlander's weight, and because it must work so hard to get the crossover up to speed, it's barely more efficient than the V6. Overall, the strong six is a much better choice, especially for those in northern climates (AWD is unavailable with the four-cylinder).
Fuel economy is rated at 20/25 city/highway mpg for the four-cylinder, and FWD and AWD V6 models are rated at 19/25 mpg and 18/24 mpg, respectively.
Those seeking maximum mileage can opt for the Highlander Hybrid, which teams the 3.5-liter V6 with two electric motors - one mounted up front, and another in back that provides AWD capability by driving the rear wheels. Total system output is 280 horsepower, and efficiency checks in at an impressive 27/28 mpg.
Notably, the Highlander Hybrid is only available as a nearly full-loaded vehicle, meaning its equipment and price point may not suit all buyers.
Trim Level Breakdown
The Highlander is available in LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited trim levels. LE models are saddled with the 2.7-liter four-cylinder, while the 3.5-liter V6 is fitted as standard through the rest of the range. The Hybrid powertrain is available only on the Limited.
The LE's standard features include tri-zone air conditioning, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo with a 6.1-inch touchscreen and AUX and USB inputs, a rearview camera, Bluetooth connectivity, a 3.5-inch instrument cluster display, a multi-function steering wheel, auto on/off headlights, cruise control, power windows and locks, and 18-inch alloy wheels.
To those features, the LE Plus adds automatic tri-zone air conditioning, upgraded cloth upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, soft-touch door trim with leatherette armrets, a power liftgate with a separate glass hatch, a power-adjustable driver's seat, fog lights, HD radio, HD traffic and HD weather.
The XLE includes leather upholstery, a navigation system with an eight-inch touchscreen, Entune Apps, a moonroof, a proximity key, remote start, a 4.2-inch LCD instrument cluster screen, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a universal garage door opener, 2nd row manual sunshades, Driver Easy Speak and a 110v power outlet.
Optional on the is a package that includes heated front seats, a power-adjustble passenger's seat and second row captain's chairs with a side table.
The Limited brings perforated leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, a power-adjustable front passenger seat, a 12-speaker JBL premium audio system, woodgrain interior trim, LED daytime running lights, smoked-chrome headlight accents, dynamic guidelines for the rearview camera system, blue LED interior ambient lighting, a blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert, rear parking sonar assist and 19-inch alloy wheels.
Both the XLE and Limited can be spec'd with a rear-seat BlueRay DVD entertainment system with a nine-inch display, RCA jacks, remote and two wireless headphones.
Exclusive to the Limited is the Driver Technology Package, which nets a pre-collision system with dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with automatic high beam headlights, automatic collision notification, stolen vehicle locator, roadside assistance and emergency assistance. Building on the Driver Technology Package is the Limited's Platinum Package, which further spruces things up with a panoramic moonroof, a heated steering wheel and heated perforated leather second-row captain's chairs.
All Highlanders are fitted as standard with dual front, front side and side-curtain airbags in addition to a driver's knee airbag, a front passenger seat cushion airbag, traction and stability control systems and a tire pressure monitoring system.
Limited models are enhanced by a blind spot warning system with rear cross traffic alert that warns the driver of oncoming vehicles in backup situations.
The Driver Technology Package brings a pre-collision warning system, automatic collision notification and emergency assistance. Also included is a lane departure alert system; it provides a warning if the Highlander begins to drift into an adjacent lane.
Rivals to the Highlander include the capable Ford Explorer, the practical Honda Pilot, the capacious GMC Acadia and the sporty Mazda CX-9.