Depending on How Closely One Looks, the Revised Highlander Might Be a Good Crossover for a Growing Family

Toyota hopes the revised 2017 Highlander, which in 2016 was sandwiched between the best-selling so-called midsize three-row Ford Explorer and third-place Honda Pilot, can regain traction from its best-selling year in 2015. All Highlanders gets butched-up exterior styling and a suite of standard safety features, including forward collision and pedestrian pre-collision systems with auto brake, lane departure alert/correction, dynamic radar-based cruise control, and auto high-beams. V-6-powered models co-opt the company’s 2GR-FKS engine with automatic start/stop and the eight-speed automatic transmission from the Lexus RX 350. They’ve also added an upper-tweener sporty SE trim that mirrors most of the XLE trim features but with sport-themed suspension, wheels, and styling. Did all this work pay off? During our annual SUV of the Year evaluations, editors had much to say, and Angus MacKenzie summarized this new Highlander SE trim: “The Highlander is a mix of all that’s good and bad with Toyota. Underneath a restyled body, which is one of Toyota’s better recent efforts, is a platform that’s old and a ride/handling compromise that’s been dulled to the point of lethargy.” The Highlander SE was particularly at odds with itself on the faithfully reproduced California State Route 110 section of our assessments, where Frank Markus remarked that it was “even jiggling my face.”

Sporty in Appearance

2017 Toyota Highlander SE AWD rear three quarter

This criticism is due to the SE’s suspension tuning, which feels like the all-spring, no-damper choice we’ve witnessed in other sporty Toyota/Lexus products. On the best of roads, it feels connected and sure-footed, but bend it into a bumpy corner, and the Highlander leans, and its wheels can’t seem to follow the contours of the pavement without a jiggling/squealing protest. What we assumed would be a measurable and subjective handling improvement was neither. On our skidpad and figure-eight tests, the new-for-2017 SE failed to produce better results compared to a 2015 Highlander LE V-6. The SE gripped the pavement with 0.77 g in lateral acceleration where the LE showed 0.79 g. The SE’s 27.6-second figure-eight lap dramatically lagged behind the LE’s 25.8 seconds. Against the competition, the Highlander SE also trails the 2016 Ford Explorer Limited AWD and Honda Pilot Elite we have tested. Combine these shortcomings with early-onset tire squeal and SE-tuned steering that feels unnecessarily heavy, and the Highlander SE is decidedly sporty in appearance alone.

Another demerit came at the expense of the new driveline. The new V-6 boasts more power (a gain of 25 horsepower and 15 lb-ft in torque), the eight-speed is said to provide better acceleration, and according to the EPA, the combo earns slightly better fuel economy. Our tests showed otherwise. In acceleration, the 2017 Highlander SE reached 60 mph in 7.2 seconds on the way to a 15.5-second quarter mile at 92.6 mph. The previous six-speed 2015 Highlander LE V6: 7.1 seconds to 60 and the quarter mile in 15.5 seconds at 91.2 mph. Our Real MPG lab had more bad news. The EPA tests report an improvement 2 mpg across the board, from 18/24/20 mpg city/highway/combined for 2016 to 20/26/22 for the 2017 Highlander V6 AWD. Our Highlander SE AWD results were well below these estimates at 15.8/23.9/18.6 mpg, respectively.

Wanting to feel the presumed improved response from the more powerful engine and more tightly geared transmission combination, we were disappointed to witness the throttle programming resist acceleration—and the transmission thwart downshifts—until the pedal was applied in earnest. Also, now given the choice of eight forward gears to choose from instead of six, the programming is determined to find the highest-numbered gear possible. On a steady uphill section of our test route, even with cruise control set to 60 mph, the Highlander shuffled gears up-down, up-down, refusing to maintain a single choice for more than a few seconds at a time.

Highway Comfort and Safety Systems

Using the billiard table–smooth four-lane oval at our host’s test facility, more than a few evaluators remarked at how tall the new transmission’s gearing proved to be. “When merging onto the oval, it was just topping out in third gear at 65-ish mph,” Christian Seabaugh said. “It’s almost like it’s geared like a four-speed and has then just been given a handful of extra cogs—just because.” Mark Rechtin concurred. “The gearing of this SUV is really tall, which can be OK if you’re in the sweet spot,” he said. “Third gear easily gets you to 80 mph, but second-gear passing from 45 to 80 is another matter altogether.” Out on the oval at speed, the ride was expectedly smooth, and wind and tire noise were kept hushed, but the matter of the new lane keeping warning and assistant drew ire. “There is a control for lane departure with steering assist, but it’s the drunken-sailor system that bounces off one lane marker then the other,” Markus said. It also makes an audible tone each time. “I much prefer the lane-centering idea.” We also had an opportunity to test the radar-based adaptive cruise control, which was very effective at maintaining a distance to the car in front regardless of set speed. However, on a real-world highway, the Highlander SE wasn’t equipped to maintain a set speed without a pace-setting car in front on a downhill section of highway, running well past the 60-mph set speed to more than 70 mph before we touched the brakes.

Playing in the Dirt

2017 Toyota Highlander SE AWD side in motion

Our evaluations continued on a prepared off-road course, which consisted of gravel, silt, loose and packed dirt, dips and bumps, and slight sideways inclines. Here, the Highlander SE’s ample power, decent ground clearance, and relatively wide tires proved their merit. We were generally impressed with how well and how easily the crossover handled the novice course. “I’m pleasantly surprised by this thing,” Seabaugh said. “It feels impressively well-built. Solid. Off-road, it’s quite apparent that the Highlander comes from the same company that builds the Land Cruiser and Hilux. It doesn’t get bogged down by sand; it powered right through it. That being said, there was a significant amount of rattle from the second and third rows on the gravel road.” We can forgive the early-build prototype the rattles. However, we’re not certain why the driver-selected all-wheel-drive lock mechanism self-unselects at speeds above about 20 mph.

What Remains

The best part of the 2017 Highlander appears to be what was left unchanged: its remarkably well-considered interior packaging. Abundant headroom, legroom, shoulder room, and cargo room are complemented by numerous clever storage options, such as the uniquely useful door-to-door dash-mounted shelf and a sizeable center console that Rechtin reckoned “can fit a medium-size dog—much less your purse, or your dog inside your purse.” The sporty SE trim inside is a welcome upgrade with contrasting stitching on the leather seats, but the dour black/gray color palette won’t do it for everybody. Also, a Toyota Sienna minivan might also better serve those whose kiddos are still challenged by the Highlander’s rather tall second-row step-in height, yet this is a common sport-utility trait not unique to this Highlander. “The second-row seat cushions are low and offer little thigh support,” Markus, always good for in-depth second- and third-row reviews, said. “It offers abundant headroom, legroom, and foot room and good outward visibility. There is a flip-up center console with cupholders, but it is the shiniest cheapest-grained plastic I’ve seen this side of a bowling alley. There are plenty of conductivity options back here: red, white, and yellow video input jacks, a 110-volt plug, and two USB ports. Then there is an [optional] Blu-ray Disc and an SD card input on the overhead screen. The mechanical recline-and-slide second-row unit for third-row access works pretty well. The furthermost back seat is extremely low, forcing my knees up very high, and I must have the center second-row seat moved well forward on its track to accommodate me—this is a child seat. But at least each child gets an overhead air-conditioning vent. Oh, sorry, not the poor kid stuck in the middle. Yes, they expect three people to sit on this third-row bench.”


Those who already like the Highlander will love the new Highlander. Jason Cammisa uncharacteristically found the zeitgeist of the Highlander and is extremely confident that our nitpickiness was overwrought. “Wow, finally a handsome Toyota,” he said. “And although I know my opinion is going to be unpopular, I see many reasons why this Highlander will outsell many of its competitors and why more of those customers will love it more than any other: It nails its intended purpose. Everything about the powertrain oozes smoothness—this V-6 is absolutely imperceptible at idle and inaudible in normal driving. The transmission’s light throttle shifts are perfectly imperceptible, too. The car glides off the line as if were powered by an electric motor. The steering feels like it’s assisted with ball bearings, and no matter what you ask of it on the rough off-road course, the Highlander’s suspension refuses to make a harsh noise, slam into its bump stops, or lose composure. Instrumentation is clear, and the buttons that people who buy these kinds of cars use (i.e. not the stability-control-off stuff) are big, well-labeled, and easy to find. The second row is enormous, with my only complaint being that the seats are mounted so low to the floor. That said, there’s a space between the two captain’s chairs to walk into the third row. The materials in the back (with the exception of the flip-up tray between the seats) are nicer than any other SUV save a Mercedes. I don’t love the way the dash looks, but functionally, it’s brilliant with that shelf for phones and stuff. There’s no reason for the sunroof to have two buttons to control it, and the reach for the stereo tuning knob on the stereo is way too far. But that’s it. This is the kind of vehicle that Consumer Reports will love and that customers will buy over and again. And I see why. Would I buy one? Probably not, but there’s no SUV that I would. However, when someone asks me what the best two-kid-hauling everyday-driving midsize SUV is, my recommendation ain’t gonna be that four-cylinder Mazda. It’ll be this Toyota Highlander every time.”

High praise, indeed, from a typically critical reviewer, and depending on your priorities and values, the 2017 Toyota Highlander SE (or other trim with softer tuning), might just help Toyota sell more Highlanders in 2017. Time will tell.

2017 Toyota Highlander SE AWD
BASE PRICE $40,000 (est)
PRICE AS TESTED $42,000 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 3.5L/295-hp/263-lb-ft Atkinson cycle DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4,551 lb (55/45%)
WHEELBASE 109.8 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 192.5 x 75.8 x 68.1 in
0-60 MPH 7.2 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.5 sec @ 92.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 126 ft
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.6 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 169/130 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.87 lb/mile