REVIEW: Toyota Highlander stays sharpOct 21st, 2016
The battle between SUVs and minivans is over: there can be only one.
Like it or not, the minivan is no longer a mainstay of family life. Instead, the three-row crossover has taken its place as the family truckster.
This is simply the way things evolve: first we had sedans, then we had station wagons, then we had vans, and now we have crossovers. What’s next? I don’t know – maybe hovercrafts. We shall see.
At the larger end of the scale, before you cross into full-size SUV territory, are machines that seat seven in relative comfort, have the commanding seating position of a proper truck, and have the ground clearance and all-wheel drive to deal with some mild off-roading. They are probably a little less practical than a van, but they do offer a feeling of security.
The Highlander is an excellent specimen of this new breed of kid hauler. Already a strong seller, it receives a number of improvements for the 2017 model year.
Somebody at Toyota’s design department has a thing for grilles. The previous generation car had a large front end already, but this new machine takes things about as far as they can go. The lower section of the Highlander’s front is approximately 90 per cent black plastic slats, and that is not an exaggeration.
It’s a strong statement of aggression from a vehicle that makes no claims to be the fastest machine around a racetrack or the most indomitable far off the beaten path. However, every manufacturer these days thinks we all want giant Halloween masks glued to our cars, so there you have it.
The rest of the Highlander is relatively unchanged, but still looks handsome. LED headlights and taillights sharpen things up a little, and there are new 18-inch and 19-inch alloys to fill out the wheel wells. Other than that, it’s business as usual.
Like the exterior, Toyota hasn’t meddled much with what was already a pleasing recipe. The Highlander continues to come with smart little features like a dashboard shelf for all your day-to-day necessities, and is a comfortable place to be.
Many manufacturers place a heavy emphasis on style where interiors are concerned, but the Highlander is engineered to support and survive daily use. The storage bin between the seats, for instance, is large enough to count as a studio apartment by Vancouver standards. You could fit an entire golden retriever in there. Not that I’m suggesting you do so.
Likewise, the middle and rear rows in the Highlander have plenty of room, and 2017 sees more of what the youngsters really want: USB power outlets so they can charge their devices and not look out the window. Adult passengers will find the third row a little cramped, and with it deployed cargo room drops from almost 1,200 litres to less than 400 l.
Still, the Highlander’s simple and squared-off exterior styling allows for good vision for all passengers – if they raise their eyes from their smartphones – and the fit and finish are very good. The Highlander isn’t quite a Lexus, but it does feel like a flagship for the company, with the highest trim Limited variants exceptionally well equipped.
Canadians have two choices when it comes to the Highlander: a powerful V-6 or an efficient hybrid system. In the United States, you can buy a version of this huge crossover powered by a four-cylinder. It must be pretty miserable to haul all that weight around with such a tiny engine.
For 2017, Toyota has upped its game with a new eight-speed transmission and a 295 horsepower rating for the direct-injection V-6. That’s plenty of power to get the Highlander sprinting down the field, and should be more than enough to pass big rigs on the highway with ease.
The hybrid version is no slouch either. A little heavier than the standard car, it gets a healthy 292 h.p. rating. The instantly available electric torque makes the available power feel greater than it is.
Unlike the Mazda CX-9 or the Honda Pilot, both of which tout lightness as an attribute, the Highlander feels a bit heavy from behind the wheel. Good. While nimble handling that provokes you into carving up the corners is fun in a two-seater sports car, chances are your three-kid family won’t love being chucked around in the back.
Instead of speed, the Highlander impresses with quiet poise. The old vehicle was already very smooth, but Toyota has done their typical job here refining the ideal with acoustic glass, tweaks to the suspension damping, and other minor fiddles. As a result, the Highlander is happy to glide along at highway speeds.
Something else too: as part of their efforts to improve the safety of their entire range of cars, Toyota is introducing standard automatic braking to prevent or mitigate collisions (including pedestrian detection), automatic high beams, and lane-departure warning.
The package, called Toyota Safety Sense, will be rolling out as standard on the Highlander this year, and should improve its active safety ratings – something very important in the segment. As a side benefit, this means all Highlanders now come with adaptive cruise control.
Toyota’s Entune touchscreen infotainment is better than anything Lexus currently offers. It’s simple, it’s well laid out, and it’s highly functional. There are flashier options, but few that are as easy to use. Base models of the Highlander now also include blind-spot monitoring.
Official fuel economy ratings are yet to be released, but the eight-speed automatic should provide an improvement over the current model’s 11.6 litres/100 kilometres mixed mileage. The V-6 version, it should be noted, delivered on its economy targets in the real world, while the hybrid fared better the more city driving you did.
Solid heft; well laid out cabin; comfortable and quiet.
Too much grille; less nimble than competition.
The checkered flag
Minivan, consider yourself replaced.
Honda Pilot ($35,590): Lighter on its feet than the Highlander, the Honda Pilot ditches its former tank-line image for that of a really big CR-V. For the most part, that’s a good thing, with plenty of space for all three rows and a cargo area that’s decent even when the third row is deployed.
It’s also relatively quick, thanks to a revvy V-6 and lower curb weight than the Highlander. However, the Toyota’s infotainment and cabin layout win points for being simpler and more practical.