This week, we’re testing the popular 2017 Toyota Highlander SE, powered by a new V6 engine with front wheel drive. With room for seven passengers, we put our tester through a week of 600-mile driving while visiting family in St. John’s near Jacksonville, Florida.

Highlander continues to be one of Toyota’s most popular and bestselling vehicles. With “recommended” ratings from the major consumer magazines and countless repeat customers, Highlander quickly moved up in the ranks to its lofty position as one of the most popular SUV’s available in America today.

Built in Princeton, Indiana, our Highlander SE provided ample room for our seven passengers, including two young children who shared the rear bench seat with their mom. I was pleasantly surprised with the ease of access the third row offered, and although “mom” did admit a cross country trip stuck in row three might be cumbersome for adults, the kids loved it.

A total of nine Highlanders are available in 2017, including six gasoline powered units and three Hybrid models. The entry LE starts at $30,630 and comes with a 185-horse four cylinder and six speed automatic, with the V6 optional. Once you move up, a new V6 with an eight-speed automatic is standard across the board all the way through the most expensive model, the Limited Platinum, which starts at $46,260.

If you seek a 4WD Highlander, each trim offers a Dynamic Torque Control AWD system while all of the Hybrid models come standard with AWD. Your dealer will gladly explain all trims, prices and specifications.

The Highlander SE’s base price is $39,690 and comes loaded with standard luxury equipment. Highlander SE also features an upgraded suspension system for sportier handling while still delivering a quiet and comfortable ride. New for 2017 is a re-styled front end with larger grille and a rear tail light enhancement.

Most notable is the aforementioned new 3.5-liter V6 engine, offering way more power and acceleration while delivering better fuel economy than the V6 it replaces. This V6 delivers 295 horsepower and 263 lb. ft of torque for very peppy performance. Highlander delivers 21 city and 27 EPA mileage, which is very good for a vehicle of this size. Tow capacity is also noteworthy as all V6 Highlanders can tow up to 5,000 pounds.

Some of the increased fuel economy comes thanks to a new “start-stop” engine feature that shuts the engine down when you come to a stop. The V6′s eight-speed automatic also helps out with the fuel mileage numbers as it is geared for both acceleration and highway cruising. I recommend the V6 with the eight-speed over the four cylinder with the six speed if you are considering an entry LE model.

Notable is the continued progression of Highlander to “near Lexus” esteem in both luxury and ride, especially when you get to the higher priced SE and Limited models. Starting with SE’s perforated leather seating to its exterior new look, you’ll be proud to park a Toyota Highlander in your driveway.

SE standard equipment is extensive. Included are backup safety camera, three zone climate control with first and second row controls, power liftgate with jam protection, lots of cup holders, five USB ports with three in front and two out back, keyless entry/start, sliding second row captain seats, 50/40 split fold forward bench third row seat, 19-inch Toyo tires on great looking alloy wheels, heated front seating, power moonroof, Premium Entune Stereo system with Navigation, and much more.

Also noteworthy for 2017 is safety, as each and every Highlander now comes with Toyota’s Safety Sense system, resulting in solid Five Star overall government safety ratings. From pre-collision with pedestrian detection to lane departure with steering assist, all of the top flight modern safety upgrades are standard this year.

A recommended option is Toyota’s “paint protection film,” which is nearly invisible (of course) and goes half way up on the front hood and also along the front fender area. We thought someone had scratched or “keyed” the hood when the sun was shining just right on where the film ended on the hood. Thankfully, we quickly realized it was a paint protector application much to our relief. It costs $395, but assures no paint chipping from the usual tiny and even larger debris particles that every roadway in America sends our way.

Important numbers include a wheelbase of 109.8 inches, 4,310 lb. curb weight, from 30.4 to 69.9 cu. ft. of cargo space, eight inch ground clearance, 38.7 ft. turn circle, and a 19.2 gallon fuel tank.

Toyota Highlander for 2017 receives a Test Drive “Best Buy” rating. Overall, this safe and good looking SUV continues to stand out against the competition and does so in a very crowded segment.

It’s almost a slam dunk.

Likes: New engine, Toyota quality in and out, fuel mileage.

— Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other GateHouse Media publications. He welcomes reader questions at