The Toyota Highlander is a smooth midsize crossover with a third row for kids, front-wheel drive with all-wheel drive available. It’s bigger than the RAV4 and less rugged than the 4Runner. It can be compared with crossovers such as the Hyundai Santa Fe, Honda Pilot, and Chevrolet Traverse.
Last redesigned for 2014, it got a revision in 2017, including a facelift, more tech, and more power with an eight-speed transmission. It’s unchanged for 2018.
The base Highlander LE uses a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine making 185 horsepower. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, it gets 22 combined miles per gallon. The available V6 has more power and gets better fuel mileage.
The 3.5-liter V6 with direct injection makes 295 horsepower. Mated to an eight-speed automatic, it gets 23 combined miles per gallon, helped there by the standard start/stop system. On the highway, it gets 3mpg more than the four-cylinder engine.
There is a sporty Highlander SE, with 19-inch wheels and a firmer suspension.
Also a Highlander Hybrid LE or XLE. It uses an Atkinson-cycle version of the V6 with direct injection. There are two electric motors, one for the front wheels and another for the rears. It makes a combined 306 horsepower and brings 30 City, 28 Highway and 29 Combined miles per gallon. We got seat time in a 2017 Hybrid XLE, all of it relaxed city driving, and it returned considerably less than that. Much the same with our 2016 Highlander Hybrid.
With the forward-collision warning system, the IIHS gives the Highlander its Top Safety Pick+ rating, with top Good ratings in every test. The NHTSA gives it five stars overall, with four stars for frontal crash and rollover.
The 2018 Toyota Highlander lineup includes SE, LE, LE Plus, XLE, Limited, and Limited Platinum models. The Highlander Hybrid comes as LE, XLE, Limited and Limited Platinum.
Highlander LE includes cloth upholstery, 4.2-inch multi-information display, six-way manually adjustable driver’s seat and four-way passenger seat, 60/40 split-folding and reclining second-row seat, 60/40 split-folding third-row seat, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, five USB ports, LED taillamps, and 18-inch alloy wheels. It also comes with the Toyota’s Entune AM/FM/CD audio system with a 6.1-inch touchscreen, six speakers, an auxiliary input jack, Bluetooth phone connectivity and music streaming, and Siri Eyes Free. Also standard are a rearview camera, hill start assist, and eight airbags, including a driver knee airbag and a front passenger seat cushion airbag.
The sporty SE gets a dark grille, headlamp housings, and roof rails. Inside it gets black leather with silver stitching and patterned inserts.
The fully loaded Limited Platinum gets heated and ventilated front seats, driver’s seat memory, a 12-speaker JBL audio system, a surround-view camera system, heated steering wheel, heated second-row seats, panoramic sunroof, and front park assist. It also gets Toyota’s Safety Connect system, which includes emergency assistance, a stolen vehicle locator, roadside assistance, and automatic collision notification.
Toyota’s upgraded Safety Sense P system is standard, with forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, lane departure alert, a pedestrian pre-collision system, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams.
The grille and headlamps are aggressive although not distinctive. The Highlander looks like other SUVs, bigger than midsize. Its big square lines make it look more like a truck-based SUV than a smooth crossover.
The grille is angular and protruding; it adds 1.3 inches to the Highlander’s already-long length. It’s silver on lower trim models, black on the SE, and platinum on the Limited, with lights that spell Highlander on the ground. Sounds goofy but it’s cool.
The instrument panel has a light touch of truck in it, in the SE model, which goes away as soon as the premium touchscreen comes. Bless those big knobs on the climate control. And big gauges. And no less than five USB ports, and many cubbies, plus an opening storage box on the dash.
The cabin is refined and quiet, with acoustic glass and floor insulation. Almost luxurious. The dashboard is flat and rich. The lines and textures mostly mix well, although they can get busy, which makes the cabin feel less calm than it might.
The long wheelbase of 110 inches allows good room inside, but that’s not quite long enough for an adult-sized third row. Most models have a sliding second-row bench that splits 60/40 and seats three, to make eight passengers; but the Limiteds offer captain’s chairs, or seven passengers.
The so-counted three-seat third row is very small, with little headroom or legroom, kids only. However it is possible for two adults to reach the seats and fit into them. But the third row folds flat, so if you don’t need the space for children, there’s 42.3 cubic feet behind the second row; and with that row folded it’s 83.7 behind the front row, enough room for bunk beds.
The front seats are good, but only the Limited model gets power adjustment; it’s an option with the others. Another option is cooled seats, if you don’t mind feeling hardware through the seat.
The optional sunroof takes up headroom, but you can recline the second row and look up at the sky.
The base engine is 2.7 liters and 185 horsepower with 184 pound-feet of torque. It’s smooth and meaty for a four-cylinder, but it carries too much weight in the Highlander, and the transmission is only a six-speed. Acceleration is reasonable but stressed if pressed. Forget it for towing, rated at a mere 1500 pounds.
The V6 numbers match the best V6 engines in the class, starting with 5000-pound towing. The turbocharged Ford Flex and V8 Dodge Durango are quicker, but that’s not everything.
You can hardly feel the shifts in the eight-speed automatic transmission, although it can be slow to downshift when you accelerate hard.
The Hybrid powers the front wheels mostly with the V6 engine, and the rear wheels solely with the second electric motor. The engine and front motor use a power-split system like Toyota’s other vehicles with Hybrid Synergy Drive. Because this system weighs 350 pounds, the Hybrid is slower, unlike some cars whose hybrid is the quickest.
The handling is pleasant and predictable, with firm electric power steering, but it’s uninspired and vanilla. It’s controlled, but it leans in turns and can be wobbly.
The ride is smooth, not quite cushy, on the standard wheels. The 19-inch wheels allow the jolts to be felt. The soft ride and handling go away in the SE with its firmer suspension.
The Toyota Highlander is smooth and practical. We can only recommend the V6 with eight-speed. We like the Highlander SE for the handling, and the Highlander LE for its value, including good equipment without the stacked-on price.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.