The Toyota Highlander is a midsize crossover SUV that delivers versatility, comfort and practicality, including three-row seating. All-wheel drive is available for wintry weather.
Highlander is among the best in its class in terms of comfort and frugality. In addition to flexible second-row seating, it offers relatively free access to the third row. In terms of being stylish, rewarding to drive, or offering rugged off-road capability, well, not so much.
Last redesigned for 2014, there are no significant changes for the 2016 Highlander.
It might look a bit more rugged than its predecessors, but the Highlander is technically closer to Toyota passenger cars than to any rugged SUV. The Highlander is more civilized and family-friendly than a 4Runner, and it’s roomier than a RAV4. If you want a rugged SUV, get a 4Runner.
For more appealing fuel-economy estimates, the Highlander Hybrid remains available. Otherwise, both four-cylinder and V6 gasoline versions suit most family requirements.
Most Highlander models come with the 3.5-liter V6, developing 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. Available with front- or all-wheel drive, Highlanders use a 6-speed automatic transmission. In addition to smooth-running and reasonably strong responses, the V6 is more fuel-efficient than expected. For 2016, all V6 models include a towing package, for 5,000-pound capability.
The 2.7-liter four-cylinder, making 185 horsepower in price-leading Highlander LE models, performs adequately with a mild load. Pack in the whole family, though, and it’s overtaxed.
Highlander Hybrid models team the V6 with a continuously variable transmission (eCVT) and all-wheel drive, for 280 horsepower total output. Because they’re some 350 pounds heavier, Highlander Hybrids accelerate relatively slowly. Hybrids come only in top Limited or Limited Platinum trim.
Fuel economy isn’t a plus. Even the four-cylinder RAV4 is EPA-rated at only 20/25 mpg City/Highway. The V6 is EPA-rated at 19/25 mpg City/Highway with front-wheel drive, 18/24 mpg with all-wheel drive. Highlander Hybrid is EPA-rated at 27/28 mpg City/Highway, but it isn’t likely to reach those figures unless driven mildly.
The Highlander is reasonably agile and electric power steering is standard. The cabin is not noisy. The Highlander XLE has an innovative feature called Driver Easy Speak that uses a microphone to transmit front-seat voices to back-seat riders.
In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash-testing, Toyota Highlander got a five-star overall score: four stars for frontal crash and rollover testing, but five stars in side-impact. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety calls Highlander a Top Safety Pick +, having earned mostly Good ratings, though only Acceptable on its new small-overlap test. Among Toyota’s safety options are blind-spot monitors, a lane-departure warning, and parking sensors. A Driver Technology Package bundles pre-collision warning and adaptive cruise control.
The 2016 Toyota Highlander comes in six trim levels. All but the base model come with a 270-hp 3.5-liter V6 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, and a choice of all-wheel drive or front-wheel drive. The Highlander LE also offers a 185-hp 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine with 6-speed automatic and front-wheel drive.
Highlander LE ($29,990) comes standard with the four-cylinder engine, premium cloth interior, rearview camera, Bluetooth, USB port, Entune smartphone connectivity, with 18-inch wheels and split-folding second- and third-row seats. LE V6 ($31,515) includes the V6 engine. Highlander LE Plus ($33,895) upgrades with three-zone climate control, a power tailgate with flip-up glass, fabric/SofTex seat trim, and a power driver’s seat.
Highlander XLE ($36,815) gets leather upholstery, heated front seats, pushbutton start, sunroof, an 8-inch touchscreen with navigation and other features. Blu-Ray entertainment is optional. The second-row bench can be exchanged for captain’s chairs.
Highlander Limited ($40,415) gets 19-inch wheels, rear parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring, second-row captain’s chairs, heated/ventilated front seats, and power front passenger seat. Highlander Limited Platinum ($43,030) includes the Driver Technology Package with Safety Connect, pre-collision with adaptive cruise control, and lane-departure alert, heated steering wheel, panoramic sunroof, heated captain’s chairs, and rain-sensing wipers.
All-wheel drive ($1,460) is optional. Eight airbags and a rearview camera are standard on all models.
Highlander Hybrid Limited ($47,870) and Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum ($50,485) include all-wheel drive.
The Toyota Highlander looks a bit more SUV-like than many crossover competitors. Just consider the gaping grille, as well as the prominent wheelwells and door sills, signs that suggest ruggedness.
Externally, the Highlander occupies an ambiguous area between all-out SUVs and more dapper, carlike wagons. This, at a time when most larger crossovers, such as the Ford Flex and Hyundai Santa Fe, have been moving in the tall-car direction.
While some critics dismiss the Highlander as bland, its design has improved in recent years. At 191.1 inches in length, the Highlander is significantly smaller than the Nissan Pathfinder.
Conversely, the cabin is strictly carlike, and it’s a visually appealing mingling of textures and lines. Impressive refinement approaches the qualities of a luxury vehicle, including rich soft-touch materials.
Navigation systems feature a large touchscreen, but many functions use solid buttons, which is good. Instruments are large. A large, useful storage shelf runs along the lower dashboard.
Seats are comfortable, making it easy to enjoy the smooth, quiet Highlander ride. Driver visibility is helped by large rear-quarter windows and repositioned pillars.
The second row may have either a three-person reclining split bench, or twin captain’s chairs. Second-row headroom is limited by the standard sunroof.
Though wide, the three-person rear bench is short on headroom; but it folds flat. Cargo space totals 13.8 cubic feet behind the third row, with a maximum of 83.7 cubic feet.
Underway, the Highlander is calm and quiet. Thick acoustic glass suppresses powertrain sounds, while floor insulation minimizes suspension noises.
The Highlander offers handling that is neat and responsive. It rides firmly, not softly, which feels appropriate. The electric power steering has a satisfyingly firm feel. Skip the optional 19-inch tires, if ride comfort is a goal; 18-inch wheels and tiers should smooth the ride slightly.
Most Highlanders come with the 3.5-liter V6, which is relatively strong.
Conversely, acceleration performance from the Highlander Hybrid is not impressive, considering the total 280-horsepower output. Gas mileage is better than either conventional Highlander, but the added weight of hybrid components inevitably drags down acceleration.
The Highlander LE with 2.7-liter engine comes only with front-wheel drive. For a large-displacement four-cylinder, it’s runs more smoothly than expected, but it’s underpowered. Ordinarily, the four-cylinder Highlander accelerates at a reasonable pace, but responses slow down appreciably if you’re carrying a full load of passengers and luggage.
Toyota Highlander comes offers a choice of front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. The V6 that comes on most models is the best choice, though it doesn’t stand out in any big way. The three-row Highlander is a favorite for families, helped by calm, quiet operation and good safety ratings.
Driving impressions by Bengt Halvorson, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.