The Toyota Highlander is a comfortable and smooth-riding midsize crossover with three rows of seating, standard front-wheel drive but available with all-wheel drive. It’s considerably larger than the RAV4 but not rugged like the 4Runner.
It was last redesigned for 2014, but for 2017 Highlander receives a facelift, more power, a new eight-speed transmission, and more high-tech safety features. It also gets four more USB ports, for a total of five. The third row remains very small.
There’s a new sporty Highlander SE, with a stiffer suspension and 19-inch wheels, so the ride is more firm and less smooth. The Highlander Hybrid is now available in lower LE and XLE trims.
Highlander can be compared with other large crossovers such as the Hyundai Santa Fe, Honda Pilot, and Chevrolet Traverse.
The 3.5-liter V6 that powers most models of the Highlander gets upgraded with direct injection, which increases its horsepower to 295 from 270. The new eight-speed automatic transmission has a broader range for the torque-converter lockup, which gives it a more direct feel, according to Toyota. The new powertrain raises fuel mileage a bit, to 21 city, 27 highway, and 23 miles per gallon combined. It uses a start-stop system that shuts the engine off at stop signs and redlights, and restarts it when the drive takes his or her foot off the brake pedal.
The base Highlander LE uses a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine making 185 horsepower, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Despite having much less power, it gets one less combined mile per gallon than the new V6, and three less highway mpg.
Hybrid models use an Atkinson-cycle version of the V6, also with direct injection. The hybrid system uses two electric motors, one for the front wheels and another for the rear wheels. It makes a combined 306 horsepower (up from 26), and brings 30 City, 28 Highway and 29 Combined miles per gallon. We got seat time in a Hybrid XLE, all of it relaxed city driving, and it returned considerably less than that. Not unlike our experience with the 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 2017 Highlander lineup includes the new SE, LE, LE Plus, XLE, Limited, and Limited Platinum models. The 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 new nose (grille and headlamps) is more aggressive without being distinctive. The old grille was smoother and subtler, and more traditionally Toyota-SUV-shaped. It’s hard to tell the Highlander from any other SUV on the road now. For sure it looks a lot bigger than what might be considered mid-size. Its size and square lines makes it look more like a truck-based SUV than a smooth crossover.
The grille is angular, silver on lower trim models, black on the new SE, and platinum on the Limiteds. It protrudes, adding 1.3 inches to the Highlander’s already long length. The Limited model has lights that spell the word Highlander on the ground, and looks cooler than it sounds.
The instrument panel only has a little bit of truck in it, that goes totally away with the big touchscreen on some models. Although the climate control still uses large easy knobs. The big gauges are a welcome sight.
The cabin is quiet, calm, refined. Luxury inside, with thick acoustic glass and floor insulation. The lines and textures mix well, if sometimes a bit busily; and the flat, rich dashboard features a storage spot that opens things up. Cubbies are not hard to find.
The long wheelbase of 110 inches provides plenty of room inside to work with. But three rows of seats have to be squeezed in, so it’s not a slam-dunk. 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 front seats are good but manual, if you want power adjustment you have to buy a Limited. You can get them cooled, but you’ll feel the hardware through the seat.
The optional sunroof takes up headroom, but you can recline the second row and look up at the sky.
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 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 new V6 has to be the call. Its numbers run with the best V6s in the class, starting with 5000-pound towing. The turbocharged Ford Flex and V8 Dodge Durango are quicker, but that’s not everything.
Shifts with the new eight-speed automatic transmission are so smooth you can hardly feel them, although it can be late to downshift when you get on the has.
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. But the 19-inch wheels allow the jolts to be felt.
The soft handling and soft ride might be fixed in the SE. Certainly improved, with the SE’s firmer suspension.
The Highlander works best with the V6 and eight-speed automatic. It’s a win on powertrain. We’d go for an LE, because it has plenty of equipment without the stacked-on price. Or maybe the SE for the handling.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.