The Toyota Highlander is in the heart of the midsize crossover SUV market, and is about the same size as the Honda Pilot. Highlander's 95.4 cubic feet of cargo room is more than all but a handful of competitors in the popular midsize class.
The Highlander fits in the middle of Toyota's four-pronged midsize SUV lineup. It features softer styling than the 4Runner midsize SUV and the retro-styled FJ Cruiser. Truck-based platforms, rugged suspensions and low-range transfer cases make 4Runner and FJ Cruiser highly capable off road. The Highlander is based on the same architecture as that of the Camry and Avalon sedans. Highlander's all-wheel-drive systems are designed for taming slippery pavement and wintry conditions, not for climbing rocks and traversing rough terrain. Likewise, the Toyota Venza is a mid-size vehicle that further blurs the line between wagon and SUV. (Whether you call these vehicles SUVs or wagons seems like a specious argument to us, and we could argue either side. The point in our view is whether the vehicle meets your needs.) Also based on the Camry platform, the Venza is even more carlike than the Highlander.
The design of the Highlander is clean, and accented on each side by a character line that leads into pronounced wheel arches. The look is more SUV than station wagon, and the available 19-inch alloy wheels add to the muscular stance.
Alloy wheels come standard, so every Highlander looks well-equipped. Hybrid models are differentiated by blue-tinted lighting, a finer-textured grille, and 10-spoke alloy wheels with alternating thicker and thinner spokes.
Climb into the driver's seat of the Highlander and you are greeted by a quality, upscale cabin. Fit and finish are excellent and the design is attractive. There are more hard plastic finishes than in a Lexus, but those plastics are nicely grained and assembled with care.
The secondary controls are easy to spot, and they move with precision. A 3.5-inch screen displays trip computer and climate control information; its optional on the base model and standard on all others. This same screen displays the image from the rear backup camera whenever you shift into Reverse. The picture is very small, but it could help the driver avoid making the tragic mistake of backing over a child, and in everyday use it speeds parallel parking or backing up to a wall.
Opt for the navigation system, and the camera is projected onto the larger navigation screen, making the image easier to see. This is a far more useful tool than the standard screen when it comes to backing up. This screen also displays some of the audio controls, adding an extra step or two when changing stations, but the system works very well.
Cup holders abound, with 10 cup holders scattered throughout the cabin. Larger bottle holders are provided in the doors, handy for large water bottles. There's also plenty of storage for small items.
Hybrid models have some exclusive interior touches. The gauges are trimmed in blue instead of red, and a power meter replaces the tachometer. Displayed either on the multifunction screen or the navigation screen are Consumption and Energy Monitor information. The Consumption screen displays fuel economy in real time and five-minute increments, and the Energy Monitor screen employs a schematic to show when the gas engine and electric motors are in use. It may be fun to watch these screens, but be careful because they can distract attention from the road.
Many buyers prefer SUVs because the high seating position lets them see over traffic. The Highlander's elevated ride height and upright seating position give it that desirable SUV trait but with easier step-in than what's found in older, truck-based SUVs.
Head and leg room are generous in the first and second rows. Up front, the leather seats are comfortable, and visibility is good to all corners.
The second-row captain's chairs are comfortable, and the Highlander has a handy removable center seat that can be replaced by a center console. The area between the second-row seats can also be left open to provide a walkthrough to the standard third row. Either the center console or the center seat can be stowed beneath the front seat center console.
The third-row seating is aided by second-row seats that can slide forward. Adults can fit, but the seat cushion is set low, so it's still not ideal for long trips. Access to the third row is easy from the passenger's side, as the second row captain's chair flips and slides forward in one motion. The driver's side chair folds flat, but doesn't slide forward far enough to allow passengers to walk through.
For cargo space, the second- and third-row seats fold flat to open up a very useful 95.4 cubic feet. Tethers and levers are provided in the cargo area to make folding and unfolding the seats a breeze. The available separate opening rear glass is a nice convenience, and the load height is low for an SUV, making it easier to load groceries, duffle bags, and other cargo.