2001 Toyota Highlander
This 2001 review is representative of model years 2001 to 2007.
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Finally, there's a sport utility for folks who pined for a new Lexus SUV but were put off by the high prices.
Built on the same platform as the top-selling Lexus RX 300 and using the same V6 and the same basic interior look, the 2001 Toyota Highlander can, in many ways, be thought of as a less-expensive RX 300.
The same man, Tsuneo Uchimoto, served as chief engineer for both vehicles. And he admitted he was keenly aware while developing the upscale RX 300 more than three years ago, that a similar vehicle "with a bit less luxury for a lot less money" could have wide appeal.
Uchimoto didn't have to convince Toyota dealers. They've been asking for an RX-like vehicle for years.
Starting in calendar 2001, they finally get it in the form of the Highlander. The new, midsize SUV joins Toyota's other midsize sport utility—the long-running 4Runner—in showrooms, marking the first time Toyota has two midsize offerings.
The Highlander also is the first Toyota midsize SUV that has car-like unibody construction. This means the vehicle body can be made stiffer and the floor can be lower than in a truck-based, body-on-frame vehicle.
I immediately noticed the lower floor in the Highlander. It was much easier to get inside this vehicle—and I didn't need running boards. Yet ground clearance is at least 6.9 inches.
And the Highlander's interior is surprisingly quiet.
Same power numbers
The only transmission is a 4-speed automatic with gear shifter positioned at the bottom of the middle of the dashboard, a la the shifter in the RX 300. It looks a bit weird but works fine.
Fuel economy is decent. Even the top-of-the-line Highlander V6 with 4-wheel drive is rated at 18 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway.
For budget-minded buyers, there's a base 4-cylinder engine. It's a larger-displacement variant of the engine that's in Toyota's compact SUV, the RAV4, and it was developed for the Highlander. The 2.4-liter DOHC 4-cylinder with variable valve timing generates 155 horsepower and 163 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
But Toyota officials expect nearly 90 percent of early-production Highlanders will be fitted with the more powerful V6.
Mostly car-like ride
While the overall suspension—independent front and rear MacPherson strut—is the same as in the RX 300, the Highlander uses stiffer springs and shock absorbers and a thicker stabilizer bar. Both vehicles ride on 16-inch tires.
No gimmicky styling
Otherwise, the interiors of both vehicles are airy. The Highlander, which stands 4.1 inches taller than the RX 300, actually has a bit more headroom.
The Highlander is 0.4 inch wider and has a bit more shoulder room and hip room, too. I could see the Highlander hood from the driver seat, thanks to the low cowl.
Because the wheelbase and overall length are stretched a few inches from the RX 300, the Highlander's cargo area is bigger. With 81.4 cubic feet of cargo space, the Highlander boasts more capacity than the 75.0 cubic feet in the RX 300 and 79.8 cubic feet in the 4Runner.
It's worth noting that the Highlander's front seatbacks fully recline. And if you remove the front passenger seat head restraint and lay the seatback down fully, you can load 8-foot-long items inside.
Looks different from RX 300
This is because the Highlander wears new body panels that I think give it nicer proportions than the RX 300 has. I also suspect its looks will be more ageless than that of the current first-generation RX 300.
Toyota did have to cut costs, of course, to offer the Highlander at a lower price. Uchimoto explained he and other Toyota officials needed "to capitalize on what we had learned with the RX project and find new ways to maximize efficiencies in design, development and manufacturing."
It helped that the Highlander is being built at Toyota's Kyushu plant in Japan which already builds the RX 300 as well as the Lexus ES 300 sedan—both of which rate very high in independent quality surveys.
"When it comes to ensuring the successes of a new vehicle, the Kyushu plant is a `sure thing,'" Uchimoto said.
Toyota also had other ways to cut costs. Compared with Lexus, Toyota uses a lower-grade stereo and less-expensive upholstery. But I didn't notice any problems with the materials and radio in the test vehicle.
I did notice that there are fewer standard features compared with the RX 300. For example, skid control and side airbags are standard on the RX 300 but both are options on the Highlander. Still, air conditioning, power windows and door locks, cruise control, anti-lock brakes and an AM/FM/CD/Cassette stereo are standard on the Highlander.
Full-time 4WD available
In the test Highlander, the system worked valiantly to keep the wheels moving in a half foot of snow when I ventured out of the tire tracks on a snowy, dirt road. But note that compared with the 4Runner, the Highlander doesn't have an extra-low gear for rugged off-roading.
About the price
But it's easy to move up from that low price. My test Highlander, with V6, leather interior and other options, was more than $31,000. That's a lot for a midsize Toyota SUV but still less than the lowest-priced RX 300, which starts at around $34,000.
For now, the Highlander doesn't offer third-row seating, so maximum passenger capacity is five. But the vehicle already has a flat interior floor and Toyota officials said they're looking at whether a third-row seat might be something consumers want.