2012 Toyota Highlander

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Short Take Road Test: 2008 Toyota Highlander

This 2008 review is representative of model years 2008 to 2014.
By Steve Siler of Car and Driver

The all-new 2008 Toyota Highlander is boring.

Seriously, we haven't been this bored driving an all-new car since, well, the original Highlander was introduced for the 2001 model year. Yes, with its new version, Toyota has addressed customer complaints regarding the previous model's lack of style, space, and horsepower. But somehow, in spite of those improvements, the '08 Highlander exhibits no more charisma than Al Gore hosting a paint-mixing seminar.

Now, this is entirely intentional. Since its introduction, the yawn-inducing Highlander has been a key part of Toyota's everything-to-everyone strategy of world domination, which seems unlikely to end soon unless Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe decides to invade Russia. Among other tactics, Toyota's U.S. strategy now includes selling no fewer than six SUVs, three of them mid-sizers: the Highlander, therugged and trucklike 4Runner, and the retro FJ Cruiser.

Big Outside, Huge Inside
Clearer in person than in pictures is the fact that the Highlander has grown—a lot. Wheelbase, height, and width are each up about three inches, with overall length up four. Say what you want about the billowing skin itself, but Toyota claims the sheetmetal offers improved aerodynamics (the coefficient of drag is 0.34) while ensconcing a truly massive interior.

Which brings us to the real reason to consider a Highlander: space. The '08 Highlander now has no fewer than 156 cubic feet of interior space—up a whopping 41 cubic feet compared with 2007. Of that, 95 cubic feet of it can be stuffed with gear when all seats are folded (up from 81). That's five cubes more than a Land Cruiser and only 2 fewer than the gargantuan Nissan Armada.

Brilliant Interior Packaging
Not only is the 2008 Highlander spacious, but it also has many clever solutions for interior flexibility. As expected, the standard third-row seat folds flat, but the second row consists of two individually sliding and reclining buckets (complete with skinny little inboard armrests) with a small center jump seat to hold a third person. When not needed for three-across seating, the center pad can be folded, removed, and handily stowed into a space under the front center armrest. A storage console can then be installed in its place.

All seats—including the driver's—have about as much contouring as stadium bleachers. And the Highlander's newfound width actually places door panels (and, consequently, the outboard armrests) so far away that smaller-framed drivers have to lean over to rest their arms on them. Oh, the things companies do for interior-space bragging rights.

Also on the Highlander's features list is a rearview camera display on mid-grade Sport and top-shelf Limited models. It utilizes the standard 3.5-inch screen in the center of the dash. Naturally, navigation-equipped Highlanders use the large screen instead, leaving the small screen to convey only climate and vehicle data.

Should you order nav, a nice 11-speaker JBL sound system comes along for the ride. And of course, no modern SUV is complete without at least twice as many cup holders as there are seats, and true to form, the Highlander has 14, counting the door pocket bottle holders. That's a lot of sippy cups and bottled waters—owners would be well advised to use that center-seat area for an onboard Porta Potti.

Driving Impressions
The Highlander now comes standard with a 3.5-liter V-6 (270 horsepower, 248 pound-feet of torque), also found in numerous Toyota products, that sends power through a five-speed automatic to either the front or both axles. (Wait! This can't be right: Hyundai upstages Toyota with its six-speed Veracruz?) The new Highlander proved to be reasonably quick on our drive along the high-speed, placid mountain roads between Portland, Oregon, and Washington's Mt. Adams, as well as in our acceleration testing—0 to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 15.5 at 91 mph. That's 1.1 seconds quicker to 60 than the last Highlander we tested (with a 220-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 and four-speed automatic). But quick doesn't always translate into fun, which we'd prefer. No, this is an extremely quiet, capable kind of quick, rather than the stirring, invigorating kind. In other words, you'll never wake your slumbering kids with neck-snapping torque. Tow capacity, however, rises to a more than adequate 5000 pounds.

The 3.5-liter engine brings even base Highlanders up to speed—literally—with the hybrid version that was added for 2006. The new Highlander hybrid carries over the old powertrain, which is also rated at 270 combined horsepower. Now that the power scales are even, we definitely prefer the gasoline model on account of its silky five-speed automatic, which offers manual shift control (hybrid models have a CVT) and far superior brake feel than the touchy hybrid's.

And even though the new, larger Highlander weighs almost 300 more pounds and has an additional 55 horsepower over last year's Highlander, the '08 model gets 1 mpg more across the board (2WD: 18 city/24 highway, 4WD: 17/23). Now, that's progress, and those figures slightly edge out competitors such as the GMC Acadia/Saturn Outlook and Mazda CX-9.

What the Highlander could benefit from is more communication from the electric power steering; a system that is perfectly smooth, saves weight, and offers certain efficiency gains, but lacks character. The brakes felt better, offering sure-footed stops on some of Mt. Adams's steeper declines. We also found the body resistant to flopping over on its side in corners, although we found relentless understeering characteristics at its 0.74-g limit. But—thank you, Toyota—the stability control can now be fully disabled. The ride, as expected, was quiet and smooth, although with the 19-inch wheels (17s are standard) that come on Sport and Limited models, it can get a bit brittle, particularly on broken Michigan roads.

Wake Me When You're Fun
So it's a snore to drive. But then, Toyota rarely tries to engineer its products to outperform its competition, just outsell it. Certainly if it were our $27,985 for a base two-wheel-drive model (rising to $34,835 for a Limited with all-wheel drive), we would prefer more visual and dynamic excitement; something along the lines of the Mazda CX-9 or even the GMC Acadia. But for every one of our kind, it seems there are 10 who will buy a Toyota, no matter how it looks or drives, on account of its peaceful behavior, harmless appearance, and seemingly bulletproof reliability. For them, the Highlander will be a spacious and competent platform from which to launch their not-so-boring lives. And that should ensure its success.

Performance Data

C/D Test Results:
Zero to 60 mph: 7.0 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 18.7 sec
Zero to 110 mph: 25.6 sec
Street start, 5–60 mph: 7.2 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 15.5 sec @ 91 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 113 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 179 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.74 g

Fuel Economy:
EPA city driving/highway: 18/24 mpg
C/D observed: 22 mpg

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BB06 - 4/18/2014 3:49:18 AM