Perfect for everyday duty and getaways on the Apache Trail

By Jim Prueter

(February 11, 2019) When winter does arrive in Arizona, it’s never the news making polar vortex that sweeps into the Midwest, characterized by high winds and chill factor temperatures customarily 50° below zero with blowing snow. Rather, it comes with gray skies a bit of drizzle, and a 40° cold (for Arizona), wind that rattles through the mesquite trees and ocotillo cactus that chased away my plans to drive the 2019 Toyota Highlander up Arizona’s Apache Trail for the day.

Not to worry; winter here has a duration of approximately three days and I got to keep the Highlander for a full week. Apache Trail is one of America’s most scenic drives and affords visitors an incredible view of canyons, geologic formations, desert plants and trees, desert and lake views, and wildflowers in season.

Highlander is the perfect vehicle for the Apache Trail, which covers just less than 50 miles with the most northern 22 miles of that on gravel roads through historic mining towns with names like Tortilla Flat and Goldfield Ghost Town. Photo opportunities are endless, and with all-wheel-drive on the Highlander, we reached photo opportunities we wouldn’t otherwise get, at one of the numerous pullout areas along the side of the trail. This isn’t a rugged off roader like its 4Runner sibling but easily takes you places a sedan will not.

We took the trip with our grandson, and Highlander proves to be the perfect vehicle for traveling with kids and family, the dog, snacks and essential day-trip necessities. What I found most satisfying about the Highlander is how it reacts to every type of road condition — mixed driving on twisty two-lane canyon roads, traversing steep inclines and deep descents — with composure and thankfully no threat of car-sickness from the passengers. Toyota has engineered the Highlander driving dynamics so perfectly that, at some point, I almost wished for a rough edge in its character. That experience never came.

To the point, Toyota has been in the SUV business in a big way much longer than most automakers, and with a wider array of utility vehicles in size and form from which to choose. And to borrow a line, Toyota has “learned a thing or two because they’ve seen and experienced a thing or two.”

No one can accuse Highlander buyers of being drawn to it for its edgy good looks and sporty, high-performance capabilities. Further, no one asked if they could take a photo of the vehicle, nor did anyone follow us home to know what it was we were driving. Those things aren’t part of the Highlander package. It’s decent looking, but getting past its freshness date and due for a complete makeover, since it’s been six-years since its last redo. It’s highly likely Toyota will introduce a completely new generation 2020 Highlander later this year.

For 2019, the Highlander is mostly a carryover vehicle with little new since its significant refreshing for 2017. There is, however, a new Nightshade Special Edition appearance package with black accents to the rear spoiler, shark fin antennae, and exterior door handles, and mirror caps. Black 19-inch wheels, complete with black lug nuts, will match the black headlights and fog lamps. The Toyota emblem on the back will get the same treatment. Limited to a run of 5,000 total units, it’s available in available in just four exterior colors including Salsa Red Pearl and Midnight Black Metallic.

Consistent with its exterior, little has changed inside and seating is available for up to eight people when a three-person second row bench seat is selected. Comfortable captain’s chairs are standard in up-market trim levels, giving easier access to the third row. But know that the third row of seats is designed with kids in mind. Seats are easy to fold down, affording ample cargo room behind the second row of seat, which are also heated and slide fore/aft and recline. One disadvantage is that competitors offer a power fold feature for the third row of sets where Highlander does not. There’s also no motion activated rear liftgate, which most competitors offer.

Our Highlander Hybrid was powered by a snappy 295-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine that powers most models. However, our model adds a battery pack and three electric motors that not only up the total system horsepower to 306, but also yields an impressive 28-mpg overall, best among all midsized SUVs. A four-cylinder engine is also available but only on front-wheel-drive models.

Our test Highlander Hybrid came standard with all-wheel drive, driven by a second propulsion motor that drives the rear wheels when needed, in what Toyota calls “all-wheel-drive with intelligence.” Unlike non-hybrid Highlander models, the all-wheel-drive can’t be locked for low speed off-road driving.

But, once you’ve driven a fully electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid like the Prius plug-in-hybrid, regular hybrids like the Highlander seem a bit dated and there is little all electric driving here. The energy delivery just isn’t as satisfying by comparison. The Highlander still uses the older style nickel metal rather than lithium batteries.

In addition to the lack of power folding seats and motion activated rear liftgate, we also lamented the absence of LED lighting, and disliked the non-height adjustable front passenger seat, and tinny sounding door closures – especially because it has a near $50,000 price tag and the “Limited Platinum” premium sounding name. These features should be standard equipment.

The Highlander is one of Toyota’s very best-selling vehicles and it comes as no surprise. Those shopping for a mid-sized three-row crossover are irresistibly drawn to the Highlander for its family-friendly capability, practical functionality, advanced safety features and superb crash test scores and results. The Highlander consistently scores high on class-leading reliability and resale value, and gas-sipping frugality.

Whether it’s making trips to and from school, trips to the Home Depot or scenic getaway drives on the Apache Trail, the Highlander is a smooth performer with high levels of practical use and flexibility.

Vital Stats
Base Price: $48,730
Price as Tested: $49,939
Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6 coupled with three electric hybrid motors delivering 306 total horsepower connected to a Continuously Variable Transmission (automatic)
Fuel Economy: 29-mpg City - 27-mpg Highway – 28-mpg Combined
Seating: 7

Crash Test Safety Ratings: Highest possible overall 5 star from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and 2019 Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Where Built: Princeton Indiana

Competes With:
Buick Enclave
Chevrolet Traverse
Ford Explorer
GMC Acadia
Honda Pilot
Hyundai Santa Fe
Kia Sorento
Volkswagen Atlas

Fab Features
Comfortable, quiet, and spacious cabin
Outstanding crash test scores
Smooth hybrid performance and ride quality