Toyota Highlander — Modern family transportation

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

For several years the mid-sized Highlander crossover SUV has been a sales juggernaut for Toyota. And Toyota has apparently hit the right notes with a refreshed 2017 Highlander featuring an engine upgrade and a new 8-speed automatic transmission. It's fourth in total sales at Toyota through the first seven months of the year trailing only the Camry and Corolla sedans and the RAV4 compact crossover. The upgrades and styling tweaks assigned to the 2017 Highlander have paid off — sales are heading toward the 200,000 mark for the year.

A new larger grille treatment, updated headlamps and new LED taillights give the Highlander a more SUV-like appearance. Revised 19-inch alloy wheels can be ordered although the side profile has for the most part been left unchanged. New feature content includes the Toyota Safety Sense technology suite, which is now standard on all trim levels, and Toyota has added four more USB charge ports for mobile device charging convenience. Another new feature is stop-start allowing the engine to shut off when the vehicle comes to a complete stop, and then restart when the driver’s foot lifts from the brake pedal.

A new SE trim gets a trim-specific dark paint treatment for the front grille, headlamp housings and roof rails, combined with unique 19-inch wheels, giving the SE a more athletic stance. The SE goes beyond sporty looks riding atop a specially tuned front and rear suspension that tightens handling agility. Inside, the SE gets black leather–trimmed seats with silver stitching and pattern seat inserts and a black front tray color with matching dash/door technical pattern inserts.

But the big news is the new engine and transmission combination. The 3.5-liter V-6 gets 295 horsepower, a 25 pony increase over last year, and 263 pound-feet of torque, a hike of 15 lb.-ft. The 8-speed transmission replaces the long-running 6-speed. The combination makes the Highlander one of the most energetic mid-sized crossovers rated at 7 seconds from 0-to-60. At the same time gas mileage has improved to 20 mpg city, 27 highway and 23 combined. That's a 2 mpg improvement over 2016. Our all-wheel drive SE test model carried a rating of 20/26/22. The cheaper regular grade gas is recommended.

While we enjoyed the Highlander, the crossover felt underpowered considering its near-300 horsepower rating, no quicker than the last model we drove a couple of years ago. We had the same experience in the 2017 Sienna minivan a few months ago, which also got the benefit of the bigger engine. The real disadvantage is in the 50-to-70 passing time that is nearly a second slower than the outgoing engine, according to tests by a major automotive magazine. It occurs to us is that the new V-6 in both cases has been tuned for maximum fuel economy at the expense of performance.

Unlike the exterior, the Highlander’s interior has been left largely untouched and we think that's a good thing. The cockpit features a number of handy storage nooks, including a shelf that spans the lower dashboard. It's the best storage feature we've ever seen in a crossover. Also noteworthy is a massive center-console bin that can accommodate nearly a cubic foot of stuff. Controls are logically laid out and most buttons are easy to access while driving.

We found all seats comfortable, particularly the driver's seat that afforded numerous adjustments. And the SE trim we tested even came with a power-adjustable thigh support. The bottom two trim levels come with a second-row bench seat while the XLE, SE, Limited and Limited Platinum come with second-row captain's chairs.Forget the near impossible third-row.

Standard safety features are plentiful including forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane departure intervention.

The XLE trim level and above receive a standard blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert. Unfortunately blindspot monitoring isn't available even  an option on the bottom LE and LE Plus trims. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety just completed a study showing that blind spot detection systems can decrease the rate of lane-change accidents by 14 percent and the rate of injuries by 23 percent.

The grossly underpowered Highlander LE with a 2.5-liter 4 with 185-horses starts at $31,570 including destination. That leaves the LE-Plus with front wheel drive and the V-6 engine starting at $33,620 including destination as the true base vehicle. The Highlander tops out at $47,200 for the Limited Platinum AWD.

Our SE test model with all-wheel drive carried a bottom line of $42,485 that included a $395 option for the Blizzard Pearl paint.

Base price: $31,570; as driven, $42,485
Engine: 3.5 liter V-6
Horsepower: 295 @ 6,600 rpm
Torque: 263 foot-pounds @ 4,700 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/2/3
Wheelbase: 109.8 inches
Length: 192.5 inches
Curb weight: 4,508 pounds
Turning circle: 38.7 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.8 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 83.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 19.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 20 city, 26 highway, 22 combined
0-60: 7.0 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia

The Good
• Excellent size for families
• V-6 get more horsepower
• Quiet and comfortable interior

The Bad
• Engine not tuned for performance

The Ugly
• Base 4-cylinder under-powered