COAL: 2016 Toyota Highlander XLE AWD – Gold Standard


After Paul announced last week that this would be Toyota Week, we were so excited that we ran out and bought one.  No, not really.  However it is true that if every car has a story, then this one’s is just beginning with us.  After driving the Chrysler 300C for all of last year, I found myself deciding it was a great car without any objective faults but, for me at least, it just didn’t do it.  I know, I know, so a Toyota does?  Read on…


I admit I have a short attention span when it comes to my cars, and have to praise the Chrysler, it did everything well and never let me down.  But I noticed my eye wandering by the end of the summer and after thinking about it, realized that I really preferred something with a hatch or cargo space to drive around.  I also tend to trundle a bit, and don’t feel the need to floor the throttle at every opportunity anymore

Options I considered along with many others included the current Audi Allroad (superb design and materials, but just too small), Nissan Murano (very weird interior trim but I love the adventurous exterior styling), Jeep Grand Cherokee (very hard to find with the options I wanted and no more), 2012-2014 VW Touareg Hybrid (this was interesting, cool tech and very powerful and wonderfully depreciated but Allison rejected VW after their recent shenanigans came to light) and the Mercedes ML350/550 (Gen 2 and Gen 3 since we liked our GL but prices seemed to increase a lot over the fall for some reason) and then I rode in a friend of my wife’s new Highlander.


Previously I had a fairly low (and most likely entirely undeserved) opinion of the Highlander (Camry on stilts, right?) but did have a high opinion of every other Toyota we’d actually owned (Cressida, Land Cruiser, Sienna, Rav4).  I thought I’d give it a real chance and looked at a few of the last generation ones and then some new ones.  I quickly realized that these things really hold their value to the point that slightly used ones are asking higher prices than brand new ones after incentives are applied.



Between the last generation and the current generation the feature content has seemed to change by an entire trim level.  By that I mean that the former top of the line Limited trim is roughly equivalent to the current mid-level XLE while the current Limited trim has many features that were not even available in a Highlander last time around.  For example, the current mid-level XLE has navigation and leather standard along with niceties such as rear window sunshades that descend into the doors.

The major new items (besides some trim differences and better audio) on the Limited consist of a whole suite of additional driver-aid and safety technology but to get ALL of the tech, you have to jump further up the ladder to the Limited Platinum which includes a panoramic sunroof.  This was one feature I did not want, I had it on the Chrysler as well as on the Touareg, never used it on either, and was determined not to again pay for something useless to me.


I further decided that I didn’t like the look of the 19″ “Chromatec” wheels on the Limited.  These have a chrome effect plastic skin/hubcap that is bonded/glued to an alloy wheel underneath and is neither removable nor separately replaceable.  It’s kind of weird, and I wasn’t personally thrilled with the look.  Some other items would be nice to have, such as memory seats and a power passenger seat along with additional interior accent lighting, but the “bones” of the car were the same.


I guess you can tell where I am going with this, I decided that the XLE trim level was just fine for me (us).  One of the best things about a mass-market brand such as Toyota is that there are many dealers around, we have six or so within fifty miles.  I got several price quotes online and then decided to drive one, which I did and during which drive came to understand why there are so many of these around, they just get the job done in a very pleasing way.  Sure, there are other options that are faster or have more gadgets, but the other cars in our garage can fulfill those desires.

It turned out over the next few weeks that my biggest issues were A) getting a dealer to commit to a decent trade-in price for the Chrysler and B) actually finding a Highlander in stock (or already in transit) in a color combination that I liked; just like Subarus they tend to get sold before even being delivered and many of the colors I thought I might like were somewhat rare or at least not the ones being produced in abundance.

Interestingly, just like Subaru around here, although the cars are hard to find in stock on a lot, the dealers are discounting the cars tremendously. It was not difficult at all to get around 10% off the MSRP.  Toyota’s issue is that they have too many dealers cannibalizing each other’s business.  Or, more likely, it’s all built in already and there are significant volume bonuses in play that a buyer has no knowledge of.  In any case the discount for the leftover 2015’s was the same as for the new 2016’s (and most dealers were handling this the same way) so there was no reason not to spring for the one calendar year newer one.


The XLE also has an interesting option, that being the choice between a second row bench or captain’s chairs with a passageway to the third row along with a folding cupholder/tray table.  After mulling it over and watching some online reviews, we realized that the separation in the second row would be good and if one of the kids was in the third row, then having the passageway would make it feel more airy and open back there in addition to the easier access.

The Limited on the other hand is only available with the captain’s chairs, while the lower LE level is only available with the bench.  The folding split third row is standard in all Highlanders.  The captain’s chair option costs $275 which we considered worthwhile even if it does remove one potential seating position.  The last generation had a removable insert that accomplished a similar effect but with much less space in the “aisle”.


The Highlander was last redesigned for the 2014 model year, making ours the third year of the new series.  In the XLE, literally the only difference I’ve found compared to the 2015 is the color of the non-spoke area of the wheels, in 2015 it was kind of a gray, and in 2016 it is a much darker almost-black.  The wheels pictured on my car currently are actually from a 2015 while the loose wheel/tire to the left is one that our 2016 car came with.

I found a set of never-used 2015 take-off’s on ebay, they arrived in perfect condition and then I mated them with another set of TPMS’s and a set of the newest Blizzak DM-V2 winter tires.  Both sets are exactly the same size with an 18″ diameter, something about the picture above makes the “black” ones look larger, they are not, they are the same wheel except for the paint color.  The original wheels and tires are in the garage waiting for spring.


The engine is a 3.5liter V6 generating 270hp at 6200rpm and 248 lb-ft of torque at 4700rpm with a 6-speed automatic transmission.  The engine appears to be a carryover from the prior generation, which is how Toyota seems to do things.  At this point it does not have the latest technology such as direct injection etc. as the closely related engine in the Lexus RX350 does but the thinking is that along with a slight cosmetic update for 2017 the engine may change to that as well.  No matter, the tried and true works for me.


Surprisingly the engine is actually a bit louder than I thought it would be.  It’s not loud per se, but you are aware it is on and running.  It doesn’t cause visible vibrations in the cabin but does make you realize that it is part of the experience.  I don’t dislike it at all as I don’t generally like my cars to be sensory deprivation chambers, it’s hard to describe though.

The AWD is unobtrusive (more so than in my old RAV4), one of the display options is to show where power is apportioned, this seems to indicate that almost all of the time under any acceleration some (up to half) is going to the rear wheels no matter the grip level.  Like my old RAV4 it also has the “diff”-lock button that can keep it set at a 50/50 front/rear split until one reaches 25mph at which time it automatically shuts off, which is helpful in deeper snow conditions.  It also has a “Snow” button which aids launch in slippery areas or currently in my neighborhood where the streets are a mixture of snow and ice, presumably by lowering torque or simply starting in a higher gear.


It drives pretty much how you all would expect a Highlander (or any Toyota for that matter) to; i.e. it starts, and gets you there and back with no drama.  It does have a few surprises though.  While the steering is a bit lifeless without much feedback, it is pleasant to drive at higher speeds.

Early this week I was in Wyoming with it and took Highway 287 back home, this is a road between Laramie and Fort Collins composed of many elevation changes and a lot of high speed sweepers.  The Highlander was quite enjoyable, much more than I would have thought and the drive confirmed the other reviews I had studied before purchasing it.


But that isn’t its main mission, the idea is to transport family and others in comfort and safety without causing extra stress or aggravation.  To that end, and especially concerning its interior, it excels.  Large comfortable seats, lots of headroom and tons of legroom all help with this.  The driver’s seat has an adjustment wherein the front seat cushion literally sort of unfurls to create an extra measure of thigh support (very slick) and the second row seats are movable forward and rear depending on how you want to apportion the second vs. third row room.

A marvelous feature is the almost full width shelf under the instrument panel that is ideal for phones, pens, change, notepads, or whatever other oddments you might want to stash there.  The last time I saw something like this was in my friend’s 1972 VW Squareback back in high school.  What a great and virtually zero cost feature!


The center console is not obtrusively wide but it does contain one of the largest storage compartments I’ve seen, the lid of which doubles as the arm rest.  Heated seats are appreciated in the winter, especially with a rheostat-style control that doesn’t reset after every restart like our other cars do with their pushbutton heat controls.  The second row has to do with non-heated seats, another Limited option along with the heated steering wheel, which is the one thing we do sort of lament not having.  Oh well, we will just have to suffer.

Overhead along with cabin lighting is a “conversation” mirror, like that in many minivans where you can see every seated position which I don’t use as it somehow messes with my head and makes me uncomfortable.  What it also has though is a feature that amplifies your voice (the level is controllable) throughout the cabin.  One can speak softly and still be heard in the way back if it is turned up.  Perfect for road trips, no more need to potentially wear out the vocal chords admonishing the children to “Don’t make me stop this car, Junior!”


Styling is obviously subjective.  I personally think Toyota did a good job with this generation with the large and fairly flat front end and some interesting sculpting going on in the hood and along the sides.  In recent Toyota fashion, the lights front and rear sort of “bug out” which doesn’t disturb me.  A very nice feature is the rear glass which can open separately from the (powered) hatch, like the old Explorer did.  More hatchback rear ends should have this, the convenience factor is huge.


Picking the color was one of the toughest things.  In the end we got the exterior color that my wife thought she would not like at all and the interior that I didn’t think I wanted.  Our color is called “Creme Brulee” and is sort of a dusty silver-gold but more on the gray/brown side of the spectrum rather than red/yellow if that makes sense.  It changes a bit based on the light.


Inside we chose black after considering both the Ash (Gray) and Almond (tan but very buttery, Tom Klockau would love it!).  The black interior has contrasting brown stitching on the seats as well as some matching brown trim on the door panels and dashboard.  It works with this exterior color but wouldn’t with all of them, there is definitely more to think about than usual.  (The tan interior has the same brown accents and the gray has blue accents, obviously some interior/exterior pairings work better than others.)

The exterior color is interesting to me in that I believe color may be something like one’s sense of taste (as in food), perhaps one’s perception of these things changes as one matures.  Neither of us consciously like or have ever liked “gold” colored cars but I find that as I age I appreciate the tone more or at least certain variations of it.  This particular shade works very well for me, much like the “platinum” color that  the Subaru Outback uses that is similar.


After we did the paperwork and drove it home, my wife said she really liked it much more than she thought she would and would I mind if it became “her” car.  We all know there is only one correct answer to that question so it now resides on her side of the garage.  But I do get to drive it whenever I want and am also thrilled that after years of working her way “up the ladder” she is happy to drive a very nice, but definitely more mainstream-label car again.  I was kind of fretting as to what might strike her fancy eventually after the Mercedes.

The other interesting thing we realized is that we bought it on December 5th, a year to the day after we were involved in the accident that totaled our Outback.  In many ways, the current Highlander is the car that Subaru needs to build and a logical successor to the Outback that used to grace our driveway.