COAL: 2011 Toyota Highlander – The Camry of SUVs

There is a famous line in the film adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty where Chili Palmer questions the rental car attendant about the Oldsmobile Silhouette he’s been delivered. “I ordered a Cadillac.” “Oh, well, you got the Cadillac of minivans.” I feel like with the Highlander, Toyota built the Camry of SUVs.

On a visit to see my older brother in upstate NY in late 2017, I was picked at the airport by his 2011 Highlander SE. He had owned this since new and had taken exceptional care of it. On the ride from the airport, he happened to mention that he was considering a new Highlander. I told him I was very interested in buying this one when the time came. It would be perfect for hauling our Little Guy Silver Shadow teardrop camper. I normally avoid buying cars from friends or family to avoid any buyer or seller remorse but in this case, I made an exception. I told him I would give him $1000 over whatever the dealer offered, no negotiation, so no bad feelings afterwards. I ended up paying him $16,500 for it with just 95,000 or so on the odometer. Not a great deal but better than I might do from a dealer and I knew the owner’s history with the car.

The Highlander debuted in 2000 as the Toyota Kluger in Japan, apparently the Highlander name was already in use by Hyundai in Japan and Australia. It was introduced as the Highlander in the US in 2001. Based on the K platform which also underpinned the Camry, Avalon and Sienna, along with several other models, the Highlander was Toyota’s first car based SUV. It was available in both 5 and 7 passenger configurations and offered with front wheel or all wheel drive. The Highlander was an attractive alternative to the truck based 4Runner for those who never intended to get further off-road than a gravel driveway.

Like the Camry, first generation Highlanders are still quite plentiful on Twin Cities roads, although most of the survivors seem to be painted a medium shade of blue called Bluestone Metallic. Periodic makeovers and engine upgrades have kept things fresh in a Camry sort of way. Toyota added a Hybrid model in 2005 making this the first 7 passenger hybrid SUV.

Our Highlander SE was a 2nd generation with the mid-cycle refresh that slightly improved the looks, although I’ve always thought this generation was the weakest from a styling standpoint. The weird fender lines reminded me of the original Hyundai Santa Fe and not in a good way.

The SE came standard with AWD, 7 passenger leather seating, multi-zone climate control and the Center Stow seat system which converted the second row aisle to a minimalist center seat. When not in use, the seat would stow under the front seat center armrest/storage bin.

Third row seats would fold flat when not in use and a cargo cover could be stored under the rear carpet. It feels like during this time, Japanese designers were trying to outdo each other with all of these stowable interior components that were more gimmick than useful devices. We ended up removing both the cargo cover and the Center Stow seat to make room for storing more useful gear.

Equipped with the 3.5 L engine and towing prep package, which included a heavy duty radiator, engine oil cooler, transmission cooler and 4 pin wiring harness, our Highlander was rated to tow 5,000 lbs. Why Toyota didn’t go all the way with the wiring and make it a 7 pin, I will never understand. Thanks to eTrailer how-to videos, I was able to retrofit a 7 pin harness, but what a pain.

The Highlander was generally trouble free although I did have a couple of issues. While parked in a local campground, I happened to notice a slow drip coming from the radiator one evening. By morning it had grown to a steady trickle. After packing up the teardrop and hitching up, I refilled the radiator and started off on the 2 mile trip to the storage yard where we kept the camper. I made it about a mile before the temperature gauge shot into the red zone. I really didn’t want to deal with having to tow both the Highlander and a camper, so I shut everything down and let it cool for a a bit before starting the last mile. It took me about an hour to make the trip but I got the trailer dropped off and then called for the tow. A new radiator and associated hoses, clamps and what not and I was soon good to go.

Our concrete parking garage claimed another victim in our fleet when my wife Maggie backed into a column, putting a serious dent in the rear bumper covering. I managed to find an exact color match cover on Craigslist for $35 and swapped it in with no trouble. A set of brakes and tires at about 110,000 miles was the only other significant expense.

I did have a non-functioning rear wiper that was apparently related to a design flaw with this generation of the Highlander. Water mixed with road salt would corrode the wiper motor shaft to the point where it would just spin freely when turned on. The wiper assembly was installed through the rear window glass and I never did figure out how to remove it without risking breaking that glass. I just got used to washing that window every time I bought gas.

About halfway through our ownership, we sold our teardrop and bought a Scamp 16 fiberglass trailer, doubling the tow weight to around 2,000 lbs. This is when I added the 7 pin harness to allow us to charge the Scamp battery while under way. The Highlander continued to be a capable tow vehicle for this class of trailer but after a year, we decided to upgrade the Scamp to an Escape fiberglass trailer. This would result in a tow weight approaching 4,000 lbs or more loaded and I felt that would be pushing the Highlander’s limits. Once we made that decision, we decided our next tow vehicle would be a pick up.

Owning a pick up meant that we could tow Escape’s top of the line 5th wheel, so in the fall of 2020 we put down a deposit on a new trailer and I started shopping for a used F150.

I had intended to keep the Highlander much longer than the 3 years we owned it. At the time of the trade for the F150, it only had about 140,000 miles on it. It was perfectly fine tow vehicle for our smaller trailers, offering plenty of storage and adequate power except in the mountains where the 3.5 L engine combined with the 5 speed automatic transmission would really struggle to maintain speed. And coming down those steep grades could also get exciting, especially with the teardrop, which did not have trailer brakes. It certainly delivered a Camry level of bland styling both inside and out, but it served us well.