I am now a first-time Toyota owner. I’ve owned all the Big Three, a couple Hyundai’s, an AMC and a Honda, plus my family has owned VW’s, an MB and even a SAAB. Toyota, for being such a popular brand, surprisingly has never entered my personal orbit until now. The occasion is the purchase of a 2016 Highlander to be our new Wife’s Car/Family Hauler.
This has had me thinking about whether the popular notion that Toyota’s are more reliable and durable is still true.
Our primary reasons for choosing the Highlander were:
1. My wife likes it
2. It is short enough to fit in our fairly limited garage space (many three row CUVs/minivans won’t or would be extremely tight)
I can’t say the reputation of the Toyota brand was a major motivation, but it did make me more comfortable with buying a make that I am unfamiliar with.
The Highlander replaces a 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe that we bought new (that’s the larger three row one). That one was a base model, which came well-equipped with things like leather-wrapped wheel, bluetooth and heated front seats, but was still relatively basic. My wife has been wanting to upgrade to something with more features like a sunroof, leather seats, second row buckets, power liftgate, etc, so we decided to get a late model used vehicle that was better equipped. The Hyundai had been totally satisfactory as far as reliability, so my boring yet practical suggestion was to get another Santa Fe with more options. However, my wife as the primary user wanted something different and wasn’t swayed by my boring advise. We settled on a Highlander XLE, the middle trim in their lineup.
We purchased the car from Echo Park, which is a used car super center kind of like CarMax or AutoNation, i.e. the Costco of used cars. Like the others, they have no-haggle pricing. Their price was right in the middle of Blue Book value for the model, options and 35,000 miles, but it did come with brand new tires and they offered me more than I expected for a trade-in on the Santa Fe. So I am now the proud owner of a Toyota, hopefully for quite a while!
The car is nice. It’s quiet, rides smoothly and the seats are comfortable. There is not the least thing sporty in its nature, unless you count the bucket seats (front and rear!), which are universal these days and therefore not sporty at all. The power is decent from its 270 h.p. 3.5L naturally aspirated V6, but the gearing and tuning in the transmission clearly favor leisurely and efficient driving over aggressive acceleration. Likewise, the steering is soft and nonadjustable, while the handling does not encourage rally course fantasies. All of that is fine for the type of use this car will be getting.
What I really like about it is that when I drive it, I feel practically invisible due to the extreme ubiquity of this model. In the suburbs where I live, pretty much anywhere cars gather you will see at least one Highlander. That combined with the white color, and I’m sure nobody has ever given it a second look. I also like that it doesn’t have the, uhm…polarizing front end styling that many other recent Toyota models suffer from.
Though the car is generally smooth, there is a bit of unexpected engine vibration at highway speeds. Shifting the car into and out of gear creates a small amount of shudder, especially when the engine is cold. When lifting off the brake quickly, the pedal makes a little rattle noise. These are actually quite mild though notable because they were not present in the Hyundai or even my 96 Buick. The local Toyota dealer service department assures me these are all normal for the car. I even checked the brake pedal on a new Highlander and it did the same thing. I am going on the theory that these are rough edges common to the Highlander and perhaps other Toyota’s.
Matters of refinement aside, the question at hand is about reliability and durability. The Highlander is assembled in the U.S. and doesn’t share anything mechanically with the 80’s and 90’s models that Toyota built their dominance on. Toyota builds so many vehicles, especially the top-selling ones like Highlander, can their old magic still make it into every car? Unlike me, many of you have a lot of experience with Toyota’s. So, what do you say? Do modern, high-volume Toyota models like the Highlander live up to the reputation that Toyota has had for decades of being unfailingly reliable?