Once upon a time (alright, twenty years ago), Toyota introduced the Highlander. Pitched as a more family-friendly alternative to the rugged 4Runner in the lineup, to my personal surprise it quickly became a hit. I can’t say I was a big fan initially as to me it looked a little “soft”, however I came to eventually revise my first impressions and about fifteen years and three generations later one joined our own fleet where it has been doing a stellar job for the last almost five years now. So it was with a feeling of familiarity that I sauntered down my front walk to greet this new version last week.
It seems about the same size as the outgoing one because it pretty much is, the only dimension that’s different really is length with slightly more than an additional two inches of it in the wheelbase and overall length; now it’s also built on Toyota’s TNGA-K platform. Compared to most of its current three-row CUV competition, the Highlander was (and still is) a skosh smaller which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, probably being as much a positive for some as a negative for others.
Styling is evolutionary, i.e. it’s still instantly recognizable as a Highlander with similar overall lines and, as usual for the model, somewhat conservative styling that blends in rather than stands out. The pretty light blue “Moon Dust” color on the outside garnered several compliments over my week with it and marks a return of a hue that seems to have in general been disappearing from our roads over the last few years.
Opening the door is the point at which I was heavily surprised as the interior has improved hugely over the last generation. Not that the outgoing model was bad (it wasn’t) but this new one is significantly upgraded in materials as well as style.
Starting with the seats, this (admittedly top-spec) Platinum trim level comes equipped with diamond-patterned perforated leather seats that seem designed to draw attention to themselves with actual styling rather than as merely comfortable perches to sit upon. The seats (heated and ventilated) were soft, cushy, yet still supportive for hours on end although they have lost the electrically extending thigh support (driver’s side only) that the older model possessed. It was the first thing I looked for when adjusting them and while disappointed initially and fearing the cushion too short, it ended up being a non-issue for me by the end of the week.
The next most obvious change is the significantly “embiggened” center screen in the dashboard. While the old one was one of the larger screens back in 2014 when it debuted, by the end of the run it was merely average, however this new one measures in at 12.3″ and is set up from the start to either be used all for one function or to adjust itself into three split sections that worked wonderfully to manage, entertain, and instruct all at the same time with for example the HVAC, Music, and Navigation all running and displaying at once. (Note that this is an upgraded screen size, the standard screen in some lower trim levels measures in at 8″).
Whether you like screens or not, at least all the frequently used controls are situated high on the dashboard with knobs for the radio and redundant buttons for the HVAC as well as hard buttons to switch between some commonly used screen functions.
Set in a sort of visually patterned aluminum (but plastic) frame, the first thing that comes to mind is that the whole thing looks sort of like a guitar spread across the dashboard behind it with the screen being the body, the silver in front of the passenger the neck and the right vent the headstock.
The materials however are first rate, and the visual juxtaposition of soft stitched light tan leather (or much better facsimile of leather here than in other recent uses by Toyota of a similar motif) on the dash and doors with rich sort of mahogany-colored darker areas and then the patterned silver trim and high-grade black plastics marked this as an interior that could easily be worthy of a Lexus badge; while that brand’s RX line impressed me a lot, the Highlander has caught up and perhaps even surpassed it in areas currently.
One of the areas that I am less than enamored with in our 2016 model compared to the older Mercedes GL we had concurrently are the doorpulls. While on the Mercedes they were solid with thick textured vinyl bonded to the surface, in the Highlander they were a handle with thin vinyl wrapped (but not glued) around it that eventually started to bunch up a bit and no longer looks tight and feels a little strange. The new Highlander has improved a lot here with a door pull “pocket” that while still vinyl wrapped now appears to have that vinyl attached to the backing and it all feels much more substantial.
While there is no genuine wood here there are slabs of a very appealing silver-gray patterned imitation used on the door panels and center console that looks great, is visually interesting, and somehow perfectly fits in with the other hues and textures.
One of the favorite and more unexpected features of the old Highlander was its large shelf that crossed the cabin under the dashboard; that is thankfully not gone, however it is now divided into two separate sections that still fulfill the same function but delineate the driver/passenger spaces a little more. Still equipped with a cable pass-through from the plugs below it still allows very convenient stowage of phones, pens, cards, hand sanitizer, tissues, loose change and/or whatever else people carry with them.
The center console still has a conventional automatic shifter handle along with a couple of cupholders but now also includes a toggle for Sport/Normal/Eco drive modes along with a dial to select different surface conditions as is becoming the norm in many vehicles as well as a button for snowy conditions.
As before, the AWD system does transfer power as needed and not just due to detected slippage. Nominally FWD, the rear axle comes into play even on dry roads from a stop as torque is provided. Under one’s elbow is a large compartment whose lid swings open in this case to first reveal a shelf with a wireless charging pad built in for a phone, and then that swings up as well for actual stowage of items.
One small but somehow significant change to those of us familiar with Toyotas is the elimination of the LCD digital clock that seemingly has been a fixture on most every Toyota since sometime in the 1980s and makes one wonder if at one point someone got a screaming deal based on purchasing several billion of them at once. It appears that Toyota finally ran out of inventory as now there are two large LCD readouts of the current time embedded both within the instrument cluster for the driver as well as in the center screen for the passengers to see.
The second row, as before, is adjustable fore/aft and in this trim level only equipped with large captain’s chairs. Comfortable and with arm rests, sitting back here is easy for all-day drives with heated seats standard and a cupholder console placed between the seats on the floor. Previously the cupholders were part of a fold-down tray that I think would still have been a better option for the second-row passenger than the floor-mounted cupholders that may be more likely to be stepped on when getting into or out of the third row.
However when deployed the old tray-with-cupholders was almost impossible to climb over when filled with drinks whereas this would be easier, so that makes sense and likely saves money too. Of course the seats also can fold and move forward to facilitate egress out the side rather than through the middle but the drinks in the tray issue can still arise, at least with the right-hand seat that it is affixed to.
There’s lots of space with the front adjusted for myself (6’1″ with 32″ inseam), obviously moving the second row forward or back changes that and also changes the legroom for the third row behind or for cargo space. The second row seats also fold down for more cargo space. The rear of the center console houses separate HVAC controls for back here as well as several power ports along with the controls for the aforementioned heated seats.
The third row, still equipped with three seatbelts (so still leaving this as a seven-seater even when equipped with the captain’s chairs in the second row) is still tight but doable for smaller kids but not comfortable for adults. The two extra inches of length help as does the second row adjustability but there’s only so much that can be done here.
Cargo room with the third row folded is plenty for the remaining four possible occupants, but if all rows are fully deployed then luggage needs to be kept to a minimum. One big improvement this time around is the third row headrest situation, now they just flop forward out of the way of their own volition when the seats are pushed forward and down, previously you’d have to find the little button and retract them down manually to get them out of the way to avoid getting hung up on the second row. And when setting the seats up it was awkward to raise the headrests again to the proper position, again this time it does it automatically.
The third row does split-fold 60/40 so five people and their luggage could fit pretty well (and has worked for our family numerous times on long family trips). There’s actually more room back there than one would think.
One other cost-cutting move is the removal of the separately opening rear window, now the only choice is to open the entire hatch. I used that separate window feature quite a bit in ours and am sad to see it go, once I transported a 10-foot length of kitchen countertop a distance of 50 miles that way along with numerous other instances involving 16-17 foot lengths of baseboard and other long trim items that would not have worked in a pickup truck without a rack.
I did however use this Highlander to return a few lengths of 8-foot baseboard that had no problem fitting between the seats and resting on the center console, ten-footers would have easily fit as well.
Still, while certain features are no longer, others have been improved upon as noted above, mainly having to do with interior materials quality and screen sizes etc. Likely Toyota surveyed users as to features they liked and used vs. items that could be improved on and the choices made do seem to represent things that would be noticed and used more often than others.
Underhood is still a 3.5l V6, a carry-over unit from the end of the prior generation providing 295hp and 263lb-ft of torque to haul about 4450 pounds around. Paired with an 8-speed automatic, this is pretty much what is also sold in the Lexus RX350 amongst other models and works essentially the same, feeling powerful enough for most tasks without feeling strained but not overwhelmed with an overabundance of power either. Toyota also offers a Hybrid option for the Highlander but the old 2.7l 4-cylinder option has been put out to pasture.
As mentioned above, the Dynamic Torque Vectoring does move power around even on dry roads (front to back and side to side for the rear wheels) so presumably on FWD versions there is enough of it to break grip or invoke the traction control system at times. At highway speeds, this system can automatically command the propshaft to the rear to disengage if there is no need for torque to be transferred rearward in order to provide increased fuel economy.
The engine is quiet, and does its job without complaint. The overall driving experience isn’t particularly exciting, yet then again most owners of Highlanders and similar three-row CUVs aren’t looking to demolish the Nurburgring lap record or even the lap record at the local SuperTarget parking lot but just want to drop the kids at school, run the errands, go to the market, take everyone to Grandma’s house at Thanksgiving, and not think about the underpinnings much beyond getting the oil changed whenever the maintenance minder says it is time to do so.
I did play with the drive mode settings and really could not detect a difference between Sport and Normal modes, Eco perhaps shifted a little earlier for the ups and later for the downs but it wasn’t significantly different either. This isn’t a feature that would be missed as currently implemented were it to disappear.
In that respect, the Highlander (and every Highlander before it) excels. It’s comfortable, quiet, spacious, reliable, and thoughtfully designed for its occupants. It can hustle around corners once familiar with it and its dynamics, which as before veer a little toward the numb side, even with the lower profile 20″ tires on this one there isn’t a whole lot of feel but there still is an admirable ride quality that is almost as good as our older XLE model with 18″ wheels, more or less just gliding over rough transitions such as a particular railroad crossing near my home that is extremely rough in anything body-on-frame.
This generation of Highlander (still built in Princeton Indiana) also continues to provide a 5000lb tow rating with its V6 as did the last one which is higher than that of many of its competitors which may be of interest to those that tow such things as pop-up campers or the occasional heavily loaded cargo trailer.
Over a week’s worth of driving totaling around 350 miles with about 165 of that on the freeway to and around Denver and back home and the balance mainly within my city and the surrounding towns I averaged 22mpg (on regular gasoline). The EPA calls for a 23Average with 20City and 27Highway ratings so this is fairly accurate but better than our 2016 which struggles to reach 20mpg on average while rarely exceeding the low 20’s on the freeway.
Likely the 8-speed (offered since 2017) is a big improvement in efficiency over the 6-speed and I consciously avoided constantly looking at the RPM gauge as some have felt this transmission shifts “too often”. Since I purposely didn’t look much but was conscious of it I noticed that I did not notice it (how’s that for confusing wordplay!) shifting excessively, it certainly isn’t apparent by feel and the powertrain is exceptionally quiet as well. Whatever it’s doing seems to work.
Equipped with stop/start technology, the Highlander features a twist – come to a stop normally and the engine remains on, however a small message appears that to engage stop/start you should apply a bit more pressure to the brake pedal. Do so while still at the stop and the engine cuts out. It restarts either with less pressure on the pedal or if the running engine is needed to provide something such as A/C etc. This was a great implementation of the technology and eliminated the need for a button to turn it off for those that dislike it, just drive normally and keep regular pressure on the brake pedal while stopped and the engine remains on. The engine turning off and back on if the mode however was engaged was accomplished smoothly and with almost no indication thereof.
Of course what Toyota has always provided is good value and as with most offerings that continues here. Due to an overall excellent reputation the resale value on many Toyotas is sky-high and my own current personal anecdote is illustrative and relevant here as well – we will be selling our 2016 XLE AWD model with 64,000 miles that we purchased for $36,600 in December of 2015. Carvana has offered us $23,850 for it and an unnamed Denver luxury brand dealer that directly competes with Lexus has offered us $24,500 for it based on pictures alone.
Having just last week sold another vehicle to Carvana has convinced us that they are for real and hassle-free, so even if we take that slightly lower but zero-hassle offer our Highlander retained 65% of its value over 4 years and 9 months which is exceptional. Note that those are trade-in values (and valid even without buying another car in return) so retail value would be even higher. I see no reason why this new model should fare worse in that regard.
Since we are on the subject of pricing, this top of the line Platinum AWD trim level starts at $48,800. This gets you the non-hybrid V6 with mechanical AWD, Multi-Terrain Select w/Dial and Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 System (Pedestrian Detection, Full Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane Departure Alert w/ Steering Assist, Lane Tracing Assist, Automatic High Beams, Road Sign Assist, Blind Spot Warning, Bird’s Eye Camera etc.)
It also includes a Panoramic Sunroof, LED exterior lighting, the 20″ alloy wheels in a slightly darker than normal silver color with a temporary spare externally mounted under the cargo area, a Head-Up Display, the 1200 watt JBL Premium Audio System and everything else I mentioned previously.
There were only a few actual standalone options on this one, most of which were actually from the Accessories Catalog – The “Moon Dust” paint color adds $425, Carpeted Floor and Cargo Mats are $318, the Cargo Cross Bars (roof bars) are $350 and the Universal Tablet Holder visible on the back of the passenger seat for the benefit of a second row occupant is $99. Adding the Destination Charge of $1,120 totals up to $51,112.
It’s getting harder to remember a time without a Highlander on our roads, it is one of Toyota’s most important models here and of course also sold abroad in multiple markets. In Colorado specifically they are usually one of the top-selling vehicles. Easy to use, safe, fairly efficient (and especially so in its hybrid variant), and of course offering excellent value this latest one really should win some converts from those looking for “luxury” – really there is no downside to choosing this over the Lexus equivalent if the big “L” isn’t the most important thing. But if restrained and non-controversial styling is a positive along with everything else that Toyota represents then that makes this latest Highlander an even more obvious choice for many.
Thanks go to Toyota for providing us this Highlander along with a tank of gasoline in order to give it a whirl!