When Toyota introduced the first Highlander in 2001, there wasn’t much competition for something that looked like an SUV yet drove like a Camry.
Ford, Dodge and Honda midsize SUVs were still more trucks than cars; Mazda and Hyundai hadn’t entered the market yet. General Motors would soon roll out the Buick Rendezvous as the first three-row “crossover” SUV, but execution problems would keep it from making a splash.
Since then, of course, the midsize SUV market has changed dramatically. All of the above automakers are now fielding comfortable car-like models with passably roomy interiors for seven or even eight passengers. Toyota, however, is not.
Ford and Honda saw resounding successes with adult-usable third-row seats in the 2002 Explorer and 2003 Pilot, respectively, but Toyota’s effort to follow suit has been decidedly halfhearted. A tiny, cramped bench was retrofitted into the Highlander’s cargo hold in 2004, but a complete redesign that followed four years later was little better. Before this year, in fact, the car didn’t even have the flexibility of a split-folding third-row – to carry any cargo but a few grocery bags forced the entire seat to be folded.
To be sure, not everyone shopping midsize SUVs needs a seven-passenger. Even the Highlander’s emergency-use third row offers it a step up over the popular Ford Edge or Jeep Grand Cherokee.
But on its website, Toyota lists among the Highlander’s competitors the Chevrolet Traverse and Honda Pilot – vehicles that were built around accommodating three rows of passengers.
And despite its merits – a smooth, quiet ride; plenty of cargo room; relatively reasonable prices; and a powerful, fuel-efficient engine – the Highlander is not a successful alternative to those or the other crossovers in this comparison for carrying more than five occupants.
Fancy at first glance
With an inviting two-tone dash, rich-feeling leather and bright false wood trim, the Highlander looks rather luxurious for a family vehicle. The dash styling recalls a Lexus sedan more than a mainstream SUV.
The instruments are also uncommonly friendly – huge buttons and knobs placed where they should be, without requiring menus to scroll through. The only major complaint, an increasingly common irritant, is that the climate system’s display is located too far from its buttons, requiring extra concentration to tell what your inputs are achieving.
The Highlander’s premium ambiance is shaken by too many wide gaps between panels, including between the dash and driver’s door. Others, particularly on the lower dash below the steering wheel, don’t line up cleanly. In another quibble, some drivers may also wish for “clicks” in the control knobs, which don’t offer feedback as they’re spun.
The front seats are soft but flat, and reasonably comfortable. The Highlander’s middle row is spacious and pleasant for two adults, but the middle position is just a hard, tiny jumpseat. On the plus side, that little seat can be swapped with a small center console tray and stored in a cubby between the front seats, or removed altogether. This adds a measure of flexibility, but it limits the Highlander’s seating capacity to four adults while some competitors can fit eight.
See more photos of the Toyota Highlander in today’s slideshow
But where the Highlander falls apart in this class is its lack of third row space. The rock-hard bench sits almost on the floor, and there’s minimal leg space. The middle row does adjust fore-aft to make more space, but the rearmost quarters will never be comfortable even for children. With its level of comfort – and with the minimal 10.3 cubic feet of space behind it – the third row is occasional-use only in a class of legitimate seven-passenger vehicles.
With the third row folded out of the way, the Highlander’s cargo numbers are more competitive: 42.3 cubic feet behind the middle row and a very impressive 95.4 cubic feet behind the front seats. The latter specification trumps several physically larger competitors in this comparison. The Highlander also has a handy flip-up rear windshield for quick access to cargo.
Though it’s a heavy vehicle by most standards at more than 4,400 pounds, the Highlander is relatively small and light for this class. It feels it on the highway, where there are few more floaty motions than heavier, more tied-down competition.
The low weight does free up its 3.5-liter V6, letting this Toyota feel the zippiest in this comparison in a straight line, all while achieving an EPA-estimated 19 miles per gallon in mixed driving – a respectable rating. The Highlander lacks most competitors’ six-speed automatic, instead making do with a five-speed that doesn’t offer as many ratios to choose from in seeking the ideal blend of performance and fuel economy.
An available gas-electric hybrid model offers even quicker acceleration and an impressive EPA-estimated improvement of nine miles per gallon in mixed driving, but pricing site TrueDelta.com estimates it adds around $6,000 to the cost of a comparable gas-only Highlander.
Aside from the somewhat unsettled highway manners described earlier, ride quality is a Highlander strong point. It brushes aside low- and high-speed bumps that slam through into some other models, and it stays serenely quiet.
Its handling is less impressive, with most of the fault going toward the disconcertingly light, lifeless steering. The Highlander is responsive enough to always feel like a car rather than a truck, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a good car. The steering wheel has some play off-center before the car actually changes direction, but there’s so much assist that the driver won’t feel a difference beyond that play.
Decent value for some
A well-equipped Highlander SE stickers at $37,000 and would sell for a Truecar.com-estimated $33,782 – a sum that would be quite competitive by this comparison’s standards.
However, a DVD entertainment system – a popular family option – is offered only on the pricier Limited and when grouped with the expensive in-dash navigation system. Combined, the trim upgrade and optional equipment lift the cost by more than $5,000. At that point, the Highlander is on the upper end of this comparison for its price even as it stays on the low end for its price and versatility.
Of course, for many midsize SUV shoppers, the Highlander will be fine – perhaps better than some of the bigger, bulkier competitors, if you’re fine without a comfortable third row seat and much usable cargo room behind it.
But if you want a three-row Toyota crossover, the Highlander is the best you’ll be offered. And Toyota simply didn’t develop a product that is ready to go toe-to-toe with the extra-useful competition.
Overall grade: C-
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Read the introduction to this comparison
Vehicle tested: 2010 Toyota Highlander
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $27,540
Version tested: Limited 4WD
Version base price (MSRP): $35,045
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $38,105
Vehicle price as comparable (MSRP)*: $37,023
Estimated transaction price as comparable**: $33,782
Test vehicle provided by: Darcars Toyota of Silver Spring, Md.
Length: 188.4 inches
Width: 75.2 inches
Height: 69.3 inches
Wheelbase: 121.2 inches
Weight: 4,464 pounds
Cargo volume behind third-row seat: 10.3 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind middle seat: 42.3 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind front seats: 95.4 cubic feet
Turning circle: 38.8 feet
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 with 270 horsepower
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 17 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 22 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 19 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Indiana
For more information: Toyota website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on estimates from Truecar.com and quotes from individual dealers.
**The price as comparable reflects a 2011 Highlander SE, though as noted in the article text, a DVD entertainment system is unavailable for less than $39,000.