Taking the high road

Friday, December 3, 2004

srobertson

Highlander is Toyota's best-selling SUV

It's going to take a while to test all of the Toyota SUVs -- there are five! From the king-size Sequoia, to the diminutive Rav4, and everything in between, including the Land Cruiser, 4Runner and Highlander, Toyota builds an SUV for every budget.

While the popular Toyota 4Runner is basically a truck, the Highlander is essentially a car, using unit-body construction rather than a separate frame. And, like a modern car, the Highlander features four-wheel independent suspension for a comfortable ride and superior handling. Two-wheel-drive Highlanders are front-wheel drive, whereas the 4Runner is rear-wheel drive. Which is better? That depends on what you want to do.

Intended for the suburbs

The sophisticated, mid-sized Highlander, Toyota's best-selling SUV, is the perfect vehicle for stylish urban living. It has a generous interior and a refined ride, and the lower step-in height associated with a traditional passenger sedan. That's because it is based on the ever-popular Camry. Offering full-time all-wheel-drive and seating for up to seven passengers, the Highlander can take even a large family around in style.

When the Highlander debuted in 2001 it was intended to be a more affordable version of the highly regarded Lexus RX300. The Highlander isn't a replacement for body-on-frame SUVs like the 4Runner, which are more rugged and better suited for heavy-duty towing and off-roading. But it does provide a superior ride and most of the 4Runner's versatility. Gone are the levers and switches of a true four-wheel drive vehicle, and in their place is an automatic system that employs a viscous-coupled center differential that splits torque evenly front and rear. There is no low-range differential, as you expect to see on a rugged four-wheel drive vehicle.

Intense competition

Highlander's success in the marketplace spawned numerous Japanese competitors like Honda Pilot, Mitsubishi Endeavor and Nissan Murano, while a bewildering number of American brands, and scores of entries from Korea and Europe, vie for attention in the crowded mid-size SUV segment. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, but the Highlander has seen continuous upgrades over the years to keep it competitive. A new 230-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6, mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, provides better-than-ever performance for 2005, while a new third-row seat that folds into the cargo floor expands carrying capacity to seven passengers. Seating is comfortable, quality materials are used throughout, and convenience features are found everywhere. A rear DVD screen provides entertainment on long trips, while optional side curtain airbags for the first and second rows enhance safety.

Safety

Toyota installs its Star Safety System as standard equipment on all 2005 SUVs. Vehicle stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist are standard on every Highlander, as are a tire-pressure warning system and whiplash-reducing front seats. In government crash testing, the Highlander scored four stars (out of a possible five) for frontal impact protection. In side-impact tests, it received four stars for front occupants and five stars for those in the rear-seat. In frontal offset crash testing administered by the IIHS, the Toyota earned a "Good" rating (the best possible).

The Highlander is 184.6 inches long, making it a midsize in the midsize category. It is five inches shorter than a Ford Explorer, 3 inches shorter than a Murano or Pilot, but seven inches longer than a Hyundai Santa Fe. It also has the lightest weight among its competitors, weighing in two pounds lighter than a Santa Fe, but nearly 700 pounds lighter than a Pilot, and 600 pounds lighter than an Explorer. This weight advantage gives the Highlander a nimble feeling around town, and helps account for its above-average fuel mileage of 22 mpg/city and 27 mpg/highway, when equipped with the standard 4-cylinder engine and two-wheel-drive.

The standard 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine produces 160 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque. But most buyers will prefer the optional 3.3-liter V-6 that puts out 230 ponies and 242 pound-feet of torque. A four-speed automatic transmission is standard on four-cylinder models, while V-6 Highlanders upgrade to a five-speed unit. Tow ratings are on the light side, the maximum being 3,500 pounds on a properly equipped V-6 model. My test vehicle was equipped with the V-6 engine, and had the smoothness and excellent manners that Toyotas are known for. A plush, quiet ride and peppy performance explains the Highlander's popularity in the marketplace, while a 60,000 mile/five year powertrain warranty gives buyers extra confidence. My Limited test vehicle retailed for $35,649, which included $3,704 in accessories such as the leather seat package, heated front seats, side-mounted air bags, towing package and a JBL premium sound system.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: