Reviews

2011 Toyota Highlander Walk Around

The Toyota Highlander is in the heart of the midsize crossover SUV market, and is about the same size as the Honda Pilot. Highlander's 95.4 cubic feet of cargo room is more than all but a handful of competitors in the popular midsize class.

The Highlander fits in the middle of Toyota's four-pronged midsize SUV lineup. It features softer styling than the 4Runner midsize SUV and the retro-styled FJ Cruiser. Truck-based platforms, rugged suspensions and low-range transfer cases make 4Runner and FJ Cruiser highly capable off road. The Highlander is based on the same architecture as that of the Camry and Avalon sedans. Highlander's all-wheel-drive systems are designed for taming slippery pavement and wintry conditions, not for climbing rocks and traversing rough terrain. Likewise, the Toyota Venza is a mid-size vehicle that further blurs the line between wagon and SUV. Also based on the Camry platform, the Venza is even more carlike than the Highlander.

The design of the Highlander is clean, and accented on each side by a character line that leads into pronounced wheel arches. The look is more SUV than station wagon, and the available 19-inch alloy wheels add to the muscular stance.

For 2011, all Highlander models get a fresh look, with a new hood, fenders and front fascia with foglamps. The Hybrid has its own grille, which looks more like an Acura (circa 2008) than the regular Highlander grille, which looks more like a Subaru Tribeca. Both are plastic, as they almost all are nowadays, but the Highlander grilles are clearly so. The foglamps on the V6 have odd silver eyebrows that seem reversed, as they travel toward the center of the car. Makes you want to swap the lights from left to right.

Interior

The Highlander has a quality, upscale cabin. The seating position is way up high, and forward visibility excellent, with no losing the corners of the car. The seats are comfortable on three-hour trips, but they're pretty flat and could use more body contour.

Fit and finish are excellent and the design is attractive. There are more hard plastic finishes than in a Lexus, but those plastics are nicely grained and assembled with care.

The secondary controls are easy to spot, and they move with precision. A 3.5-inch multi-function screen at top center on the dash displays the trip computer and climate control information; it's optional on the base model and standard on all others. This same screen displays the image from the rear backup camera whenever you shift into reverse. It's the smallest rearview camera screen we've ever seen, except for those tiny ones in the rearview mirror. We watched it carefully as we backed toward a chainlink fence around a driveway one dark night, and if we hadn't stopped and looked over our shoulder to double-check, we would have backed into the fence even with the rearview camera.

With the optional navigation system, the camera is projected onto the larger navigation screen, making the image much easier to see. This is a proper rearview camera. This screen also displays some of the audio controls, adding an extra step or two when changing stations, and adding distraction. The voice navigation messed up big time, when we used it. It misguided us past an easy freeway interchange we knew by heart. And it repeatedly and annoyingly interrupted our radio listening, to warn of traffic delays ahead that didn't exist. Overall, however, the Toyota navigation system works better than most.

Hybrid models have some exclusive interior touches. The gauges are trimmed in a soothing blue instead of raspy red, and a power meter replaces the tachometer. Displayed either on the small multifunction screen or the navigation screen are Consumption and Energy Monitor information. The Consumption screen displays fuel economy in real time and five-minute increments, and the Energy Monitor screen employs a schematic to show when the gas engine and electric motors are in use. It may be fun to watch these screens, but be careful because they can distract attention from the road.

The Highlander's elevated ride height and upright seating position give it that desirable SUV trait but with easier step-in than older, truck-based SUVs.

The front seats are comfortable, and visibility is good to all corners. Head and leg room are generous in the first and second rows.

The second-row captain's chairs are comfortable, and the Highlander has a handy removable center seat that can be replaced by a center console. The area between the second-row seats can also be left open to provide a walkthrough to the standard third row. Either the center console or the center seat can be stowed beneath the front seat center console.

Third-row seating is aided by second-row seats that can slide forward. Adults can fit, but the seat cushion is set low, so it's still not ideal for long trips. Access to the third row is easy from the passenger's side, as the second row captain's chair flips and slides forward in one motion. The driver's side chair folds flat, but doesn't slide forward far enough to allow passengers to walk through.

For cargo space, the second- and third-row seats fold flat to open up a very useful 95.4 cubic feet. Tethers and levers are provided in the cargo area to make folding and unfolding the seats a breeze. The available separate opening rear glass is a nice convenience, and the load height is low for an SUV, making it easier to load groceries, duffle bags, and other cargo. Cup holders abound, with 10 cup holders scattered throughout the cabin, with bottle holders in the doors. There's plenty of storage for small items.

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