2008 Toyota Highlander: Space issues

Plagued with market uncertainty and skyrocketing fuel prices, 2008 likely wouldn't have been the year that any automaker would want to introduce a larger, more powerful sport utility vehicle – but that's exactly what happened with Toyota and its Highlander.


Plagued with market uncertainty and skyrocketing fuel prices, 2008 likely wouldn't have been the year that any automaker would want to introduce a larger, more powerful sport utility vehicle – but that's exactly what happened with Toyota and its Highlander.

Included in the ground-up reworking was noticeably more assertive styling, the enlarged new Highlander bearing more than a passing resemblance to the company's now full-sized Tundra pickup truck line, even though the Highlander is actually a crossover, loosely based on the Camry.

It's nice that the Highlander is less of a wallflower than before, but this isn't a visual connection that's likely to give pump-shocked consumers warm, fuzzy feelings.

Ironically, this latest model is incrementally more economical than the previous iteration. Much of the credit for this goes to the adoption of Toyota's latest V6 engine, the 3.5 litre "2GR-FE", which produces 270 hp and 248 lb.-ft. of torque in this application, a considerable improvement from the 2007 Highlander's 215 hp 3.3 litre mill.

Equipped with standard five-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, V6 powered models eke out a few tenths of a litre per 100 km better fuel economy ratings than the 2007 garnered. Impressive, given the increase in size.

In search of still greater mileage, a 187 hp 2.7 litre four cylinder engine will join the Highlander lineup this winter; expect it to come in at less than the current V6-only model's $37,150 entry MSRP. To that same end, V6-powered Hybrid models are also available, at a $3,700 premium (depending on trim level).

My wife and I were hoping that the nonhybrid V6's decent fuel economy would prove to be more than just cruel Transport Canada-inspired optimism, as we decided to take a Highlander on a final, end-of-season camping trip with friends.

It isn't that we were going that far – 220 kilometres each way – but who wants to spend the remainder of their vacation budget on fuel?

My family and I tend to be a tad overprepared. With there being just three of us (plus the dog), the third row seat could remain folded, but the cargo area that remained proved to be considerably less spacious than those in the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna that had pulled Sherpa duty for earlier trips. This is one of the compromises required by a crossover's greater ground clearance, larger wheels and tires, and less boxy shape.

Our Highlander still managed to swallow everything except daughter Lauren's bicycle, which could easily have gone on the roof rack, but ended up instead on the bike rack on our friends' Caravan.

While visibly well-laden, our Highlander's V6 had plenty of reserve power. If anything, being packed to the gills marginally improved the Toyota's otherwise firm ride. The added load did exaggerate the slightly artificial, imprecise feel that afflicts the Highlander's electrically-assisted power steering at higher speeds, though.

For a large-ish vehicle, the Highlander proved surprisingly nimble, even at low speeds; Toyotas typically have tight turning circles, and the Highlander is no exception. With car-like handling, it was more comfortable in the urban cut and thrust than body-on-frame competitors like the Dodge Durango.

Even with nice, big side-view mirrors, rear-quarter visibility is only just okay due to the relatively thick d-pillars, so you'll want to exercise caution when backing in at the mall. A rear-view camera has been made standard for 2009, and it helps. The power-operated two-piece tailgate and the other upgrade items from that "SR5 package" (which was fitted to our base 2008 4WD V6 tester) have also become standard Highlander equipment.

The passenger compartment is plain in a handsome kind of way; not a lot of frilly garnish, but attractively finished in a two-tone colour scheme, constructed with typical Toyota precision.

Kudos to Toyota for using large round control knobs to operate the major audio and climate controls; the only learning curve-inducing item was the single-button-controlled trip computer. I also appreciated the levers that fold the second row seatbacks down from the rear of the cargo area (the third row's release is an easy reach).

The Highlander's seating capacity can be expanded by way of a seventh seat that cleverly stores beneath the front row's centre console (swapping places with the cupholder-equipped second-row console), however it's best to consider this big Toyota a "four adults/two juveniles" vehicle for any long-distance work. Access to the rear row can be tricky too. It's definitely best left for kids.

GM's large crossover family (GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook) offers more third row and all-seats-up cargo space, but if you're really pressed to combine max seating and cargo room in garageable form, may I suggest a minivan? Toyota's Sienna van uses the same potent driveline as the Highlander, and is the only minivan remaining that can be equipped with all-wheel drive.

As for fuel consumption, well, it was no Prius, but our 2008 Highlander tester's 11.3 L/100 km average did fall in between Transport Canada's predicted city and highway ratings. Even factoring in the higher proportion of highway travel enjoyed by the Toyota, that's certainly not too shabby for a seven-passenger all-wheel-drive vehicle with a 2,265 kg tow rating, and it's definitely better than the mid- to high teens that we seem to average in most utility vehicles.

Freelance auto writer Brian Early can be reached at bandb.early@

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