- What’s Good: Handsome for an SUV, cavernous interior, loads of standard content
- What’s Bad: Dated interior, dull driving character
The Toyota Highlander is one of many SUVs that was conceived almost exclusively with utility in mind – there’s nothing remotely sporty about this vehicle.
And there is nothing wrong with that because what the Highlander offers in the place of an engaging driving experience is compelling, but I’ll get to that.
First, a little about Toyota’s three-row, eight-passenger utility, a vehicle that has been around longer than you might think.
The Highlander, also known as the Kluger in Australia and Japan, has been around since 2000 (2001 model year). The current third-generation model debuted in 2013 and was refreshed for the 2017 model year. Built on Toyota’s mid-size, front-wheel drive K platform which is currently shared with the Sienna and Lexus RX, the Highlander is available with either a gas-powered or hybrid powertrain.
For Canada there are six models, four gas and two hybrids. The focus here is the gas range and there are four grades: LE, LE AWD, XLE and Limited. All are powered by a 3.5-litre V6 (295 hp / 263 lb-ft.) paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission and all, except for the base LE, come with standard AWD.
I reached out to Toyota Canada about the Highlander partly because I had never driven one previously, but also because of its longevity and status as a solid perennial seller (14,641 sold in 2018). It’s simply a vehicle worthy of a closer look.
After a brief email exchange with Toyota Canada PR, I was booked into a week-long drive behind the wheel of an upper-grade XLE tester ($45,495 MSRP) finished in salsa red pearl and outfitted with the SE Package ($1,910) that adds a slew of mostly cosmetic extras such as 19-inch black alloy wheels, black front grille and LED fog lamps among other features.
The Highlander may not be the sexiest of the SUV bunch, it is far from ugly. As mentioned, the most recent update was in 2017 which brought with it a new grille and finishes that vary with grade along with redesigned tail lights. XLE and Limited models also received a chrome trim bumper garnish.
I think the best way to sum up the Highlander’s exterior looks is clean and contemporary. Nothing fancy, but certainly attractive within the three-row SUV segment. The SE package brings a sportier feel with its black wheels, grille and various other blacked out trim bits, especially when set against the salsa red pearl finish.
On the inside, the Highlander XLE comes loaded with a long list of standard kit which includes leather-trimmed seating, heated front seats, 8-inch infotainment screen with navigation, moonroof, 3-zone automatic climate controls and more. My tester also has second-row captain seats and sport trim accents (seat and dashboard stitching, etc.) that are included with the SE package. On the safety side, all 2019 Highlanders come standard with Toyota Safety Sense P which includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, auto high beam, dynamic radar cruise control and lane departure alert with steering assist.
With so much content on offer the cabin environment in the Highlander is quite comfortable. In addition to being spacious with comfortable seating, the commanding driving position delivers an ideal view of the road ahead with all amenities at easy reach. The controls are logically placed, work well and I had no difficulty adjusting them to my preference. I’m also impressed with the numerous handy storage spaces and cup holders that are sprinkled throughout the Highlander’s cabin. The Highlander is clearly aimed at families and Toyota is giving them what they want here.
There aren’t many nits to pick with the Highlander’s cabin, but it does feel a bit dated in terms of design and materials. Considering this gen has been in production since late 2013 that feeling isn’t surprising and while Toyota has done a good job of loading the Highlander with content, it is beginning to show its age.
As for the drive, as I alluded to earlier, the Highlander isn’t built for driving excitement. It’s primarily a vehicle designed for family road trips and I think it hits the mark in that respect. That said, the 3.5-litre V6 feels refined enough and it pulls nicely off the line. There’s also plenty of torque for everyday driving conditions and the 8-speed automatic is silky smooth. The ride quality is generally comfortable and cabin noise is well supressed. In sum, the Highlander’s drive is just fine. But it won’t quicken your pulse.
Overall, there’s a lot to like here. The Highlander XLE delivers ample amounts of room for people and their stuff (up to 2,356 litres of cargo space), a long list of standard equipment and is attractively styled. And if you want to dress it up a bit, the SE package offers good value for money. It doesn’t offer much driving excitement, but it never promises it either. The Highlander knows what it is, in other words. And there’s virtue in that.
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