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Reliable crossover didn’t break a sweat

Drivers loved the refinements and utility of the Toyota Highlander.

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There’s a news clip circulating online that shows a Chinese-market minivan packed to its headliner with 64 children.

The driver had been pulled over by Chinese police when they spotted the sagging eight-passenger minivan.

“The driver was ‘punished according to related laws and regulations,’” the news anchor reported. Then he added, “It’s not clear exactly what that means.”

Cynics may argue authorities should release the man with the reasoning that, well, driving a minivan is punishment enough.

That’s the prevailing sentiment whenever the minivan-versus-SUV debate comes up. Minivans are infinitely practical, but they have a stigma some consumers find repellent.

Yet when it came to crafting its second-generation Highlander crossover, Toyota didn’t think twice about borrowing some minivan traits.

Redesigning Toyota’s mid-size sport-ute for 2008 — the first since its 2001 introduction — brought larger dimensions, more safety features and a fresh engine. Based once again on the front-drive Camry platform, it grew 10 cm. in length and almost 8 cm. in width, resulting in significantly more interior room.

With its optional third-row bench, the Highlander could seat up to seven. Included was a trick middle-row perch that could be folded up and tucked under the front centre console to create two captain’s chairs in back. It also offered minivan amenities, such as countless cup holders and the usual entertainment options.

Initially, the Highlander was powered by Toyota’s ubiquitous DOHC 3.5L V6, good for 270 hp and 248 lb.-ft. of torque, working through a conventional five-speed automatic transmission with manual shifting capability. There were both front-wheel and all-wheel drive models.

The AWD-only Highlander Hybrid returned with its 3.3L V6 teamed with two electric motors for a combined 269 horsepower, including a 68-hp electric motor in back to power the rear wheels. It could run on either or both power sources (gasoline and battery), depending on driving demands.

The Hybrid used a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The new push-button EV mode locked the Hybrid in full-electric mode up to 40 km/h. Towing capacity was 3,500 lbs. for the Hybrid and 5,000 lbs. for V6 models.

Safety features included curtain side airbags with rollover deployment, front-side airbags, a driver’s knee airbag, antilock discs, traction control and antiskid system. Standard on all non-Hybrid AWD models was hill descent control to regulate speed on downhill slopes.

A four-cylinder base model returned to the lineup for 2009, offering a 187-hp, 2.7L engine coupled with a six-speed automatic transmission, available in front-drive only.

The 2011 Highlander models earned styling tweaks, while the Hybrid got the larger 3.5L V6 in place of the previous 3.3L. The third-row bench finally adopted a split-folding design to offer more cargo flexibility.

At first blush, the Highlander resembled a land yacht — it had gained more than 200 kg during the redesign — yet the energetic V6 overcame its mass, taking just 7.0 seconds to accelerate to 96 km/h. It’s the quickest SUV in the hotly contested family class.

The cabin is serene at speed. The Highlander’s ride and handling are exemplary, although the steering may not be to everyone’s liking, some finding it loose on-centre.

The four-cylinder base model is slower, naturally, but isn’t an embarrassment. Our family of five drove one to Florida and back, and the engine never broke a sweat.

“It lacks passing power a bit, but it is a great cruiser and (has) plenty of pep around town. Efficiency was as low as 22 mpg and as high as 34 mpg,” posted one four-banger owner.

There’s one downside: the four’s slightly flatulent exhaust note could never be mistaken for a V6.

Owners adore the Highlander’s comfort, refinement, car-like demeanour and everyday utility. Toyota made it easy for minivan owners to transition to a crossover SUV without missing much beyond some cargo space (when all seven seats are occupied).

In terms of reliability, it’s hard to fault the Highlander. The second generation, like the first (except for some sludged-up 3.0L V6s), has a sterling reputation. Production shifted from Japan to Toyota’s Indiana plant starting with the 2010 models.

The handful of complaints online included gripes about short-lived tires, malfunctioning audio systems, and failed water pumps and (conventional) batteries. There are also some reported squeaks and rattles inside, and a few owners kvetched that the alarm system would trip for no good reason.

Owners of the Hybrid had nothing but praise for Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive technology; there are no glitches to speak of.

All in all, the Highlander is an uncommonly good family conveyance. But get a bus if you’ve got 64 children to ferry to school.

  • Reliable crossover didn’t break a sweat 2008 Toyota Highlander 4WD V6 model with SR5 package. This truck would be identical to the 2009 base 4WD V6 model. Photographed just outside of Craigleith Provincial Park, at the edge of Nottawasaga Bay, itself part of Georgian Bay. Brian Early image.

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