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Second-Hand: Toyota Highlander

It might have been the lonely skirl of bagpipes or Mel Gibson's epic film Braveheart that prompted Toyota's product planners to name their new mid-size sport utility the Highlander.

It might have been the lonely skirl of bagpipes or Mel Gibson’s epic film Braveheart that prompted Toyota’s product planners to name their new mid-size sport utility the Highlander.

They could have called it the Haggis and it still would have generated lots of showroom traffic for the Asian automaker.

Still giddy from the runaway success of the RX 300 launch in 1999 – which instantly became the top-selling Lexus – engineers tempted lightning to strike twice by cobbling a slightly larger, but with less content, Toyota-badged RX for 2001.

Like the pioneering Jeep Cherokee released 17 years earlier, the car-based Highlander featured unibody construction.

This yielded a lower floor, more interior space, a stiffer platform and less weight, too.

Although it shared a platform with the RX, the Highlander’s wheelbase was nearly 10 cm longer, freeing up more space for rear-seat legroom.

It differed from most sport utes by employing an independent rear suspension.

Since the floor needn’t be high to clear a bouncing axle, the cargo hold was deeper to swallow more family gear.

Available only as a five-door wagon, the Highlander borrowed a lot of the Camry’s running gear.

The base engine was a DOHC, 2.4 L four-cylinder, good for 155 hp. It came mated to a four-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels.

The 220-horse, 3.0 L V6 proved far more popular, attached to the same four-speed slushbox in either front- or all-wheel-drive configurations.

The full-time AWD system featured a viscous centre coupler that worked transparently (there was no low-range gear, however).

The Highlander’s cockpit was easy to access. Rather than stepping up, occupants could slide sideways into the chair-height seats.

The dash and windowsills were low, allowing the driver to see things close to the vehicle – a definite safety benefit.

The only design glitch was the small transmission console that jutted out of the dashboard, compromising passage between the seats to the rear.

“I’ve bumped the gear shifter into neutral at least 10 times already,” read an owner’s gripe on the Web. “I don’t like it where it is in the middle.”

A full-length centre console put an end to the discordant design in subsequent years.

As in the Lexus, rear-seat passengers could recline their seatbacks to more comfortable angles. The seatbacks also folded down, revealing a perfectly flat floor.

Highlander got some new equipment for 2004, including a 3.3 L V6 with 230 hp, along with a five-speed automatic. The four-banger soldiered on with the old four-speed.

In addition, third-row seats became an option (Highlander’s new arch enemy, the Honda Pilot, had ’em), along with curtain airbags, which did not reach back to the third row.

The Highlander Hybrid arrived for 2005, combining the gasoline V6 and battery-powered electric motors for a total of 268 hp underfoot.

It used a continuously variable automatic transmission and offered front- or all-wheel drive.

After seven years of robust sales, the Highlander bowed out at the end of the 2007 model year, replaced by a larger second-generation model.



ON THE ROAD

This crossover impressed buyers with its car-like ride and handling, no great surprise when you start with the refined Toyota Camry as the basic building block.

“Handles as if it were much smaller and lighter,” read one enthusiastic owner’s blog.

Published reports put the V6-equipped Highlander AWD at 8.8 seconds to reach 96 km/h. Add about two seconds for the four-cylinder model. Stopping from a speed of 112 km/h required 58 metres of blacktop – middling performance.

Likewise, the Highlander’s grip on a circular skidpad, generating 0.69 g, was also mid-pack when compared to other SUVs.

Despite the lacklustre numbers, the driving experience was serene, confidence inspiring and even mildly adventuresome.

Highlander could hold its own on gravel roads. Its automated AWD system and reasonable ground clearance make it a competent ride in winter conditions.



WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

Despite the complexities of building a five- or seven-passenger AWD sport utility, the Highlander appears to uphold Toyota’s reputation for reliability.

“The only problem I had was a floppy visor that wouldn’t stay up,” reader John Lawrence wrote of his 2002 model with 135,000 km on the clock.

“Dependable, dependable!”

Angry Highlander owners are hard to find, but one sobering issue has emerged for some.

The five-speed automatic transmission that came with 2004 and later V6 models is becoming notorious for its hesitation to change gears.

Some owners report intermittent long lags in shifting when they want to accelerate quickly, resulting in white-knuckled stress on highway on-ramps.

“The lurching/hesitation problem makes this a terrible car to own and drive,” beefed the owner of an ’04 model.

Dealers contend this is a software issue, as the transmission “learns” the driver’s patterns, but it can become more pronounced with age.

Test-drive pre-owned models with care.

Minor irritants – all in very small numbers – can include interior rattles, small fluid leaks and errant Check Engine lights.

If you’re concerned about a shifty transmission, stick with the older, four-speed unit. Otherwise, you can buy with confidence.


We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: BMW 5 Series, Cadillac CTS and Mazda6. Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

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