Minivans aren’t cool. They actually neutralize any potential hipness within a three-car radius. Nothing screams “obligations” and “responsibility” louder or clearer than these family wagons. This is something that has not gone unnoticed by today’s drivers, who steer clear of vans the way anorexic supermodels avoid Chinese buffets. Naturally motorists still need cargo space and seating capacity, but they crave a more stylish package. This desire gave rise to the sport utility vehicle, out of which grew the modern crossover.
|1. Three powertrains are offered including a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder, a 3.5-liter V6 and a hybrid.
2. The Highlander Limited provided for AutoGuide testing was powered by the optional 270 hp V6 engine.
3. Base price is just about $30,000 including destination and delivery charges, though range-topping hybrid can eclipse 47 grand!
These vehicles combine the functionality of a minivan with the rugged good looks of an SUV. Offered in all shapes and sizes they’re gaining momentum in the marketplace. Nameplates like Pathfinder and Explorer are former truck-based utilities that have changed their ways; just call them “born-again crossovers.” Vehicles like the Chevrolet Traverse, Mazda CX-9 and Hyundai Santa Fe are strong competitors as well.
BEAUTY IS MORE THAN SHEET-METAL DEEP
Toyota’s offering in this crowded segment is the Highlander. It’s a handsome hauler with smooth bodywork and a surprisingly understated design. Altogether it looks sleek unlike, say, the GMC Acadia, which is overly aggressive in appearance like a possessed bulldog.
The same is true inside the Highlander, where stylists kept their cool. The overall design theme is friendly and functional. Additionally, the controls and interface elements are about as logical as they come, with one exception: the radio.
Two very large knobs protrude from either side of the dashboard’s center stack, above the ones that operate the climate-control system. They’re easy to see and even easier to grab onto, the only problem is they’re not what you think they are. In fact, they’re not even dials, just placeholders.
On the Limited-trim model provided to AutoGuide for testing they’re home to some warning indicators and the hazard-light button. Reaching for the nearest one and twisting it with the expectation of adjusting the audio volume results in frustration because it doesn’t turn. The radio is controlled by a duet of dials that are practically microscopic in comparison. Did you miss them in the pictures? Better look again. Those giant “knobs” are most likely used to operate the navigation system on Highlanders so equipped. Here they’re merely counterfeit controls.
The car’s dashboard is made of attractively grained hard plastic, as are its door panels. However, it would be nice if the door tops were made of something soft. On a long trip your elbow may object to that rigid material, which probably rates at about 9.8 on the Mohs hardness scale, one step below diamonds. Thankfully all the doors’ lower surfaces are soft and squishy.
When it comes to seating the Highlander is a star. The front chairs score top marks, while the second-row is nearly as roomy and comfortable. Interestingly that back bench can perform a neat trick. The center section can actually be removed and stowed under the front console. In its place a clever storage unit can be installed. It’s an interesting concept and one that’s executed quite well.
Of course that’s not all. The Highlander also offers a third row of seats. But be warned, it’s like a playground back there meaning kids only. Even most petite adult won’t fit very well, so don’t even try.
Along with (mostly) comfortable seats, fit and finish is another Highlander highlight. Everything in the vehicle’s cabin is just as it should be. World-class assembly quality gives the impression that Toyota really cares about details, something its competition could learn a thing or two from.
If there’s one glaring flaw in this car’s interior it’s undoubtedly the headliner. It’s seriously cheap looking, bringing to mind a half-price Salvation Army sweater, all fuzzy and pilling. Toyota, you can do better than this, especially since the rest of the cockpit is so nice.
In keeping with its Scottish theme the Highlander’s seat-belt warning chime plays bagpipe music and drivers can opt for tartan fabric instead of leather. There’s also a dedicated haggis cubby in the glove box. Just kidding, but maybe engineers will incorporate these ideas in the next generation.
Putting the works in motion, the Highlander Limited delivers a smooth driving experience. It’s powered by a terrific 3.5-liter V6 engine that whips up a creamy 270 horsepower with a healthy serving of torque, 248 lb-ft to be precise.
Like the Honda Ridgeline we tested a couple weeks ago, the Highlander is equipped with an antiquated five-speed automatic transmission. It works just fine, but six gears are pretty much the standard these days; even more are preferable. It’s curious why some Japanese automakers are behind the curve, especially Toyota, since a six-shooter is standard on Highlanders powered by four-cylinder engines. That gearbox probably can’t handle the V6’s higher output.
Unlike the Ridgeline, the Highlander has nice steering feel. You won’t confuse it with a BMW M3 but it’s appreciably better than the artificial, robotic helm of the Honda.
SEE ALSO: 2013 Honda Ridgeline Review
On the road this crossover absolutely coddles its passengers with a velvety smooth ride. It feels like the springs are made from down comforters and the shocks are filled with marshmallow fluff. It’s a perfect combination for Michigan’s decrepit roads, which are more pockmarked than the surface of the moon, or Berlin side streets circa April ‘45.
Of course the tradeoff for a supple ride is usually sloppy handling, and the Highlander does pitch and roll a bit while braking or taking sharp turns but it’s not that big of a deal. If you want a track car get a Porsche 911. This is a cushy family hauler that’s perfectly suited to its intended mission.
THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE (OR THREE)
With a V6 engine and all-wheel drive on board the Highlander Limited should be able to get 17 miles of urban driving out of a gallon of regular-grade gasoline. On the highway it ought to hit 22. That works out to an average of 19 MPG, which is precisely what the trip computer reported after a week of testing. We were pretty hard on the car, taking full advantage of its smooth-running, 270-pony corral; it’s probable normal drivers would do even better.
If affordable efficiency is a priority then the four-cylinder model is right up your alley. It should return up to 25 miles per gallon on the interstate. It’s also the value leader of the Highlander lineup starting at just about $30,000.
But wait, there’s more! Just like a tawdry late-night infomercial there’s another model to talk about. The Hybrid version is the economy champion of the Highlander lineup, returning 28 MPG on both city and highway test cycles. But that added efficiency comes at a price. You can bet it’s more useful than a home podiatrist kit, though a lot more expensive than three easy payments of $19.99. Base MSRP is just about $41,000 and if you opt for the top-of-the-line version it eclipses 47 big ones! Bring your checkbook to the dealer along with your first- and possibly second-born children.
In Limited trim our test model stickered for an expensive but much more reasonable $41,855. The only option it was equipped with was a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, which cost $1,760.
The Highlander is a solid offering in the three-row crossover segment. It can give any competitor a run for its money thanks to a unique combination of Toyota quality, interior comfort and butter-smooth ride. It’s not bad looking, either.
Sure, it may not be the most fun vehicle in its class to drive, that title probably goes to the 365-horsepower Ford Explorer Sport. It’s also missing at least one gear in its transmission, but betting dollars to doughnuts, the Highlander is a solid crossover that offers buyers a broad spread of trim levels and powertrain options. It’s competitively priced and probably as reliable as a blacksmith’s anvil, and that’s enough to make it a perfect minivan alternative.