The Toyota Highlander sells well as far as dedicated 7- to 8-passenger SUVs go, sitting third amongst 10 competitors with 10,412 units sold in Canada last year. It’s been Toyota’s go-to midsize crossover SUV since the turn of this last century and is now two years into its third generation, so it’s one of the more enduring nameplates in the segment,
While top three in its class is good, consider for a moment that Hyundai sold 26,685 five-passenger Santa Fe Sports, Ford delivered 16,580 examples of its five-occupant Edge, Nissan pulled in 10,128 Murano customers, and Dodge found another 25,646 buyers for its 5- and 7-passenger Journey. Even Kia, which normally doesn’t sell even close to the levels of any of the above, managed to attract 14,372 Sorento customers.
You’d think a light would go on somewhere in the minds of the Toyota collective and, voila, a 5-passenger SUV would appear, but so far we’re left with the very good, 7-passenger Highlander which, unfortunately, doesn’t sell as well.
My favourite midsize crossover design
I must admit, though, it’s still my favourite midsize crossover from a styling perspective. It’ll soon get upgraded for the 2017 model year, however, with a bolder, deeper, and edgier version of the current grille, plus modified headlights, taillights, and body panels, not to mention a new, direct-and-port-injected 3.5L V6 and a more efficient 8-speed automatic transmission. It’ll be a significant mid-cycle makeover, but probably not so much that you’ll be sorry if you purchased the current version.
Then again, I’m a bit biased because I happen to really like the current Highlander’s blunt, truck-like grille and brawny, yet sleek athletic stance. This XLE AWD variant gets classic circular fog lamps at each corner, an attractive set of multi-spoke, machine-finished 19” alloys with grey-painted pockets to fill out its profile, and silver-painted roof rails with crossbars up top. So, if you like what you see here, you’d better act now.
As for the interior, the Toyota Highlander raised the game amongst midsize crossover SUVs when it debuted two years ago, prompting others to improve or else be left behind. Details such as fabric-wrapped A-pillars, a stitched, leather-like dash top, pliable premium door uppers, a padded leatherette tray that flows along the underside of the dash, and superb instrument panel interfaces set it apart. This goes along with Toyota’s usual high-quality materials, excellent fit and finish, unique trim colour choices (key areas in my tester were finished in a rich chocolate brown), and generous helping of standard and optional features.
Equipped to please
Sit back and take in the Toyota Highlander XLE AWD and you’ll wonder what need there is for a Limited version above. This model is filled with all the more obvious opulent trappings of mobile luxury such as a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, a leather-clad shift knob, leather and SofTex upholstery, an 8-way power-adjustable driver’s seat with powered lumbar and even a variable-length lower cushion for superb comfort and support, plus variable temperature heated front seats. Let’s not forget the 4.2” colour TFT multi-information display set within bright and clear backlit primary gauges, auto-dimming rearview mirror, tri-zone auto HVAC with separate rear controls, large 8” infotainment touchscreen with a rearview camera, navigation, advanced voice recognition, text- and email-to-speech technology, Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming, and satellite radio.
Over your head there’s a universal garage door opener and power glass sunroof, while in the back you’ll find rear-door sunshades. An anti-theft system protects the SUV and valuables within, while push-button start with proximity access gets you inside in the first place. The power liftgate will open with a touch on its backside, too, or alternatively you can lift up the glass hatch to drop something smaller inside, but don’t forget to scroll back the retractable cargo cover first. All of this is standard kit with the XLE.
It’s worth noting that the base Toyota Highlander LE starts at $33,555, while Active Torque AWD and a few additional features push the price of the LE AWD model up to $36,055. The gap between this more basic version and my XLE AWD tester amounts to $5,935. It’s a reasonable price to pay for all of those aforementioned features, and it remains within most families’ budgets.
You want space?
Standard across the line is generous interior space. The front row proves to be as accommodating as most people could hope for, the second row is ultra-large with loads of legroom, and the third row is comfortable enough for my 5’8” medium-built body with about 3” above my head, ample elbowroom, and enough of a gap under the second-row seats that my big clunky shoes fit without issue.
Those second-row seatbacks tilt forward as the entire structure rolls forward allowing good access to the rearmost seats, while there’s a decent amount of cargo space left in the back when all the seats are in use. For comparison purposes, that number is 391 litres, whereas flipping down the rear headrests and tugging on a strap atop each third-row seat will quickly expand cargo volume to 1,198 litres. Flattening the second row isn’t quite as easy, though: The process first requires you to lift the lever at the base of the seat that normally gives access to the third row, and before it slides forward you’ll need to tug on another lever at the front of the lower seat cushion. It’s a bit awkward, but it works, creating a maximum of 2,356 litres in XLE AWD trim.
Highlander on the highway
While I’ve already teased you about next year’s drivetrain, rest assured the 2016 Toyota Highlander’s standard 3.5L V6 is still plenty capable and wonderfully smooth. It’s a direct-injected engine featuring Toyota’s advanced variable valve timing with intelligence (VVT-i) resulting in an energetic 270 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque, while the 6-speed automatic transmission is certainly smooth and also a well-proven component, so therefore reliability should be a non-issue.
The Highlander moves along quickly enough and cruises superbly at highway speeds, while its MacPherson front and double-wishbone rear suspension provides a fantastically compliant ride along with impressive agility through fast-paced corners. Don’t expect it to handle like a premium German SUV, but when push comes to shove it’ll hold its lane unless you provoke the unreasonable. Even then its ABS-enhanced 4-wheel discs and electronic stability control should bring it back to safety in short order.
The 2016 Toyota Highlander earned the highest possible “Top Safety Pick+” rating from the IIHS in the U.S., but not here in Canada where the Limited Platinum trim isn’t available and therefore neither is lane departure warning or the pre-collision system with dynamic cruise control, or for that matter automatic high beams that also come with this U.S.-only upgrade. However, every 2016 model in both markets achieved an overall 5-star crash test rating, although only side crash tests earned 5 stars, with frontal crash and rollover tests earning 4 stars apiece.
As for dependability, Toyota came in third out of 17 mainstream volume brands in Consumer Reports’ 2016 rankings, whereas J.D. Power and Associates placed Toyota number one in its 2016 Vehicle Dependability Study. The Highlander, mind you, was beaten by the Nissan Murano and Toyota’s Venza and 4Runner siblings in the Midsize SUV category it competes in.
I doubt these third-party studies specifically test navigation system reliability, and for the most part Toyotas have been pretty good each time I’ve needed directions (or as in this case tested them despite knowing exactly where I was going). This time, however, the Highlander’s GPS took me an extra block out of the way and then back across an intersection onto the same street I was driving down before arriving at my destination.
That wouldn’t have been a big deal if that extra block hadn’t put me right in the middle of one of my city’s busiest streets during heavy congestion. I know the area well and therefore understood that it wasn't trying to send me around blocked roads or any other traffic situation, something I proved when I drove back the way I would have normally driven in order to make sure the roads were clear. I’ve had much worse navigation experiences with other brands, but this trip with the Highlander will cause me to pay very close attention when using Toyota navigation in the future.
While it’s difficult to say if improvements to the 2017 model will include upgraded navigation, I’ll make a guess the aforementioned missing front crash prevention features offered south of the 49th will find their way to our market later this year.
The extra two forward gears that we already know are coming in next year’s Highlander will likely help fuel economy, the current model rated at a reasonable albeit hardly class-leading 12.5L/100km city and 9.3L/100km highway with FWD, 13.0 and 9.8 respectively with AWD. For class-leading fuel economy you’ll need to opt for the Highlander Hybrid that gets a claimed 8.6L/100km city and 8.5L/100km highway.
The conventionally powered 2016 Toyota Highlander XLE AWD remains a strong challenger amongst 7- and 8-passenger midsize SUVs including the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe XL, GMC Acadia, Chevy Traverse, Dodge Durango, and Mazda CX-9. It’s also the model I’d likely choose if my own dollars were on the line and I was in the market.
That being said, I really don’t need all those extra seats and would rather not have to carry them around for no reason. How about a shorter, 5-passenger version, Toyota? Say, something similar in size to the Ford Edge or Nissan Murano? Let’s hope Toyota’s U.S. division puts its thinking cap on so the many fans of the brand have something to turn to when they want to upgrade from their RAV4s, because they’re currently giving a lot of business away to their competitors.