I never really took notice of the benchmark status of Highlander until recent new model introduction events held by competitor automakers. More and more I heard the name “Highlander” included in their marketing and technical presentations when reciting segment target data.
Highlander first saw the light of day in 2001 followed by some updates and the addition of a third row in 2004. The following year Toyota added a hybrid powertrain to the Highlander lineup and then last year gave the model a complete makeover.
The newest Highlander is all-new from the ground up, with the exception of the hybrid synergy drive powertrain in hybrid models. As RAV4 approached each of Highlanders’ technical specs recently, Toyota had to push Highlander further up the scale in the midsize crossover utility vehicle class.
Originally lumped into the SUV family, Highlander is a car-based platform (shared with Camry/Avalon) making it fit more accurately into the booming CUV segment.
Power is up and weight is up but fuel economy is roughly the same even when taking into consideration the government’s stricter new rating methodology.
The gas engine is a 270hp 3.5-liter V-6 with variable valve timing with lift and intelligence (VVTL-i) and backed by a smooth five-speed automatic with sport shift manual mode. This setup is good for 248 lb. ft. of torque in either front- or full-time four-wheel-drive running gear.
Highlander Hybrid models feature a drive system that pairs a 3.3-liter V-6 gasoline engine to an electric drive motor for a combined total of 270hp, and while total torque of the synergy drive system is difficult to measure, driving experience has shown us that actual power is significantly higher than the gas-only models.
Braking and steering systems have been upgraded giving all 2008 Highlanders four-wheel vented disc brakes and new electronic power steering. We found the brakes to need quite a bit of prodding before they really took hold but once they did they were very powerful. The new steering on the other hand was quite effortless and somewhat boring for drivers who like a lot of feedback from their vehicles.
Our most recent test model Highlander came to us as a 2009 Hybrid model with 4WD-i (intelligent four-wheel-drive) that we drove during the coldest week of the season (which, by the way, only started the day the Toyota arrived). We found the Highlander to be quite comfortable and a solid performer in all types of mixed driving, especially the slick roadways that proved no match for Toyota’s Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system.
The new Hybrid models enjoy a couple of features not found on previous generation Highlanders. A silent “EV” mode allows for electric-only driving at low speeds and the new “Economy” mode reduces throttle and power response by about 20 percent when selected.
Occupants of the newest Highlander models will enjoy increased seating space in all three rows, and a unique interchangeable second-row center section offers added flexibility.
For those of you drivers who have a problem of running into pedestrians (which apparently is an issue), Toyota engineers have added extra crush space to front end components allowing for more “give” when the moment of impact occurs.
Toyota includes all of its latest safety, comfort and convenience technologies in the new Highlander models with designers following a new “everything counts” philosophy.
Pricing for the 2009 Highlander Hybrid with 4WD-i begins at $34,700. Our tester came loaded with a few extra goodies including power rear liftgate, XM Satellite radio, auto rear air conditioning and a “special color” of blizzard white (ironic as it arrived on the first day of winter). All of this brought final sticker pricing to $41,020.
Fuel economy ratings for the Hybrid Highlander is 27 mpg city and 25 mpg highway.