Toyota’s family hauler gains distinction

Since 2000, the Toyota Highlander has enjoyed a comfortable top spot as a nondescript suburban do-all, adept at hauling families, tackling snow days and offering better road manners than the average SUV thanks to its

based underpinnings. Reliable and useful, but not particularly exciting, was the recipe.

Has that changed, though? The latest Highlander, redesigned in 2013 and tweaked again for 2016, is larger, bolder and more luxurious than its predecessors. The new Highlander has curb presence, and the eye-catching design is just the beginning. The spacious interior would look equally at home in a Lexus product, and Toyota’s added items like an available panoramic glass roof for additional "wow" factor. A longer wheelbase provides additional room for third-row passengers, and the Highlander has grown into a viable minivan alternative.

Though rarely the darlings of enthusiasts, family-sized crossovers like the Highlander are important volume vehicles for manufacturers like Toyota. Not only does the Highlander fill an important midsize niche for the marque, but it also serves as a representative of the brand (and, by extension, Lexus) through which buyers my graduate to other Toyota products in the future. That’s why the Highlander’s upgraded style is significant: it’s not enough to just be a competent vehicle these days. The key to success is to bring ’em back for more.

Continue reading to learn more about the 2016 Toyota Highlander.


2016 Toyota Highlander Review High Resolution Exterior
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The Highlander’s new visual length does good things to the design, and its best angle might be a rear-three-quarter view, which shows off its very-living-model-of-a-modern-station-wagon silhouette. Blacked-out pillars and chrome trim emphasize the greenhouse, while distinct fender bulges and standard 18-inch wheels give it an action-ready look. Up front, Toyota’s trapezoidal family grille has been extended and given the bigger-and-wider treatment with a bold chrome sash between projector-beam headlamps. The Highlander and RAV4 share similar styling traits, identifying them as Toyota’s suburban crossovers. A power tailgate and roof rails are available.


2016 Toyota Highlander Review High Resolution Interior
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Slip inside, and you’ll find one of the better command centers in crossover-dom. Toyota’s electroluminescent gauges and satin-silver trim provide an upscale look, while chair-height seats and a broad console are ready for long road trips. A touch-screen information display rides high in a wide dash, and Toyota has taken unique advantage of the strong horizontal aspects of its interior styling to add a vehicle-wide tray integrated into the dash.

Available amenities include heated and cooled front seats, heated second-row seats, and Toyota’s Entune infotainment system with navigation.

Deep enough to hold smartphones, house keys and many other small items easily at hand, it’s a simple and elegant solution to small-stuff storage. Of course there’s a large console as well, big enough for a handbag or small tablet. Available amenities include heated and cooled front seats, heated second-row seats, and Toyota’s Entune infotainment system with navigation. A panoramic glass roof is also available. Laminated glass provides an extra measure of quiet on road trips.

There’s seating for up to eight adults, making the Highlander a reasonable minivan alternative. With all three rows of seats in place, it offers 13.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats. Fold all of the seats and the capability goes up to 158.7 cubic feet, which is getting into minivan territory and underscores the Highlander’s increased size. For family hauling, Toyota’s clever new “Easy Speak” system uses a microphone to subtly transmit the driver’s voice to the third row via the car’s sound system.


2016 Toyota Highlander Review High Resolution Exterior
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Motivation is provided by a 3.5 liter V6 in most Highlanders. This DOHC engine features variable valve timing and produces 270 horsepower. The six-speed automatic transmission does an excellent job of managing the power, and downshifts provide a healthy burst of power on demand. Fuel economy is rated at 18city/24 highway for all-wheel drive models. A towing package is standard with the V6 and includes a heavy-duty radiator and fan, an oil cooler and a 150-amp alternator. Thus equipped the Highlander will yank up to 5,000 pounds.

The six-speed automatic transmission does an excellent job of managing the power, and downshifts provide a healthy burst of power on demand.

The V6 is the power leader. Toyota also offers a 2.7 liter four-cylinder and hybrid-electric in the hybrid. Like the V6, the 185-horsepower four cylinder features variable valve timing, and bumps fuel economy to 20/25. The hybrid uses an electric motor-generator paired with the 3.5 V6 to produce a total of 280 system horsepower and 27/28 fuel economy. All-wheel drive is standard in the Highlander Hybrid.

Toyota’s Dynamic Torque Control All-wheel Drive is available. It’s designed primarily for tackling bad weather, and works with the stability control system to transfer power to non-slipping wheels automatically. Unlike many automatic-AWD systems, the Highlander has a 4WD LOCK button for splitting torque 50:50 until you disengage it, affording a measure of off-road control.

From the driver’s seat, the Highlander feels more capable than it has in past years. That’s worth a lot; plenty of crossovers betray their non-truck roots with a subtle feeling of lightness behind the wheel. The Highlander was once one of those vehicles, the sort that promised bent sheet metal if you tried to tackle a tough off-road hill. That has changed, and not just because of the availability of hill-start and downhill assist. The Highlander’s fully independent has been strengthened, and it feels stronger from the driver’s seat. MacPherson struts are used up front, while a responsive double-wishbone rear provides a carlike ride and excellent lateral stability.


2016 Toyota Highlander Review High Resolution Exterior
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Large family haulers like the Highlander were designed to keep your loved ones safe in an accident, so a five-star overall rating from NTHSA comes as no surprise. There are eight standard airbags, including a driver’s knee airbag and a passenger seat-cushion restraint. The Highlander can also be equipped with a lane departure warning, forward collision warning and a backup camera. Toyota’s VSC stability control is standard equipment. In the Highlander Limited, a blind-spot monitor with cross-traffic alert is offered.


The Highlander is offered in LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited grades. The lower two trim levels are mono-spec price lines, with no option packages. Pricing starts at $29,675 for the two-wheel drive, four cylinder LE and ranges up to $40,190 for the Limited.


Ford Explorer

2016 Ford Explorer High Resolution Exterior
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The Explorer started life as a Ford Ranger pickup with a different body, and even after morphing over the years into a completely separate and civilized package it’s also a workhorse. Ford’s powerful 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6 has enough power to tow and haul like a truck, and the Explorer does double duty as a police vehicle. With those strong underpinnings it’s still a comfortable and quiet family hauler as well.

Read our full review of the Ford Explorer here.

Nissan Pathfinder

2014 Nissan Pathfinder - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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Often lost in the crossover shuffle, the Pathfinder is one of the most station wagon-like of the three-row crossovers, thanks to a long wheelbase and spacious interior. The 3.5 liter V6 produces 260 horsepower and is surprisingly fuel-efficient, and the Pathfinder still retains some of the off-road capability that it used to have in spite of pavement-friendly suspension and construction.

Read our full review of the Nissan Pathfinder here.

Chevrolet Traverse

2013 - 2014 Chevrolet Traverse High Resolution Exterior
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2013 Chevrolet Traverse

The Traverse makes its name with quality and safety, offering the industry’s first front-center airbag and a range of driver aids. It’s a bit more expensive than some, but makes up for it with a cavernous interior, passenger-friendly sliding rear seats and a wide range of safety and infotainment options.

Read our full review on the Chevrolet Traverse here.


2016 Toyota Highlander Review High Resolution Exterior
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At a glance, the Highlander’s updated styling is just a pretty wrapper on a rather ordinary vehicle, and in some ways that’s true. On the other hand, the three-row crossover is the modern equivalent of the classic American station wagon, and today’s crossovers are challenging minivans for family-hauling supremacy. The way-back seating may face in the wrong direction, but these beasts of burden will eventually spark nostalgia in today’s kids. The new Highlander makes a strong case for being one of those mundane-but-memorable cars, grabbing attention at shows the same way that a classic Country Squire does today.

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    • Not likely to win the respect of car guys
    • Four-cylinder is overwhelmed by the Highlander’s size
Emmy Jackson
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