With an extensive redesign just a year behind it - which ticked off most of the boxes on the marketing survey form asking previous-generation owners' "what could we do better" - Toyota's Highlander crossover utility vehicle didn't change significantly for 2009, with the exception that a four-cylinder version was added to the lineup.
With either four or six cylinders, it remains the mid-size, middle-of-the-road (plus some off-road capability) alternative to other forms of family transportation it has been since being introduced for 2001.
If a sedan won't meet your people- or stuff-hauling requirements and you don't like the idea of a station wagon or minivan. But you do like the idea of a vehicle with some reassuring heft and presence, with a driving position that lets you look well down the road, plus plenty of power along with won't-break-the-bank operating economy. And, hey, a little style and luxury wouldn't go amiss either. Well, you wouldn't really have to extend your search beyond the Highlander.
Although, of course, you'll want to check out some of the worthy rivals that share this popular market niche, particularly those that compete with the mid-$40,000 Sport model I tested.
The arrival of a 2.7-litre, 187-hp, four-cylinder model opened up a new possibility at the bottom on the range with its $32,600 price point (with available $1,805 upgrade that includes power driver's seat, six-disc CD player, leather-wrapped wheel with audio controls and shift knob, fog lights, automatic headlights, illuminated vanity mirrors, rear A/C, roof racks and roof rails.)
But V-6-engined Highlanders are still the ones most buyers aspire to. And they are available in three versions, starting at the well-equipped base model, which goes for $37,570. Add $4,935 and you can get into the $42,505 Sport, with a worthwhile load of additional equipment to amuse yourself with. The Sport tested had no additional optional equipment, and with $1,490 freight and delivery charges added, priced out at $43,995. Or you can knock on the door of serious luxury with the Limited, which wears a $46,205 price sticker.
The redesign for 2008 not only added some new style, but increased the exterior and interior dimensions of the seven-passenger Highlander, stretching its wheelbase and its overall length and width. The result is that cargo space grew to 2,701 litres with all seats folded, 1,203 with the centre seat in use and 291 litres with the third-row seat upright.
Headroom was already fine, but there's now some additional shoulder room, too, which will be appreciated if you fill all the seating positions. Although the pair in the third row still aren't going to be too happy.
I'm not sure how many owners will carry seven people around, but this is a more than useful enough amount of cargo room.
The increase in V-6 engine displacement that came with the redesign also helped bump trailer towing capability to 2,368 kg. So the Highlander has the utility factor covered quite nicely.
But for $40,000-plus, you'll also be looking for at least a taste of luxury. And that's pretty much what the Highlander offers, with an interior that, despite a rather classy finish on the plastic trim on centre stack and console, looked a little plain-Jane to me. But then I'd just stepped out of a Lexus RX350.
It's nicely equipped, though, with tilt/telescope steering wheel, multiple airbags, dual-zone climate control, six-disc (and good quality) audio system, power driver's seat, leather, a multi-information display, reversing camera with too-small display screen, power hatch (with flip-up glass, the utility of which has always escaped me), sunroof, roof racks and a rear spoiler.
The backlit instruments add a rich touch, you have to cock your wrist around the large front door-pulls to reach the window controls, outside mirrors are large and all-round visibility good, the steering wheel feels good in your hands, interior noise levels are low at speed, controls are easy to locate and work with a quality feel. Four cup holders seems like two too many. Seats proved comfortable, if not offering much lateral support.
The Sport, not surprisingly, comes with a sport-tuned suspension (MacPherson struts front and rear) and P245/55R19 tires on alloy wheels. An electric power steering system with a somewhat unnatural feel, particularly coming on and off centre, turns the front pair, which respond with as much immediacy as being asked to change the direction of something with a curb weight of 1,930 kg allows - not much.
I'm not sure I'd call the handling "sporty," but it is confident and capable. The brake pedal operates with a "hissy" sound and a rather pneumatic feel, but overall braking power is fine. Ride is obviously firm, and muscles you around a bit over undulating surfaces, but any nastiness being experienced by the wheels is well filtered out by the time it gets to your backside.
The V-6 grew from 3.3 litres to 3.5 litres during the remake, and it produces 270 hp at 6,200 rpm and 248 lb-ft of torque at 4,700 rpm. A five-speed automatic delivers this to the wheels via a full-time all-wheel-drive system. Should you venture off-road, you'll have electronic assistance available in the form of hill descent and hill start systems and for on-road there's stability control.
Fuel economy ratings are 12.3 litres/100 km city and 8.8 highway; after a week of more highway and rural than city driving, the onboard display was showing an average of 10.4 L/100 km.
No surprise then that the Highlander has been a solid seller for Toyota since its arrival. It offers all the utility a family will likely ever find a need for, in a stylish and civilized package. The Sport adds features that step things up to the lower rungs of luxury motoring.
2009 TOYOTA HIGHLANDER V6 SPORT
Type: Mid-size crossover
Base Price: $42,506; as tested, $43,995
Engine: 3.5-litre, SOHC, V-6
Horsepower/torque: 270 hp/248 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.3 city/8.8 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Cadillac SRX, BMW X3, Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Flex, Honda Pilot, GMC Acadia, Infiniti EX, Land Rover LR2, Suzuki XL7, Lexus RX, Buick Enclave, Hyundai Veracruz, Lincoln MKX, Mercedes-Benz GLK, Subaru Tribeca, Mazda CX-9, Mitsubishi Endeavor, Nissan Murano
- Strong engine and confident handling
- Good looks outside and plenty of nice stuff inside
- High level of utility
- Third-row seat is a penalty box
- Oddly disconnected steering feel
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