The Toyota Highlander has long been judged as one of the safest and most reliable vehicles on the road.
The tall, CUV version of the Camry was a regular recommended buy from Consumer Reports - a designation since suspended this year for the gas version but not the Highlander Hybrid - after the crossover was caught up in two of Toyota's recent brake-related recall campaigns (one announced in October for 2004-2006 models, the other for 2010 models). However, the 2011 version was judged this summer to be a Top Safety Pick by the U.S. Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.
This vehicle was viewed as so trustworthy many years ago that a friend bought a beige one for himself and his wife and, within weeks, helped his father buy an identical one - soon causing great confusion over which one belonged to whom at family functions.
But the most persistent knock on the Toyota Highlander over its lifespan has always been its beige style and personality, no matter its actual exterior pigment.
Toyota has addressed the safety and reliability issues with its new Product Quality field offices to provide a quicker response by engineering staff to issues raised by customers - seven are to be located throughout North America, with two in Canada, in Calgary and Toronto.
For the Highlander specifically, there's not much news on the safety side, but some updates on the style front, inside and out.
A freshened exterior nose, alloy wheels, fenders and rear spoiler inject at least a touch more design flair to the Highlander, although it must still gaze wistfully over the showroom floor at the much sexier duds Toyota designers gave to the five-seat Venza.
A test drive from Gravenhurst, Ont., to Toyota's Canadian headquarters in Toronto in both a fully loaded Highlander V-6 and a decked-out hybrid model showed that while both are nipped and tucked this year, and provide various degrees of serene comfort behind the wheel, the Highlander Hybrid provides a more luxurious around-town driving feel, though its interior is still not quite as modern or luxurious as some rivals.
Yet the Highlander's sleeker but still relatively conventional two-box body is great for maximizing interior space, allowing Toyota to make third-row seats standard on all new Highlander models, including the Hybrid.
Sure, cargo room in the Highlander with all three rows up is now a precious commodity, but the easily foldable third row was also made more practical this year, as it now splits 50/50. So you no longer have to squeeze Grandma sadistically in between two child seats in the second row when you're hauling a weekend's worth of gear and clothes up to the cottage.
While the base Highlander is available with a four-cylinder engine and front-wheel-drive, both the up-level gas Highlander and the gas-electric hybrid are now powered by a 3.5-litre V-6. The hybrid engine is slightly more powerful than the previous version, but promising a 10 per cent reduction in fuel consumption. This hybrid engine may be the same size now as its gas counterpart, but even the non-electric bits are still significantly different, using an Atkinson cycle V-6 that trades some power for more efficient fuel use, gaining back some oomph from the electric motors that power the front, and upon slippage, the rear tires as well.
As with all full hybrids, there's an eerie silence when one takes off gently or is stopped in traffic, imparting a more luxuriously quiet cabin than the gas-only V-6, although that V6 is one of the smoothest in the business.
Combine this with a ride that sops up bumps nicely before they reach the cabin, and it seems obvious that Highlander buyers will benefit from the quality of mechanicals it shares with the Lexus RX.
Yet between all that comfort and silence, there's still a sense that you're piloting a transportation tool. So don't expect any silly features that involve you in driving, like shift paddles, or wonder why the Highlander leans over so much on highway ramps when you're in a hurry. Comfort and a tall, reassuring seating position have taken precedence over handling.
Of the two versions, the Hybrid would be my pick. Its silent low-speed manners provide at least a hint of personality, one of futuristic planet-friendly appeal, along with four-cylinder-like fuel economy, especially for city-dwelling parents. Plus a base Highlander Hybrid is about 17 grand less than a base Lexus RX 450h, and while you may give up some toys and styling flair, the Highlander Hybrid's green appeal is much more fashionable these days than beige.
2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Type: Mid-size gas-electric hybrid crossover
Base price: $42,850; as tested (estimated) $48,305
Engine: 3.5-litre Atkinson Cycle V-6
Horsepower/torque: 280 hp/215 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.6 city/7.3 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Ford Flex, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, Lexus RX
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