The automobile industry in North America has never responded well to change. As a rule, manufacturers have to be cattle-prodded into action before they'll deviate from established norms - it wasn't that long ago when vinyl roofs and whitewall tires were still optional - and change comes slowly in the boardrooms at General Motors, Toyota, Ford and others.
As one GM executive explained to me years ago: "General Motors is a big ship and it takes time to turn it around."
Well, they're turning around now, and so is everyone else.
As part of its new "More Power, Less Fuel" program, Toyota is fitting four-cylinder engines to a variety of its products and extolling the virtues of less is more when it comes to engine size.
Case in point: the Highlander, which, for the first time, is available with a four-cylinder engine. You can still get a V-6 or hybrid drivetrain, but the base model is now offered with a 2.7-litre four-banger, mated to front-drive only, with a six-speed automatic transmission. That's correct: a four-cylinder engine powering a full-size SUV.
And here's the thing: It works. And works rather well.
This version of the Highlander won't win awards when it comes to stoplight derbies, and you might want to think twice about towing anything large, but, as a goodly sized people mover, it does the job.
It will tow up to 1,587 kilograms (680 kilos less than the V-6) and has more than enough reserve power on the highway - to a point. Even with a load of passengers, it gets you around town at a decent clip. It's no hot rod, but nor is it a slug.
The engine, by the way, is one of the biggest of its kind on the market, and, with over 185 horsepower on tap, has more grunt than some V-6s. It's almost identical to the one found in the base Venza and is essentially a Camry four-cylinder powerplant punched out and tweaked.
By way of comparison, the V-6 engine available with the Highlander dishes up 270 horsepower. Yes, it's a much livelier vehicle, with 4WD availability and all kinds of pulling power. It also starts at almost $5,000 more than the base model and, when it comes to creature comforts and accessories, there isn't much difference between the two. Same body configurations, same interior layout, same comfort level.
Of course, the four-cylinder delivers better fuel economy than its V-6 stable mate. Not a huge amount - 10.4 L/100 km in town versus 12.3 - but over the long haul it would add up.
The four-cylinder version also comes with a six-speed automatic transmission, where the V-6 has just five speeds. This will probably change in the near future, but it gives the four-banger a bit of a leg up when it comes to highway cruising.
When car makers start bumping up the displacement of their four-cylinder engines, they run into all kinds of issues, one of the primary ones being engine vibrations and harmonics.
Once you get above two litres, four-cylinder engines tend to lose their smoothness and something has to be done. The most common remedy is to fit a counterbalancer - or two - and that's what Toyota has done here.
In tandem with Toyota's variable valve timing system, the end result is a well-behaved, very usable power plant that, in many ways, transcends the usual configuration parameters.
It's easy to forget that this particular SUV has two fewer cylinders than its predecessors, and it doesn't seem to mind the extra load. At 2,490 kilograms dry and empty, the Highlander is not a small vehicle, but at no point during my time with this rig did I feel handicapped by a lack of snap or power.
But enough about the engine. For its under-$33,000 price tag, the base Highlander comes well furnished. It has a vehicle-stability control system, traction control, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake force distribution, as well as the usual mod-cons such as air conditioning, power windows and door locks, tilt/telescoping steering and keyless entry. This is not a stripper, in other words.
My tester also had an optional upgrade package that included rear air conditioning, a six-disc CD player, steering-wheel audio controls, roof rails, fog lamps and a power driver's seat. It'll run you an additional $1,800 and I would recommend it.
Total cargo capacity is the same as the V-6 models at 2,700 litres, and this version of the Highlander will seat seven adults in comfort.
In fact, I would recommend the four-cylinder Highlander on a bunch of levels. It costs less, is comparatively thrifty, reasonably peppy, roomy, very driveable and does all that you could ask of it.
No, it doesn't have that extra dose of power that some people seem to need, but it still has all the bases covered.
Think of it as a big station wagon.
2009 TOYOTA HIGHLANDER
Type: Full-size SUV
Base Price: $32,600; as tested, $35,895
Engine: 2.7-litre four-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Horsepower/Torque: 187 hp/186 lb-ft
Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 10.4 city/7.3 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Pilot, Hyundai Veracruz, Kia Borrego, Subaru Outback, GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Trailblazer, Dodge Nitro, Ford Flex
- Surprisingly capable engine
- Decent fuel economy
- Plenty of elbow room
- Still a big vehicle
- Won't tow as much as a V-6