As much a comfortable station wagon as an SUV, the Highlander fits nicely between the mini-utes and the gargantuan gas-guzzlers. It is offered with front-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive, 5-passenger or 7-passenger seating. 4WD Highlanders include a 230 hp V-6 and 5-speed automatic. Price is $27,590 (with 3rd row). Warranty: powertrain 5 yr./60,000 miles, total vehicle 3 yr./36,000 miles. EPA fuel mileage: 18 city/24 highway.
Under the skin of every Highlander lies a Toyota Camry sedan. Which makes this a Camry wagon on stilts. Of course some of us critics would rather do without the stilts but then our Highlander wouldn't be able to step over curbs, drive through gooey mud, or mush across the snowy plains without getting towed out the other side. So what we have here is a Camry-based unibody, similar 4-wheel independent suspension system, disc brakes all-round, V-6 engine, 5-speed automatic, premium sedan comfort... with the off-road advantages of 4-wheel-drive and SUV ground clearance. Not a bad combination by any means, and one that will appeal to families on the go, especially those who go where others fear to tread. Well, almost. In spite of its sophisticated drive system and other technological advantages, the Highlander is not really meant for scaling rock faces or fjording deep streams. Versatility is its strong point, family convenience its most appealing factor. Add Toyota's fabled reliability and you've got a Camry with the heart of a sport-ute and the soul of a wagon. I'm not certain what the Scots would make of that name, though.
In the Driver's Seat
In an era when pickups can be outfitted like Saturday night limousines it was no surprise to climb into the Highlander's front seat and get a hint of first class travel. Mind you, our test vehicle came with a luxury package that included leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, power driver's seat and heated front seats. Air conditioning, rear seat heater ducts, power windows, locks and mirrors, and a 6-speaker AM/FM cassette/CD sound system are standard on all Highlanders. One feature I particularly liked was the way in which the center console is shaped like a bridge, leaving a hidden tunnel underneath where cameras or purses can be stowed out of sight. Slipping in and out of front and rear seating areas revealed plenty of leg, arm, and headroom and more cupholders than there are seats; I've never been a cupholder fan so perhaps someone can explain that one to me. The rear seat is a 60/40 split but doesn't fold quite flat, at least when the front seats are set well back. Road visibility is good, controls are typically Camry large and convenient. So what's not to like in the Highlander interior? Nothing except it's, well, so functionally perfect as to be aesthetically bland. Got that? No? Don't worry.
On the Road
During my time with the Highlander I had occasion to perform a service for west coast Toyota press rep Peter Partridge who, due to a family illness, was forced to cross the watery divide between the city of Vancouver on the BC mainland and my Vancouver Island home base. From the moment I met Peter and his wife at the ferry docks I found myself driving like the Pope's chauffeur... very, very, gently. Not to impress my media benefactor but because the Highlander is so darn smooth it encourages the driver to make every trip a pleasure for his or her passengers. Contributing to this is the Camry's fully-independent suspension system plus a V-6 engine that purrs unobtrusively at less than 1600 rpm when cruising in 5th gear. When I demanded a burst of power, the 5-speeder dropped a notch as the 230 hp V-6 provided an unexpected punch in the back. Strange, then, that the Highlander has a tendency to wander off-line if the driver isn't paying attention; a reminder there's not much sport in its sport-ute designation in spite of ABS, EBS, and Brake Assist driver aids. On the other hand the Highlander's vehicle stability control system will help control understeer and oversteer in curves, the kind of assistance the average driver needs.
I must be getting old (stop laughing, Wickell!). I'm starting to appreciate the advantages of sitting up high and not having to perform gymnastics to climb into the driver's seat of every vehicle I test. The Toyota Highlander turned out to be an enjoyable everyday performer and if I were young again (sigh) and had my ex, two sons, and mom-in-law on board, I could almost imagine myself buying or leasing one of these haul-it-alls. If so, I'd forgo the 6-cylinder engine and 4-wheel drive in favor of Toyota's superb base 4-cylinder engine and front-wheel-drive. The six is a smoothie but the four has plenty of power and saves on gas (our test vehicle, in spite of those mostly-low revs, sipped fuel like a thirsty hummingbird at a honeysuckle bush), while front-wheel-drive is all most people need unless they plan on vacationing in a Florida swamp. As a final analysis, however, I bow to Toyota's pr people when they insist the Highlander is about versatility: 4 cylinders or V-6, front-drive or 4-wheel-drive, sedan comfort or wagon spaciousness, 5 seats or 7 seats. Enough airbags to float the Goodyear blimp and two well-optioned packages for a few extra bucks. Throw in some shares in a Scottish highland distillery and I'm convinced.