That America has fallen for the SUV in a Big Way can be in little doubt. There are a vast array of different models, in all shapes and sizes, available from just about every manufacturer who sells product in the US market, and this is also reflected at the rental car companies, who are just as likely to give you an SUV as the regular sedan that you thought you had booked. People like them for the extra space and practicality that they offer, and after the rather dubious merits of vehicles like the early Ford Explorer, the fact that they are these days very “car like” as opposed to “truck like” to drive just adds to their appeal. Unsurprisingly, given the strong position that they occupy in the American market, Toyota have a whole range of differently sized SUVs, with what they call their “full-sized” model, the Highlander, positioned above the RAV4 that is more familiar to Europeans. Although you would perhaps not guess so by looking at it, the Highlander (known as the Kluger in some other markets where it is sold) is based on the best-selling Camry, but in a much more commodious package. I last drove a Highlander in May 2007, and in V6 engined guise found that it had much to commend it. Literally weeks after that test, the first generation Highlander was replaced with a completely new design, a much larger machine, but for some reason, few ever seemed to find their way into the Hertz fleet. Looking for something that I had not driven before, I found a recently acquired California plated one in the corner of the Hertz LAX facility and enquired if I could take that rather than the Dodge Avenger which had my name on it. A few minutes later, thanks to a very helpful Hertz employee, and I was on my way to find out if, as the US motoring press would have you believe, this is among the best vehicles in its class.
As with the Camry, with which this vehicle shares much under the skin, Toyota sell the Highlander with a choice of 4 or 6 cylinder engines and with the option of a Hybrid model. In true rental car tradition, I was expecting to discover that mine was the less potent of the two conventionally powered, but no, as it came with All Wheel Drive, that meant the 3.5 litre V6, and a glance under the bonnet (which is mostly just a plastic cover over the engine!) revealed that there were indeed 6 cylinders. Developing 270 bhp, it is a quiet and refined unit until you work it hard when it can get quite raucous. Thanks to the Highlander’s bulk, it does not make the vehicle particularly brisk, even when only one up, so heaven knows what a fully laden 4 cylinder Highlander, which has only 187 bhp at its disposal, is like. The V6 models have a five speed automatic transmission, which was very smooth in operation. There is a Sport mode available which allows you to flick up and down the gears yourself should you wish to do so. During my tenure, the display in the Highlander went from showing an average when I picked it up of 19.4 mpg (someone must have had a heavy right foot, I thought) to 20.9 mpg US, and was something which steadily improved, and indeed when I looked at “since last refuel”, at one point it appeared to be doing 28 mpg. Nonetheless, the needle on the gauge dropped relentlessly, and I had to refuel twice, and on both occasions put in more petrol than I was expecting. Dividing the miles driven by the quantity I purchased gave me an average of 20.4 mpg, which equates to 25.07 mpg Imperial, a far from impressive figure given the percentage of the test distance that was steady speed freeway mileage, and massively worse than the more powerful Hyundai Genesis I had been driving immediately before collecting the Toyota. I guess a big heavy SUV, with all wheel drive and six cylinders needs plenty of sustenance.
Just about every Toyota I have driven comes with light, vague and utterly feel-free steering, so I’ve come to the conclusion that Toyota do this deliberately, believing that this is what their customers want. Some may well do so, but for me, they have taken lightness far too far, and it makes taking their products on twisty toads even less fun than it would otherwise be. Whilst the Highlander is not the worst culprit in this regard, it is definitely engineered with the same philosophy, so whilst it is easy to drive and to manoeuvre, it is no fun once underway. Couple that with notable body roll and the soft suspension, and you have to conclude that this is definitely a car for the freeway and not the mountain road. Of course, I wanted to venture onto the latter and came to regret so doing. The only clue to the AWD is the badge on the back. There are no separate controls in the cabin for you to select it or deselect it. At least the brakes give no cause for concern, operating smoothly and bringing the machine to a halt as you would expect. The parking brake is operated by a foot pedal to the left of the footbrake, set by pressing on it and released by pressing harder. All round visibility was generally good, with generous glass area, and some well-shaped and sized mirrors which meant that reversing and manoeuvering in confined car parks was not a problem.
The interior of the Highlander is neat enough, but utterly lacking in any design flair. The seats of the test car were finished in a sort of velour material and were grey in hue. The dashboard moulding and door casings are mostly the same colour, with a darker brown on the top surfaces. Chrome rings around the instruments and inlays of dark grey in the dash are about the only effort made to liven things up, and I use the word “liven” in an approximate sense. That said, it avoids the current trend for overly fussy designs and is also thankfully devoid of horrid fake wood, so perhaps all is not so bad. The dials, of which there are large rev counter and speedometer presented as a circle with the bottom chopped off, flank water temperature and fuel level, all under a single cowl. Some of the sort of data, such as trip mileometer and average fuel consumption, which is often presented in a digital display among the instruments is shown in a small unit between the two central air vents. Under this is the audio unit, which featured a mixture of touch screen capabilities and small buttons and knobs around the unit. Switching between FM and AM and the non-existent XM Satellite that the paperwork said was on the car was not intuitive, but otherwise it worked well. The unit is flanked by two very large knobs which I can only assume are supposed to match and complement the trio of these that are found lower down the centre of the dash for the air conditioning functions. Column stalks do everything else, with a small stubby right hand side of the wheel one for the cruise control. There are button repeaters on the steering wheel boss for some audio unit functions and also to cycle through that little display unit by the air vents. It is all easy to use, and is neat, but dull to look at.
This generation of Highlander is significantly bigger than its predecessor, and that is very apparent when you consider the amount of space inside. Toyota bill it as a 7 seater, though whether all 7 of those occupants, especially if they were all adults, would be comfortable is perhaps a moot point. They certainly will not lack headroom, as that seemed to be in abundant supply. Adjustment for the driver’s seat was all manual, with a bar under the seat for fore/aft and two levers on the seat for height and backrest angle. Along with an adjustable column, I had no problem in getting the perfect driving position, but I did struggle to be truly comfortable in the seat, as it seemed a little ill-shaped to support me properly. The second row of seats are certainly intended for those of adult proportions. When I first got the Highlander, it looked like there were two separate “Captain’s Chair” style seats, separated by a central console, but closer inspection revealed that the seat cushion is continuous, albeit split asymmetrically when it comes to adjusting it backwards and forwards, and that the backrest of the central piece actually comprises a thin armrest on each side as well as a filler which can be raised and clicked into place against the left hand side backrest to fill in the gap so there is what appears to be continuous backrest, but it is a bit lumpy so whether the occupant of this middle seat would be really comfortable is debatable. The backrest rake of each seat can be set separately. Leg room is not in short supply regardless of where the seat is positioned. Behind the middle row are another pair of seats. Occupants of these seats have their own set of controls for the air conditioning, and under this is a lidded area in which there was a removable tray which could be clipped into place in the centre of the rear seat to provide a lipped surface and more cupholders, instead of the seat cushion. Alternatively, you could leave both out, then there is a sort of passageway though to the rear most seats, though I don’t see how you would really use this. As always with 7 seaters, the rear most seats are smaller, with a backrest that looks like it would not extend up far enough for adults, so you should view these seats more as intended for children or short journeys. Access to them is a little awkward as you have to clamber past the folded down central row of seats, but once in, there is reasonable leg room, and your knees are unlikely to be quite as in your chin as is sometimes the case. Only two seat belts are provided so it is clear that these seats are only intended for 2 people. With all seats erect, there is not very much luggage space, and indeed when I needed to put my suitcase on board, I dropped one of the seats down. Do so and you get a lot more cargo room, and if you fold down the central set as well, you get a commodious luggage area indeed, though the resulting floor is not quite flat as the middle row of seats slope upwards slightly. There are a couple of small cubbies under the boot floor, for small items. Inside the cabin there is a reasonable glove box, door bins on all doors, and an area under the central armrest for those odds and ends, as well as a thin slot on the dash. There are four cup holders for the front seat occupants.
Toyota will sell you a Highlander in a variety of different trim levels, ranging from the unlabelled base model such as my test car, through Plus and SE to Limited. The test car retails at a whisker under $32,000, which appears to be good value, though you are certainly not getting anything much in the way of luxury features for that price. You do get 17″ alloys with all- weather tyres, cruise control, air conditioning with separate controls for the rear, an AM/FM audio unit with touch screen, CD and MP3 capability bluetooth and 6 speakers, but that’s about it. The Limited costs a further $7,000 and brings with it 19″ alloys, front fog lights, roof rails, an electric sun roof, leather trimmed front seats and leatherette on the others, a leather wrapped steering wheel, automatic 3 zone climate control, a Smart Key with push button start, an upgraded audio unit with XM satellite radio, a back-up camera and a power-operated tailgate. That would seem to be a better deal than the rather basic entry level machine. There are some intermediate steps in the range. The Plus is very similar to the entry car, with different upholstery and black roof rails the main distinguishing points. The SE takes you half way to the Limited, with the leather seats, the electric sun roof, the backup camera and power operated tailgate.
I started this review wondering whether this is, as Consumers Reports and others would have you believe, a “Recommended” vehicle. Based on my experience, and also the tests I have made of some, but by no means all, of its rivals, I would have to say “no”. To my mind, it is vastly over-rated. For sure it is spacious, and like all Toyota, it is bound to prove reliable. But most of its competition can claim that, too. Of the alternatives that I have sampled, it is the Mazda CX9 which sticks in the memory as being particularly good to drive and yet lacking nothing in the practicality stakes. I strongly suspect that the latest Hyundai Santa Fe and refreshed Kia Sorento would also beat it easily, and I am told that the latest Pathfinder is also a much better car. But the Highlander boasts strong sales, beating all of these. So, yet again, it would seem that people do not buy on merit, but more on prejudice or perception from long ago. That’s up to them, but I know that next time I want an SUV, I’ll walk past the Toyotas and pick something else, and will appreciate so doing.