Reviewers say the current Toyota Highlander benefits from a host of 2008 improvements that contribute to better overall drivability. The 2009 edition of Toyota's midsize crossover SUV continues with no design changes, but adds an economical four-cylinder engine option.
Built on a car-based platform, the Toyota Highlander is a spacious, comfortable midsize crossover SUV that offers room for seven. Most critics find the third row to be somewhat cramped, but Cars.com's Kelsey Mays says, "Depending on where the second row is positioned, the third row can be surprisingly adult-friendly." The Highlander's second row seat offers remarkable versatility, in that it can convert from a three-person bench to two individual seats with a center pass-through for easier access to the rear bench. The second row's center position can be removed and stowed or converted into a handy console, complete with storage and cupholders. Carrying passengers in the three seating rows means you have to trade some utility, however. "Cargo space is scant when all three rows are in use, measuring just over 10 cubic feet. Folding the third row yields 42 cubes, though, and with the second row down, there's a healthy 95.4 cubic feet." Reviewers also express disappointment that the third row seat doesn't fold in sections. Edmunds Inside Line notes, "The third-row seat folds as a single piece, so you're more limited in how you can load up kids and cargo."
The most popular engine choice for the Toyota Highlander is its 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6, available with either front- or all-wheel drive. Fuel economy is slightly better than many other midsize SUVs, with Environmental Protection Agency estimates of 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway for the all-wheel-drive model. A more economical base Toyota Highlander (*Est. $25,705) is powered by a new-for-2009 2.7-liter, 187-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, with fuel-economy ratings of 20 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. There is a catch, however: the four-cylinder Toyota Highlander is offered with front-wheel drive only. For maximum efficiency, the Highlander Hybrid (*Est. $34,700 to $41,020) offers the best fuel economy of any midsize SUV.
The Toyota Highlander is derived from the same basic vehicle architecture that underpins the Toyota Camry sedan, which helps account for the midsize SUV's highly regarded, car-like comfort. Standard towing capacity is 2,000 pounds, but when properly equipped, the Highlander V-6 can tow up to 5,000 pounds -- better than most competing midsize crossovers. Edmunds.com editors say "steering is light enough to make the 2009 Toyota Highlander easy to maneuver in tight spaces yet adequately precise while cornering." A low step-in height also adds to the appeal, NewCarTestDrive.com reports: "The Highlander's elevated ride height and upright seating position give it that desirable SUV trait but with easier step-in than what's found in older, truck-based SUVs."
A smooth, quiet ride is mentioned frequently in reviews, along with a suspension that is soft-tuned for comfort rather than spirited, sporty handling. Reviewers say the Highlander is a highly competent midsize SUV that does many things well, but they often say it is not especially enjoyable to drive and it lacks personality. Cars.com's Mays says the Highlander "should prove a smart -- if not particularly captivating -- choice for years to come." A sportier alternative, he points out, is the Mazda CX-9 (*Est. $29,820 to $35,205).
For those unsatisfied with the Highlander's snug third-row seat or small rear-most cargo space, roomier choices include the Chevrolet Traverse (*Est. $29,215 to $41,975) or its other GM siblings: The GMC Acadia (*Est. $31,890 to $40,490), Saturn Outlook (*Est. $30,625 to $36,450) and luxury-oriented Buick Enclave (*Est. $35,070 to $39,380). For another Toyota Camry-based alternative that is even more car-like, reviews suggest taking a look at the new Toyota Venza crossover (*Est. $25,975 to $29,250), which is basically a five-passenger station wagon.
ConsumerReports.org reviews the Toyota Highlander and includes extensive information on its subscription-only website. In a three-SUV comparison test, Edmunds Inside Line gives the Toyota Highlander a second-place finish behind the Mazda CX-9. Edmunds.com also has an excellent summary review of the Highlander. Cars.com has a detailed road-test review of the Highlander, as well as a three-vehicle comparison article. ConsumerGuide.com bestows a Recommended rating to the Highlander rather than its top Best Buy endorsement. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awards the Highlander a Top Safety Pick honor for its performance in independent crash tests.
ConsumerReports.org names its best choices in 10 vehicle categories in a public-access article. Of all the SUVs tested, ConsumerReports.org selects the Toyota Highlander as the best for 2009. Editors call it "very refined and versatile," and note that "reliability has been excellent." Full details and a complete road test report on the Highlander can be found elsewhere on the subscription-only site.
Review: Top Picks -- Best Models of the Year in 10 Categories, Editors of ConsumerReports.org, April 2009
2. Edmunds Inside Line
Edmunds.com's Inside Line takes a close look at three crossover SUVs, each with three rows of seating and price tags (as tested) near $40,000: the 2009 Honda Pilot, 2008 Toyota Highlander and 2008 Mazda CX-9, the latter two of which have only minor changes for 2009. The second-place Toyota has the best fuel economy and acceleration, but loses to the Mazda CX-9.
Review: Comparison Test: 2008-'09 Crossover SUVs, Erin Riches, July 6, 2008
A Cars.com Best Bet, the Toyota Highlander is discussed thoroughly in this road-test review. The third row is roomy enough for adults on short trips, writer Kelsey Mays says. While the Highlander is good in a variety of ways, "it doesn't excel in any one area," Mays says.
Review: 2009 Toyota Highlander, Kelsey Mays, Nov. 21, 2008
4. New Car Test Drive
This lengthy evaluation covers the Toyota Highlander in detail, with attention devoted to each aspect of the SUV. The writer calls the Highlander "a pleasant vehicle to drive," with a comfortable ride that is either "luxurious or soft, depending on your viewpoint." The writer comments that the Nissan Murano "offers better handling prowess."
Editors provide an excellent summary review of the 2009 Toyota Highlander, and a separate review of the hybrid. The review says the Highlander "exemplifies the virtues of a now-flourishing vehicle breed -- the crossover SUV." With excellent all-around versatility, the Highlander "is hard to top" in the midsize class. Editors wish the third-row seat would fold in sections rather than as a single unit.
Review: 2009 Toyota Highlander Review, Editors of Edmunds.com
ConsumerGuide.com's 2009 Highlander review includes an evaluation of four variants, including the hybrid. Editors rate the Highlander as Recommended, and call it "a competent, refined, family focused SUV that offers great practicality, cargo and passenger versatility, and evident quality."
Review: 2009 Toyota Highlander Road Test, Editors of ConsumerGuide.com
Cars.com editors compare the 2009 Dodge Journey, 2009 Honda Pilot and 2008 Toyota Highlander, describing how each rates in nine specific categories. The Honda Pilot wins as the Editors' Choice, but the Highlander scores best for fuel economy, ease of parking and it has the highest cargo volume when the second and third rows of seats are folded.
Review: Cars.comparison: Kings of Suburbia, Mike Hanley, David Thomas, Kelsey Mays, July 1, 2008
8. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Top-rated vehicles in crash tests are honored by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety with a Top Safety Pick award. Each of the vehicles must earn Good ratings in frontal and side-impact crash tests, plus evaluations of head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts. In addition, each winning vehicle must offer electronic stability control. The 2009 Toyota Highlander is one of a handful of midsize SUVs to earn this honor.
Review: Top Safety Picks, Editors of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety