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New Car Review: 2004 Toyota Highlander Limited 4x2

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PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

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PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)


To say that Toyota's Highlander has been a success since its introduction in 2001 is at least mild understatement - it's the best-selling car-based SUV on the market, and the benchmark vehicle for the mid-sized, middle-class crossover class. Its on-road, all-weather comfort orientation neatly complements the 4Runner's rugged off-road-ready character. But Toyota learned long ago that success does not stay with those who rest on their laurels, and so the Highlander gets some improvements for 2004.

If the freshened exterior and interior styling is not overly obvious, extra power for both four-cylinder and V6 models and an available third-row seat will be hard to miss. Improving safety and driver control, Toyota's ``Vehicle Stability Control'' (VSC) and electronic traction control systems are now standard on all models.

As before, the Highlander is offered in front-wheel drive or full-time four-wheel drive form, in base four-cylinder and V6 and Limited V6 trim levels. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder is familiar, but it has five additional horsepower, for a total of 160. The 3.0-liter V6 previously found under Highlander hoods has been replaced by a new 3.3-liter V6 with 10 more horses and 20 extra lb-ft of torque, for 230 and 242, respectively.

Not surprisingly, the standard grade is comfortably-appointed and equipped, equivalent to a mid-level Camry. The Limited pushes into near-luxury territory, and, the addition of a few key options can make it into a vehicle that would be proud to wear an luxury maker's badge.

Such is the case with the two-wheel drive Highlander Limited that sits in my driveway as I write. With nearly the full catalog of options, it is the perfect vehicle for its natural habitat - the contemporary urban/suburban environment and its crowded roads and parking lots. And it can fulfill its duties as a passenger and cargo hauler with comfort and ease, with plenty of room for family excursions or trips to the home-improvement store.

APPEARANCE: A civilized family and stuff hauler, the Highlander looks its part, with no pretensions to any sort of wilderness-macho SUV look. Although it is higher than a wagon, and has more ground clearance, its two-box proportions are closer to the wagon end of the styling spectrum than the utility vehicle side. The body's slightly-rounded angles and corners, angular fenders, and plastic-capped, body-colored bumper fascias say ``car'' much more than ``truck.'' A conservative mid-life freshening for 2004 consists of new front and rear styling, but the grille, headlights, front and rear bumpers, foglamps, and taillights must be examined closely to tell any difference. Lower bumper styling and new headlights under the plastic covers are the main changes.

COMFORT: The standard Highlander is equipped equivalently to a mid-level Camry, a solidly functional, spacious, and comfortable middle-class suburban-utility vehicle. The Limited is a touch or two fancier - the main difference between it and a luxury-brand SUV is that, in the Highlander Limited, leather seating is optional and the woodgrain trim spent time as a petroleum product since the time it was wood. Wait a minute, that describes some luxury-brand ``entry-level'' SUVs as well. Major bonus points to Toyota. The interior design is more than slightly reminiscent of its upscale cousins at Lexus, with a two-tone color scheme that visually enlarges the available space, and ``titanium'' plastic trim that adds light without chrome glare. The main instruments are placed under a hood in front of the driver, with auxiliary controls on the center stack. If the optional navigation system is specified, its LCD touch screen is at the top of the stack and also controls the climate-control system. The shift lever comes out of the front of the center console almost in the stack. The front bucket seats offer room and comfort, with perforated leather available. The second-row seat provides first-class comfort and space for the two outboard passengers, with less for the center position, although a flat floor helps. It is adjustable for fore-and-aft position and for back angle. Door pockets and bottle holders are provided. The right-side portion is spring-loaded to ease access to the third row, but, as is expected of a third-row seat in an SUV this size, it is best-suited for two people under 5' 6" - kids, basically. With the third row up, luggage space is limited; with it stowed into the floor, there is plenty of cargo space. And the second row folds flat to further improve cargo mode.

SAFETY: All Highlander models have four-wheel antilock disc brakes with brake assist and electronic brake force distribution. Dual-stage front airbags are standard, with side and side curtain airbags available. Traction control and vehicle stability control are newly standardized this year.

ROADABILITY: A Highlander has no inner truck. It does, however, have an inner sedan, and that sedan is a Camry. Although the Camry platform has been altered considerably to make the Highlander, its basic good ride and handling characteristics come through very well. Rigid unit construction provides a solid base for the fully-independent strut-type suspension, and reasonably-sized, moderate-profile tires provide additional damping of small bumps. The suspension is soft, tuned for ride comfort, but the Highlander never feels tippy even though it is higher than a sedan. Ground clearance, at 6.9 inches for front-drive and 7.3 for 4WD versions, is greater than that of a sedan, but not in true 4x4 territory. It's fine, though, for common urban hazards like gutters, potholes, and steer driveways. Good soundproofing decreases road and wind noise levels and adds to comfort.

PERFORMANCE: V6-equipped 2004 Highlanders get two significant upgrades. The new V6 engine is larger in displacement, 3.3 liters to 3.0, and it has an additional ten horsepower, for 230 at 5800 rpm, and additional, and noticeable, 20 lb-ft of torque with 242 at 4400 rpm. And, as importantly, the new engine is matched to a new automatic transmission, now with five speeds instead of four. As previously, the engine has Toyota's ``VVT-i'' variable valve timing system to improve response and efficiency at all engine and vehicle speeds. The result is better performance, better fuel economy, and lower emissions, with ULEV status. It's quiet and refined enough to merit placement in a luxury SUV, and adds to the Highlander Limited's refined character. And, while my average of 20 mpg isn't in hybrid territory, it beats any truck-based SUV. (And a Highlander Hybrid is coming.) Towing capacity is 2,500 lbs.

CONCLUSIONS: Meet today's family wagon, in the form of the Toyota Highlander.

2004 Toyota Highlander Limited 4x2

Base Price			$ 29,980
Price As Tested		        $ 36,456
Engine Type			dual overhead cam V6 with VVT-i 
                                 variable valve timing
Engine Size			3.3 liters / 202 cu. in.
Horsepower			230 @ 5800 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			242 @ 4400 rpm
Transmission			5-speed electronically-controlled 
Wheelbase / Length		106.9 in. / 184.6 in.
Curb Weight			3,705 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	        16.1
Fuel Capacity			19.1 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				P225/65 SR17
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, antilock,
                                 stability control,
				 and brake assist standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				 independent dual-link MacPherson strut
Drivetrain			front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		19 / 25 / 20
0 to 60 mph				est. 9  sec
Towing capacity			        2500 lbs.

Driver and front passenger curtain and side airbags	$   650
Driver and front passenger heated seats		        $   440
Leather seat package - includes: 
  leather-trimmed seats with headrests and leather
  door trim						$ 1,400
Premium JBL AM/FM/cassette/6 DC changer
  8-speaker audio system and navigation system	        $ 2,200
Power tilt & slide moonroof				$   900
Carpet and cargo mat set				$   197
Glass-breakage sensor					$   149
Delivery charge					        $   540