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2008 Toyota Highlander Review

2008 Toyota Highlander (select to view enlarged photo)
2008 Toyota Highlander

A Much Improved CUV
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

I’m just finishing up a bunch of Toyota reviews. Three are Camry derivatives: Avalon, Sienna and now this Highlander. The Avalon is an impressive full-size sedan with room to spare and excellent details. Sienna matches up admirably within the minivan market and this freshened Highlander is among the best in its class as well.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

The Portland, Oregon-built Toyota Highlander mid-size, 7-passenger CUV was updated with a substantial redesign about a year ago after a 7-year run for the first generation, increasing size and power, subtly improving appearance and adding a hybrid version. I’ve not had a chance to test the hybrid but this week I’m driving a very nice, silver, well-optioned Highlander Limited, top of the three trim levels.

Highlander comes in base, Sport and Limited trim levels in the non-hybrid version, and a base and Limited in the hybrid. The base Highlander starts at $27,600 for the 2009 model year and the Highlander Hybrid starts at $34,200. The Highlander Limited (our tester) starts at $33,070 and its hybrid equivalent starts at $41,020. That’s quite a premium for the hybrid drive system. Fuel mileage for the front-wheel drive hybrid is listed at 27 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway, compared to the non-hybrid’s 18 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway. You’d have to run the numbers to see if it makes sense. Don’t forget to figure in the green image factor, whatever that’s worth to you.

This top-of-the-line Highlander shows a sticker price of $42,539 – that’s from a base of $34,150. Options include: DVD rear seat entertainment system for $1,780; heated front seats costing $440; a navigation system package that includes voice activation, and a Bluetooth enabled JBL premium sound system, including satellite-ready compatibility, all for $2,505; power rear lift gate at $400; automatic rear AC with vent in second and third rows for $585; rear spoiler costing $200; power moon roof for $850; towing package at $220; mats costing $275 and XM satellite hook up for $449. Whew!

This newest generation has a much more stylish and sophisticated appearance than the earlier trucky-looking version. Character lines along the sides have a non-traditional look and accentuate the overall shape of the vehicle adding a bit of definition to what was a rather homogeneous design. Bigger, more dramatic headlight and taillight treatments give it a much more modern, up-to-date look while retaining an unmistakable resemblance to the earlier model.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

The Highlander’s interior is simple but nicely appointed. Leather seats have a quality look and feel, both front and rear. I’m impressed most with the wood accents that really look like wood. A medium-grained, natural finished wood that more resembles furniture than the shinny faux wood in most cars. I also like the large knobs for radio and climate control. They are so easy to manipulate I feel like a kid with a toy. Two large round gauges under a modest brow confront the driver with most of the info needed and controls are large, simple and attractive – one of the cleanest designs I’ve seen in this class of vehicle.

The second row seats are split 40/20/40, for extra center storage when needed. Third row, though is not split so it’s all up or all down.

The Highlander is powered by the same 3.5-liter, high-content, bullet-proof V6 we find in most, if not all, of the Camry derivatives. Like the others there we have plenty of power – 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet or torque - to move this fairly large vehicle expeditiously. The 5-speed automatic transmission with sequential shift (manual mode) is smooth, quick-shifting and efficient. Highlander is rated by the EPA at 17-mpg in the city and 23-mpg on the highway. Those are numbers we can reasonably expect to see in real world driving. We understand Toyota is planning 4-cylinder power before long.

Cargo capacity is just a tad less than competitors Mazda CX9 and GMC Acadia and its siblings. With all the seats up just about 10 cubic-feet are available. Fold the third seat and 42.5 cubic-feet open up. And with both rows folded we have 95.4 cubic-feet. The first generation Highlander had 81.6 cubic-feet max.

Safety features match the other Toyota cousins. Lots of airbags (just like in Congress), plenty of electronic chassis and handling controls (ABS, vehicle stability control, etc.) and all the other stuff we find on just about every vehicle these days. Highlander gets five stars (maximum score) in all the crash test criteria except front passenger protection and rollover, where four stars are awarded. By the way, I have yet to see a vehicle get all five stars for rollover protection.

Warranty covers the entire vehicle for 3 years or 35,000 miles and the drivetrain for 5 years or 50,000 miles.

The pricing seems to me to be on the mark for a well-equipped, well-designed, good looking CUV with the reputation for dependability that comes with a Toyota. It may not be particularly advanced in its features but is right in the meat of that market.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved