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Toyota Highlander (2001)

SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

"Sometimes you feel like a truck, and sometimes you don't," according to Toyota Division senior vice president and general manager Don Esmond. If you do, and the truck in question is a mid-sized SUV, Toyota has the 4Runner. If you don't, but still like the convenient size, versatility, and style of a mid-sized SUV, Toyota has the new Highlander.

In common with many new vehicles, the Highlander looks like a traditional sport-utility vehicle, with a sculpted two-box body and reasonably high ground clearance. And, like an increasing number of new SUV-look vehicles, it has a car-like unit- construction chassis, fully-independent suspension, and comes in front- or all-wheel drive form. Engines are a 2.4-liter four-cylinder or a 3.0-liter V6, both dual overhead cam, four-valve-per-cylinder designs with Toyota's "VVT-i" variable valve timing system.

Will the Highlander steal sales from the 4Runner? Not likely. Although similar in size, the two are very different in intent and market. The 4Runner is unapologetically a truck through and through, with body-on-frame construction and a heavy-duty suspension designed for serious off-road use. The Highlander is basically a car, with a strong dose of Toyota Camry in its ancestry. It could be considered a Camry wagon for the 21st century, although it is slightly larger in wheelbase, length, and width, and nearly ten inches higher. Nearly all interior measurements are noticeably greater than the Camry, but the Highlander still is conveniently-sized for its natural habitat, urban parking lots and suburban shopping centers.

I've just spent a week with a V6 all-wheel drive Highlander in that habitat, after driving several other versions earlier in the year. It's very well-adapted to any common vehicular habitat. It combines all of the comfort and refinement expected of a premium Toyota sedan with the style, interior space, and versatility of a mid- sized SUV.

APPEARANCE: The Highlander attracts plenty of attention, from all kinds of people. In the manner of its smaller sibling, the RAV4, the Highlander's styling is much less conservative than previous Toyotas, with angular fender blisters, a large rectangular body- colored grille, prominent multi-element headlights, and car-like integrated, body-colored bumpers and a protective side strip. Like the RAV4, the Highlander's passenger cabin tapers slightly for improved aerodynamics. Huge wraparound taillights increase visibility from the rear. In their proportions compared to the body, the wheels and tires say "car" more than truck.

COMFORT: Standard interior trim is synthetic velour with manual seats, but my test Highlander was fully-equipped with perforated leather upholstery and a host of upgrades included in the "Limited" trim level package. The result is a near-Lexus level of comfort and luxury. The Highlander has the high seating position and good visibility that make SUVs popular, but because there is no separate frame under the floor, the floor height is lower for easier access. The fully-reclining front seats are very comfortable, and can be used for camping. The split rear bench folds easily, giving a flat load area without having to remove the headrests. A flat floor adds room and comfort. The twin-pod instrument panel, with the shift lever projecting from a lower extension, is similar to those of the Highlander's cousins, the Toyota Sienna minivan and Lexus RX300 SUV. Although there is no central console, storage areas in all four doors, and dual bottle holders in the rear doors ensure more than adequate storage and convenience.

SAFETY: The Toyota Highlander features four-wheel antilock disc brakes with brake assist, dual front airbags, whiplash-lessening seats, and a sturdy safety cage chassis as standard safety equipment.

ROADABILITY: From behind the wheel, the Highlander feels like a car, not a truck. This isn't surprising, as it has a car's rigid unit- construction chassis and independent strut-type suspension on all four wheels. Body roll when cornering is controlled well - although it is considerably higher than a sedan, it never feels high or tippy. Ride comfort is comparable to a Camry, high praise indeed. Front- and all-wheel drive versions feel nearly identical, as there is no perceptible torque steer even in the front-drive configuration. With 6.9 inches in FWD and 7.3 as AWD, there is more clearance than a sedan or minivan, but the Highlander is not really meant for serious off-road duty. Improved dirt and gravel roads are no problem, just keep the relative low (for 4x4 use) clearance in mind.

PERFORMANCE: I haven't had the opportunity to try a four- cylinder Highlander, but the V6 leaves little to be desired from its 3.0-liter engine. With 220 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 222 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm, and VVT-i variable valve timing to spread the useful power over a wide rpm range, it is well-matched to the four- speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission. In front- or all-wheel drive trim, the drivetrain is as smooth, refined, and quiet as expected from Toyota, and gas mileage, at around 19 mpg in mostly city driving, is better than most mid-sized SUVs. A 3500-lb towing capacity (3000 for the four-cylinder) allows towing of motorcycles, snowmobiles, or small boats.

CONCLUSIONS: The Toyota Highlander is the Camry of crossover SUVs.

2001 Toyota Highlander
Base Price              $ 26,495
Price As Tested         $ 33,765
Engine Type             dual overhead cam, 24-valve V6 with 
                          variable valve timing
Engine Size             3.0 liters / 182 cu. in.
Horsepower              220 @ 5800 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)          222 @ 4400 rpm
Transmission            4-speed electronically-controlled 
Wheelbase / Length      106.9 in. / 184.4 in.
Curb Weight             3880 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   17.6
Fuel Capacity           19.8 gal.
Fuel Requirement        unleaded premium gasoline (91 octane)
                          recommended, 87 octane permissible with
                          reduced performance
Tires                   P225/70 SR16 Goodyear Integrity
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / solid disc, yaw control 
Suspension, front/rear  independent MacPherson strut / 
                          independent MacPherson strut
Drivetrain              front engine, all-wheel drive (opt - 
                          front-wheel drive standard)
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      18 / 22 / 19
0 to 60 mph              est. 10  sec
Towing capacity          3500 lbs

Power tilt & slide sunroof                $    815
Driver and front passenger side airbags   $    250
Towing prep package                       $    160
Tow hitch and converter                   $    290
Limited package - includes: foglamps,
 color-keyed rear spoiler, aluminum wheels
 (including full-sized spare) color-keyed
 mudguards, roof rack, auto climate control,
 keyless entry, daytime running lights, power
 driver's seat, heated folding outside mirrors,
 privacy glass, cargo cover               $ 3,495
Premium JBL 8-speaker stereo with 6-CD
 in-dash changer                          $   595
Leather package                           $ 1,015
Carpet and cargo mats                     $   170
Delivery charge                           $   480