The Toyota Highlander is reminiscent of the 4Runner but more suited as a family vehicle rather than an off-road cruiser.
Cue your best Sean Connery imitation: “You can’t die, Highlander. You’re immortal.”
It’s doubtful Toyota had immortal Scottish warrior clans in mind when it created what is now the 2017 Highlander, among the first of what we now call crossovers — more than cars but hardly rock-crushing SUVs — but the nameplate seems for now an eternal part of Toyota’s marketing plans.
It’s evolved since that first Camry-based model debuted in 2001, growing to today’s seven- or eight-seat midsize and developing a rather audacious persona not at all like the rather understated first model.
There’s nothing understated about the exterior design, with a large grille and prominent features that present as the 4Runner for people who don’t like 4Runners.
Don’t take that as criticism of the 4Runner, though. It’s a capable off-road-ready SUV, but that capability compromises how it drives on the road, with a more truckish feel than Highlander.
In that vein, Highlander — which is still based on the Camry — offers the appearance of off-road ability but with a more car-like ride families will appreciate.
On road, the Highlander offers a comfortable ride and good handling. It lacks the razor-sharp handling of a Mazda CX-9, but is everything most average drivers will need.
One issue I noticed is the electric power steering seems to get confused by a quick unwinding after a turn, as though it can’t quite keep up with the driver’s hands. Most drivers probably won’t notice it, however.
The Highlander uses a 3.5-litre V-6 gas engine. It’s got lots of power, but here’s where another issue arises: in a nod to fuel economy, it seems, Toyota has programmed the accelerator pedal for extremely gradual acceleration. It will scoot when you put your foot into it but don’t be expecting jackrabbit starts without really trying.
Power is transferred to either a front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive powertrain through an eight-speed automatic transmission.
As with all three-row crossovers, if you’re opting for a crossover because you can’t stomach the thought of driving a minivan, go in with your eyes open. The Highlander isn’t drastically different than the Sienna in exterior size, but pales in comparison for interior room.
With the three rows up, a decent grocery trip is about all you have room for. Put the third row down and cargo space grows, of course, but still doesn’t come close to the Sienna’s cavernous compartment.
Whether your Highlander is a seven- or eight-seater depends on your choice of middle row seats. Opt for the very comfortable captain’s chairs and it’s a seven seater (2-2-3), but a bench seat, with a bit less comfort, makes it an eight-seater (2-3-3).
In Toyota’s world, safety seems to be their No.1 marketing message, so for 2017, the Highlander comes standard with Toyota Safety Sense-p, which includes a variety of active systems including pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beam and dynamic radar cruise control.
According to Toyota, the pre-collision system warns drivers of an impending frontal collision, adds braking force to a driver’s input if needed or applies the brakes autonomously should the driver fail to react in time. It will either prevent or mitigate the collision.
One thing that may affect a decision between 4Runner and Highlander: Toyota Safety Sense is not available on any 4Runner and no announcement regarding future availability has been made.
As a family vehicle, the Highlander is a competent, comfortable choice, with good room for people and their things. With a starting price of $35,500, it’s competitive within its class. It may not be a rip-roaring bargain, but reliability doesn’t often come cheap.