There’s a new kid at the Highlander camp this year, aimed at adding a splash of excitement to a traditionally conservative entry in the mid-size crossover market.
The $45,590 Highlander SE builds on the already well-equipped XLE trim by adding black alloy 19-inch wheels, second-row captain’s chairs, model-specific leather upholstery, and additional trim changes.
Even with the captain’s chairs, Toyota has seatbelts for seven in this version; those with the second-row bench (all but SE and Limited) have belts for eight.
Toyota’s popular family hauler was new for 2014, so the model is middle-aged as far as the automotive life cycle is concerned. And while the new trim level barely registers a blip on the radar, there are other tweaks that apply across the line.
Variety is key here, and the Highlander can be had with front- or all-wheel drive, and is available with hybrid or conventional V-6 power. And more than ever, Toyota’s push to include as many standard safety features as possible on the standard equipment list is evident here. “Safety Sense P” is standard on all Highlanders this year, and includes pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, dynamic radar cruise control and automatic high-beams.
While none of these technologies is new, some are too often restricted to expensive option packages. But not here — they are all included on the $35,500 LE.
The LE won’t be a high-volume model, particularly in Canada, thanks to its front-drive configuration. Buyers will have to fork over another $2,495 to get all-wheel drive in a Highlander.
The XLE, on which this SE is based, is $43,995 and for 2017 now includes a power passenger seat and blind-spot monitor with cross traffic alert. This all-wheel drive model is also augmented (over the LE) with navigation, heated front seats, three-zone automatic climate control, power moonroof, push-button start and a power rear liftgate with separately hinged glass.
So while Toyota is leading the pack in terms of standard safety features, there are a few surprises in equipment at this price point. The XLE is not inexpensive, but there is no panoramic sunroof, heated rear seats, upgraded audio or other premium features. You want ‘em? You got ‘em. Just pony up $49,995 for the Limited to be truly spoiled.
Toyota describes the SE as “very sporty” in its press material, but let’s be clear: this is simply a trim package, with no sport injected into the Highlander’s handling repertoire. For those who like the Highlander’s road manners, this one is no different: a soft, cushy ride (bordering on floaty), loose steering and a general attitude that favours efficiency over performance, by a long shot.
Crossover drivers don’t need to be completely disengaged from the road as they are in the Highlander, and there are others that strike a more balanced approach to ride and handling than Toyota. If you want to check out the other extreme, head to your nearest Mazda dealer and test drive a CX-9.
That focus on efficiency pays dividends at the pump: our week in the Highlander netted an average of 10.0 L/100 km, after mostly highway driving. There are also undesirable consequences to this focus, however.
I said in my recent review of the Kia Sorento that I preferred its more engaging and responsive driving experience over that of the Highlander. And here’s what that means: there’s no point in having a 295-horsepower V-6 if it doesn’t feel like it most of the time.
The Highlander’s six-pot can feel like it’s asleep at the wheel in normal driving. I found that the transmission was happy to hold lower gears on acceleration and was eager to downshift, but it requires too much travel to access real power.
Another word about that tiny sunroof on the SE: why have slide-and-tilt control on two separate switches? There are much slicker designs on the market.
The Highlander’s dashboard scores high in the storage department. The open shelf that spreads two-thirds of the way across the car is great for storing flatter items that don’t mind being in plain sight. There’s a massive covered console bin that can store all sorts of electronic devices out of the sight of prying eyes.
The second-row captain’s chairs proved comfortable for the kids, and the flip-down centre tray provided a good resting place for cups and devices. Those seatbacks fold forward easily and with the third row folded there’s a completely flat load floor and a total cargo volume of 2,356 litres.
The Highlander is an appealing package with versatility and efficiency that make it one of the most popular in its class. My request? Give the SE trim some real meaning by tightening up the steering and suspension, then we’ll talk.