In the summer of 1989, my friend’s mom had driven a group of us to Riverside Amusement Park in Massachusetts. After the end of a fun day, I was asked if I, who had a newly minted driver’s license, would like to drive home. Would I?!? I gladly got behind the wheel of the Funaro family hauler-a Buick Electra Estate Wagon-and floated on down the highway. As I drove us all back to Connecticut, what was not going through my 16 year old mind was “What kind of car would we all be driving when we’re all grown up and have kids?” Fast forward thirty years to the present. I post a pic of this Toyota Highlander on social media, and my old friend Nancee proudly proclaims “That’s my car!” And here we are. My generation has largely ignored the station wagon, and there are those of us who wouldn’t be caught dead in a minivan. If Generation X wasn’t rushing to buy a Camry wagon, and a true SUV was too harsh, what does Toyota do? Take that Camry platform, and build us a crossover.
The first Highlander arrived in 2001, making it one of the earlier crossovers. Now in its third generation, today’s Highlander has been around now since 2014, so it’s hardly new. In 2017, Toyota gave the Highlander a facelift, but apart from some other minor tweaking, Toyota has pretty much left it alone. Buyers are certainly not complaining-in fact, 2018 was the Highlander’s best sales year ever, with over 244,000 Americans taking home a Highlander.
Buyers like crossovers for their practicality-they need to comfortably hold passengers, and their belongings, so stylists have to work around those parameters. The Highlander is certainly contemporary, but what I found interesting was just how aggressive the front-end styling was. Parked near my neighbor’s older 4Runner, a very capable off-roader, I was taken aback at just how angry the family friendly Highlander looked in comparison. Out in the wild though, the popular Highlander tends to get lost in the crowd. I’d see another Highlander, or at least I thought I did, so I found myself always making a double take to be sure. On its own merit, the Highlander is a handsome car, it’s just a little forgettable from any angle except the nose and is easily lost in a crowd.
Of course, what matters most in any crossover is its cabin. The Highlander is a pretty substantial vehicle, so it should come as no surprise there is plenty of room inside. Back to my friend Nancee, who, when asked why she picked a Highlander, explained her teenage son is already over 6′ tall, so a roomy rear seat was a must, and in this regard, the Highlander delivers. The three-row Highlander can seat up to eight, but it’s worth noting the third row will not hold an adult. Seating falls to seven if you choose second row captains chairs. The interior of the Highlander is a very pleasant place to spend time. I appreciated the soft touch materials. There is storage space galore and multiple USB ports. Gauges and controls are easy to understand. While I appreciate having knobs for various adjustments, the buttons flanking Toyota’s aging but still excellent infotainment system lacked tactile feel. Our top of the line Highlander had nearly every feature most buyers could want-nearly-the absence of Apple CarPlay was a little disappointing. Overall, the Highlander was very comfortable, and with industry leading build quality and high grade materials, the impression I get is this is a car that is intended to hold up for a very long time.
Under the hood, the Highlander gives buyers two choices. Base cars receive a 2.7L four cylinder paired to a six-speed automatic. You can only have front wheel drive, and with only 185hp pushing a car this large, this sounds like a tall order. Our Highlander had the 3.5L V-6 paired to an 8-speed automatic. With 295hp and available all-wheel drive, this is far more suitable to the Highlander’s character. The EPA gives fuel economy ratings 20/26 MPG city/highway, but the trip computer in my car never budged its average above 18 MPG. It’s worth mentioning here that if fuel economy is that important to you, there is a Highlander Hybrid available. Power is perfectly adequate around town and for highway cruising. At highway speeds the Highlander is extremely quiet and composed. I appreciated the weight that gradually builds up in the steering as your speed increases. For a car designed to haul your family around in comfort, the Highlander more than meets expectations.
The Highlander is available in six different trims, with the base Highlander starting in the low $30’s. Our test car was the top of the line Limited Platinum. Standard equipment was leather seats, front heated and ventilated seats, power seats, second row sunshades, premium JBL audio, an 8″ touchscreen with navigation and SiriusXM radio, 19″ wheels, panoramic moonroof, second row heated seats, heated steering wheel, rear power ligtgate, rain sensing wipers, front parking sonar, Lane Departure Alert, Pre-Collision System, automatic high beams and dynamic radar cruise control. Out the door, our Highlander had a window sticker of $48,319USD. That is not inexpensive, but you are getting a high level of equipment, and a Highlander outfitted such as this one is essentially a luxury car. With so many trim options available, I suspect most buyers will gravitate to the mid-level XLE, as my friend did.
So yes, thirty years after the question I didn’t ask myself, the crossover is the choice my generation has made to haul themselves and their families. Over the years, the Highlander has evolved from a sort of tall station wagon to something that looks how you might expect an SUV to appear. And although the Highlander is no longer a new design, buyers continue to open their wallets. The true luxury of the Highlander goes far beyond any of its available features. For buyers, the true luxury of the Highlander is how seamlessly it fits in to their busy lives, and knowing they can ask nearly anything the car was meant to do, and the Toyota will happily go about its work without the slightest protest, Trips to amusement parks included.