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Toyota Highlander

Toyota Highlander – pining for the Venza

By Jim Bray
February 2, 2013

Toyota's Highlander SUV/crossover has been soldiering on for several years now and serves its customers well. And while it's is a fine vehicle – if more than a tad bland – it's getting old in this current generation, and even other Toyota products seem to have passed it by.

Take the Venza, for example. But more on that later.

Despite its apparent age in a competitive market, however, the Highlander still has plenty going for it. There's room for seven in its three rows, and if you fold down the rear seats you get decent storage – and of course it gets positively cavernous if you fold both rear rows.

The Highlander's second and third row seats are pretty comfortable and fold flat with one-touch levers. The middle row seats slide, recline or fold-flat and there's a removable "Center Stow Seat" that can convert the second row into a bench, with (pretty tight) seating for three. That "Center Stow Seat" hides away in a compartment under the center console when you aren't using it.

And a nice convenient touch is that the V6 Highlanders come with a power tailgate with jam protection. This is really handy when your arms are full of stuff and you need to get the gate up – as long as you have one hand free enough to hold the key fob or press the button on the tailgate. Another nice bit of flexibility is the V6's flip up rear glass, which can open separately from the whole tailgate – which could be good if you just want to toss something small like a baby (or maybe something long, like lumber) into the back.

If you forget that you've left the glass up and open the hatch anyway (which probably means you have your eyes closed) , the glass window catches up with the tailgate and locks itself back into place.

For 2013, the Toyota Highlander is available with a choice of two engines, a 2.7 liter four cylinder model that puts out a reasonable 187 horsepower and "up to" 186 lb.-ft. of torque, or a 3.5 liter V6 that's rated at "up to" 270 horsepower and 248 lb.-ft. of torque.

Strangely, perhaps, the four banger gets a more modern transmission than the V6. The four's is a six speed automatic ECT transmission (with front wheel drive, however) that Toyota says delivers a combined city/highway fuel efficiency of 9.0 l/100 km; the V6 comes with full time four wheel drive and a five-speed automatic ECT transmission (and a claimed combined city/highway fuel efficiency of 10.9 l/100 km).

Highlanders come with 17 inch alloy wheels as standard equipment, though the Limited and Sport Package versions get 19 inchers. All models have a spare tire that hides underneath the rear of vehicle, where it's out of the way nicely but will probably be a real treat to get out after you've been driving for a while and things get muddy and otherwise cruddy down there. Fortunately, flat tires are a fairly rare occurrence these days.

V6 models with all wheel drive also get a backup camera, which is always handy as long as you remember to keep it clean.

Other Highlander features include a decent driving position, thanks to an eight way adjustable driver's seat (power is standard on the V6 4wd models, and the Limited version gets 10 way power adjustment and four way power for the front passenger seat) and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel.

Instrumentation and controls are straightforward and legible, though there's little to no tactile feel to the audio controls (and the LCD screens can be hard to read when you're wearing polarized sunglasses). V6 models also get a 3.5 inch LCD multi-information display screen.

Toyota has seen fit to fit Highlanders with independent three zone climate control, with separate controls for the driver, front passenger and those back in steerage. If you go upmarket to the 4WD V6 with the Sport or Limited packages, the HVAC system magically becomes automatic. 

Toyota Highlander
Toyota Highlander
Toyota Highlander

The standard audio system of my test Highlander from Toyota Canada was typically anemic, though at least it offers AM/FM CD, MP3/WMA audio capability, an auxiliary input jack, and six "speakers." V6 models also get steering wheel-mounted audio controls, integrated XM satellite radio, a USB audio input and Bluetooth Capability.

If music is important to you, opt for the V6 Limited's  premium JBL system with nine speakers. It still won't set the world of fire, but it's a good step up from the base system.

Four wheel drive Highlanders also get a handy "Hill-start Assist Control" (HAC), which Toyota says "generates four-wheel hydraulic pressure while the vehicle is stationary." It's designed to help keep the vehicle from slipping back when you're starting out on an uphill grade.

Such slippage isn't nearly as big a problem with an automatic transmission as it is with a manual one, but I suppose any help is a benefit considering today's driving standards.

And in that case, the downhill assist control will undoubtedly also come in handy. It's standard on all V6 Highlanders and, according to the company, "generates four-wheel hydraulic brake pressure to assist with controlled, steep downhill descents. Once engaged, the system monitors wheel speed and makes adjustments to maintain a low vehicle speed without causing wheel lock up."

Or you could just downshift, even in an automatic.

Highlanders' standard electric power steering is okay; the feel is kind of mushy, but not excessively so – and one doesn't expect sports car handling from a vehicle such as this anyway. That said, the Highlander's  independent suspension does a nice job, though it's obviously not tuned to the sporty side of the street.

Yet as good as the Highlander is – and it's a very good vehicle – as mentioned above, it makes me wonder why anyone who doesn't actually require the third row of seats would consider it over a Venza. Not that there's anything really wrong with the Highlander, mind you, but the Venza is a newer model – especially the updated model for 2013 – and it does just about everything the Highlander does, but in a more pleasant way.

I suppose the Venza can be considered more of a true crossover than the more SUV-like Highlander (in that the Venza is a tall wagon as opposed to a the Highlander's Gaia-killing sport ute persona – not that there's much sport quotient in the Highlander), but it still has plenty of storage/hauling space, as well as a more modern interior than the Highlander. And like the Highlander, it also can be had with all wheel drive and a V6 engine (I daresay it's the same engine), but the V6 Venza comes with a six speed automatic instead of the Highlander's five speed.

And it comes with the hill start assist as well – if such things are important to you.

It's also better in price. According to Toyota Canada's website, the Highlander starts at $31,680 for the base model, with the fully loaded V6 AWD going for $45,100. The Venza, on the other hand, starts at $28,690, with the fully loaded V6 topping the scale at $39,550.

Now, these may not be exactly apples-to-apples comparisons – and they don't include such stuff as the ancillary charges carmakers add on before you can drive away, but it sure makes me think that, as good as the Highlander may be, you may be able to find something even better (again, depending upon your needs) without even having to cross the street to another dealership.

Copyright 2013 Jim Bray

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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