By on August 8, 2007

08highlander_1222.jpgSir Isaac Newton had a ninth law: all vehicles must gain mass with each passing generation. I know, I know: safety regulations, usable third row, American tastes, yada yada yada. And it’s true that the new, bigger Toyota Highlander exacts no fuel efficiency penalty for its extra height, width, length and weight. Even so, has the new Highlander lost something, as Toyota moves further and further away from cheap and cheerful towards pricey and ponderous?

The original Highlander’s bland sheetmetal made the Camry-on-stilts a sort of anti-Xterra for urban worriers. For reasons lost in the mists of machismo, the new Highlander has morphed into a CUV with a ‘tude. Not only has the model gained mass, it now bristles with malice. “Angry eyes” headlights combine with a Tundra-like raked windshield and bulging hood to create a vehicle that dares you to call it a cute ute.

The sheetmetal landscape is dominated by cartoonish, chunky features, from heavily indented side panels, to huge gaps in the wheel wells, to an immense block of grey plastic stretching right across the Highlander's posterior embossed with the word HIGHLANDER. In case you were wondering.

08highlander_30.jpgThe Highlander’s interior is only slightly less manic. The previous cabin’s plain, po-faced layout constantly reminded its occupants they were flying economy class. The new model draws the top half of the dash downwards for a more business-like look, and then sprinkles spizzarkle throughout. The chrome-ringed cowls housing the main gauges set the theme: artsy “design” and electronic affectation over genuine quality and ergonomic excellence.   

The Highlander’s plastics all look decent enough; some even boast fake grains and sophisticated textures. But they're harder than frozen pizza. You could cut your hand on the sun visor’s plastic flange, a sharp-edged hangover from a lackadaisical molding process. The Highlander’s cardboard egg carton headliner is the worst I've seen in a new car since fat Elvis roamed Las Vegas. The seatbacks are covered in a flocky "carpet" cloth that belongs in the triangular love nest of a ‘70s-era powerboat.

The soft-roader’s fit and finish is simply appalling. Some of the Highlander’s door panel's plastic pieces were so badly misaligned I assumed they were an homage to cubism. (They’re not.) Other than some handsome buttons on the dash that embody [what we traditionally think of as] Toyota quality, the Highlander is a riot of impoverished thinking AND execution.

08highlander_31.jpgAs a people schlepper, the Highlander regains lost ground. The middle row is commodious, with easy ingress and egress. The trick center console detaches entirely and slides into a storage compartment. The third row is the main beneficiary of the Highlander’s growth. While the seat cushion is five inches from the floor, there’s now sufficient space for genuine adults. As long as you don’t mind having your knees at chin height, you’re good to go. For an hour or so.

As part of its move upwards (outwards?), the Highlander’s easily overwhelmed four-cylinder mill has been banished. As the standard 3.5-liter V6 kicks-out 270 horses and 248 ft.-lbs. of twist, sloth is no longer an option. The front wheel-drive Highlander can now motor from rest to 60 mph in an entirely respectable (especially for its size and weight) 7.6 seconds, growling most agreeably in the process.

08highlander_24.jpgOtherwise, the engine is supremely quiet and refined. Unfortunately, the five-speed automatic ain’t up to the job. Even with all-wheel drive, torque management is a major problem. Press on and the Highlander’s cog swapper hunts for gears. Meanwhile, the Sport-suspended Highlander jitters and shakes like an espresso addict. Spirited driving also dings the Highlander’s fuel efficiency, which [officially] clocks in at 17/23.

A few moments behind the wheel of the Highlander and you’ll know that Toyota’s chassis gurus have sacrificed all possibility of dynamic satisfaction to the gods of Novocain. The steering is light enough to turn with your eyelashes (closed course, professional driver), yet so slow your mind tends to drift before a major change of direction can be achieved. The brakes are effective enough, but so soft in their operation you expect to hear a pneumatic exhale when you’re done. Even in the "sport" variant, body roll is as bongo board bad.

08highlander_07.jpgDriving, schmiving. The new Highlander has all the features American crossover buyers have come to expect: alphabet soup safety technologies, supersized cup holders, [optional] DVD entertainment, power points aplenty, a backup camera and a nearly functional third row. While the plethora of electronic gizmos raises doubts about long term ownership costs, reliability has become less of an issue in consumers’ minds.

And there you have it: the reason Toyota has supersized the Highlander. The automaker knows its own growth depends on playing the American way, where bigger is better and more is more. The strategy puts Toyota’s soul at risk, but the buyer has spoken. As the new Highlander indicates, Toyota’s listening.

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52 Comments on “Toyota Highlander Sport Review...”

  • avatar

    “reliability has become less of an issue in consumers’ minds.” why would you think that? reliability is what made toyota the world’s leading car maker and still represents a major factor in the buying decision. i drove one of these recently and thought the styling and interior were markedly improved over the homely and bland predecessor.

  • avatar

    Reliability for all cars has improved to the point where it’s not the deciding issue. That’s what the writer was saying.

  • avatar

    >>”Sir Isaac Newton had a ninth law: all vehicles must gain mass with each passing generation.”

    Defying gravity of course is the latest edition of the Altima sedan, getting skinnier and shedding rear legroom.

  • avatar

    I’m surprised at the poor fit and finish of this vehicle. I know Toyota has to find a way to keep their costs down every time they supersize a model, but fit and finish and the perception of quality is what made them who they are. The GM-ification of this brand has consistently been predicted on TTAC and this new Highlander is just another example proving your point. Just goes to show you getting to #1 ain’t half as hard as staying there. You tend to lose your core principles when you try to please all of the people all of the time.

  • avatar
    Ralph SS

    Pulchritudinous? Is there some kind of contest going on?

  • avatar

    I’m surprised that fit and finish weren’t up to snuff, given Toyota’s recent admission at quality gaps in current gen Camry and Avalons and solemn promise to devote enough resources to the issue.

    I’m not surprised to hear that it’s bigger, heavier, and still bland. That’s to be expected.

    My prediction – it’s still going to be a huge seller for Toyota, especially if the 3rd row is no longer unusable.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    What you experienced with the Highlander is something that we call in the remarketing industry, ‘the China effect’.

    A lot of components are being made out of cheaper materials, or simpler designs, in order to make the cars more price competitive. This has actually always been a mantra in the industry, “To make a cheaper product resemble a better one” but in the case of FFF & NVH, a lot of the late models are absolutely deplorable.

    When you see a Dodge Caliber with 50k miles going down the auction block, you get a far clearer understanding of this reality. Unofrtunately much of the same can be said for the Camry & Avalon as well.

  • avatar

    I was expecting bland styling as well. But I was a bit surprised to see it’s still slightly truck-y, since it’ll rarely go off-road.

    I like that we’ve evolved into more car-like shapes with our CUVs. Mazda CXs and Ford Edge come to mind.

    This design just looks… confused.

  • avatar

    Well done, Justin. Especially your “overall” summary…that was perfectly stated. My wife, who doesn’t know what she likes when it comes to cars, would love this vehicle. I am happy because we can’t afford to put it on our list.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    17/23 MPG? My V-6 equipped, 4 wheel drive Tacoma pickup does better than that! For that kind of mileage you might as well ditch the Highlander and get a 4runner.

    Of course, I don’t think the 4runner has a 3rd row seat, so maybe that’s the deciding factor. But can’t you get most minivans with AWD now? Which makes this vehicles niche…what?

  • avatar

    But can’t you get most minivans with AWD now? Which makes this vehicles niche…what?

    The niche is: people who think minivans are lame, which is quite a big niche.

  • avatar

    I am now convinced that what affected GM, Ford, and Chrysler was not bad management, poor design, high labour costs or abysmal quality. It was some form of virus, manifesting itself as all these symptoms. Toyota spent too long in NA and caught it, and now they have to shake it off before it is too late.

  • avatar

    The Highlander would be fine if there was less competition. Fortunately for Toyota, they have every other car in their lineup to fall back on if this thing tanks. Which it won’t, because a lot of people are still too snooty to buy a Hyundai that’s superior in every way.

  • avatar

    I don’t get this…. why would anyone buy this when for the same price or less, you can get an XC90 that is 1-3 years old, get a much better driving experience and an interior that will hold up better over time?

    As they say in Los Angeles, “No comprende”.

  • avatar

    Martin – the 17/23 is the new rating system (good for like 19/24 under the old rating system). I still don’t know about some of the city ratings (at least in the city I drive in) but the 23 on the highway is more than manageable and will be better than what you could get in a 4Runner/Explorer type vehicle. Overall, the design is underwhelming (although the interior is much better than the previous model). I’m not surprised by the fit and finish. The Camry’s lack of quality assembly baffled me.

    It’s not the greatest beast, but it will sell well. Solid reputation for quality, larger for our larger butts and growing kids, relatively bland and unoffensive? Yeah, it sounds like Toyota found the right mix for the American consumer.

  • avatar
    Tiger Commanche

    Certainly, the highly-skilled auto workers of Mississippi will make certain that the door panel alignment and all fit and finish items will be perfect when the Blue Springs assembly comes on line in 2010.

  • avatar

    I’ll give Toyota credit, the design isn’t bland.

    It’s ugly.

  • avatar
    Ray Jaholic

    Once you get the NA stink on you, it’s “game over maaaaan”. Forget that the Camry has more NA parts than the Mustang. Dated source:

    Has anyone seen the Veracruz? This is Toyota’s answer to Kiundai.

  • avatar

    Toyota is morphing into GM. Big mistake. If I want GM I’ll buy GM. I like to have alternatives.

  • avatar

    The statement that the new Highlander gets the same gas mileage while growing in every dimension including weight tells you exactly how hard it would be to provide more fuel efficient vehicles. We would have to give up dvd players, 27 air bags, sound proofing, electronic nannies, etc. If you put modern engines with the same power and torque output as the original engines in cars/trucks from the 50’s and 60’s, the average fuel economy of the cars on our roads would probably double. A typical work truck from the late 50’s had an engine producing 125 hp and 225 ft-lb. Somehow they still manged to tow trailers, boats, move produce to market, etc. An engine like that now would probably have three cylinders and get 35 mpg city/50 mpg highway and would go faster with the aid of modern transmissions. I believe that the original Mustang weighed under 3,000 lbs with the V8. Now only the smallest sports cars can meet that weight. Imagine a ‘68 Mustang Fastback with the V6 engine in the modern Mustang or even better yet a turbocharged 4 cyl. People want their comfort, and they want power that they never even really use. And, so far, they are willing to pay for it in the showroom and at the pump.

  • avatar

    The problem with the fit and finish of this new Highlander has more to do with the NA market than Toyota Quality in general. The American consumer expects to get something for nothing. The business model of most companies servicing this market is to promise the consumer just that, something for nothing.

    Maybe the problem today is that Toyota is actually too “in-touch” with the American consumer and the practice of relying on consumer feedback is now hurting Toyota products. Or more to the point they are misinterpting this feedback. Maybe current Highlander owners stated they would like a bigger Highlander, but I seriously doubt they stated that a bigger Highlander with lower interior quality was what they want as a replacement.

    I guess we will have to wait and see how this thing sells before deciding whether this approach is right or wrong.

    Ironically this lowering of quality is readily apparent in Toyota’s NA vehicles while for the most part absent from the vehicles in their domestic market.

    Now I must admit that Toyota is losing out on me as repeat costumer. Outside of the RAV4 Sport V6 Toyota do not make a single class leading vehicle anymore. The Camry and Avolon look and feel like crap on the inside. While I never purchased a recent (post 1995) Toyota for excitement I purchased them because they actually were better build, with better materials than the competition. This is no longer the case, Today Honda has surpassed Toyota in quality and needless to say they will get my money.

  • avatar

    I just hope they did something about the traction control on these things. On the previous generation, with traction control on or off, giving it power while turning in snow cuts off the engine and lets the vehicle plow ahead instead. Just what I needed: an SUV that’s incapable of driving in snow!

  • avatar

    I’m glad to see a reviewer blame a vehicle’s blandness on its buyers instead of manufacturer. Toyota’s just the messenger.

    I hate to comment on looks because they’re so subjective, but I don’t like the new on either. The previous Highlander was a very clean, elegant design. This just looks like a slightly melted version.

  • avatar

    I’ve got to second the double-take at “pulchritudinous.” The word actually means “beautiful,” which just doesn’t make any sense in context, especially since a lot of people are saying the new Toyotas are ugly.

  • avatar

    Point taken on the use of the word “pulchritudinous” in the lead.

    I’ve replaced it with “ponderous.”

  • avatar

    So, the quality’s crap, it’s ugly, it’s not that quick, and it’s not that fuel efficient, what’s the point? I mean, unless you’ve been seriously burned by GM reliability, any of their new Lambada crossovers are far more interesting choices. And I’m sure you can get one hell of a deal on a Tribeca or Pacifica.

    I would’ve thought that Toyota has spend enough time studying GM to learn from their mistakes, but apparantly Toyota needs to go through a mediocrity phase also.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    “I don’t get this…. why would anyone buy this when for the same price or less, you can get an XC90 that is 1-3 years old, get a much better driving experience and an interior that will hold up better over time?

    As they say in Los Angeles, “No comprende”.”

    Better words have yet to be spoken. The real weakness of this model is that you can get a MUCH better vehicle over the long run and actually get a longer warranty as well.

    The Highlander will sell… but the quality of the materials used for it’s assembly is not comparable to many better alternatives.

  • avatar

    Another bad review for a new Toyota…

  • avatar

    If the quality is there under the hood long term, then a lot of buyers can/will forgive cheaper materials inside the car. Although I thought Toyota was working on fit and finish issues of late.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    The article confirms avoiding the plummeting quality of locally produced Japanese brands by restricting our recent purchases to Japan-manufactured models was prudent.

  • avatar

    Not a worthy competitor to the Outlook/Acadia.
    Toyota has traded places with GM in the crossover strata. C. Northcote Parkinson is dead but the Toyota folks may want to read his book.

  • avatar

    Gardiner Westbound:
    The article confirms avoiding the plummeting
    quality of locally produced Japanese brands by restricting our recent purchases to Japan-manufactured models was prudent.

    Maybe, just maybe it really is not cost-effective to build automobiles within the USA anymore! Just like Toyota the quality of the MBs, BMWs, Nissans, and some Hondas just does not meassure up to the quality of the products that are still produced in the home country. Face it, Toyota, Mercedes, BMW, et al. all built factories in the USA to save money by lowering production cost.
    They all appear to be building vehicles based on the concept that the American consumer is will to pay for style and flash over substance.
    Compared to the models in the JDM the US Camry has a rather un-finished look to it. The MB ML has consistantly been called out for the POS that it is. The X3 is a rather lack-luster BMW product, and the Nissan Armada has also taken major hits for it lack of quality.

    Now in all fairness the interior material quality of just about all automakers has taken a serious nose-dive in the last 10 years. If I can readily see and feel cheapness inside of a $75,000 e550 than what should I expect from a $35,000 Highlander? If I can bang on hard plastics all day inside of a $50,000 335i I guess complaining about the same in a GM or Toyota is just silly.

  • avatar

    Gardiner Westbound:

    The article confirms avoiding the plummeting quality of locally produced Japanese brands by restricting our recent purchases to Japan-manufactured models was prudent.

    Maybe I am just reading this wrong, but this sounds like another slap in the face to American autoworkers.

    I am quite sure that our seven year old Camry was built in the USA and the quality remains outstanding with no problems other than normal maintenance. Did the guys in the assembly line suddenly stop caring and start making poorly assembled vehicles?

    More likely, Toyota has “benefited” from some of the same bean-counter mentality and rush to production that afflicted GM and Ford.

  • avatar

    …any of their new Lambada crossovers

    Best. Typo. Ever. Not a dance I care to do.

  • avatar
    Steve Biro

    That’s because it’s a FORBIDDEN dance… :)

  • avatar

    what a review! great writing. i wish bicycle publications had even a modicum of honesty and game to them. my quetion to the reviewers though is, which car DO you like.

    there is nothing better than knowing what you like, except getting it. and knowing what you want is a terrible thing, because then where do you find it.

  • avatar

    Damn it! You guys beat me to the “forbidden dance” joke…

  • avatar

    The Highlander has always been the most pointless of Toyota’s SUVs. I can’t beleive they still carry it. I don’t personally know anyone that has one or has considered one even though most of the people I know do drive Toyotas. Previously it only had to room of a Matrix inside while being the size of the new Rav4 on the outside, now it’s damn near identical to the new Rav4 in and out without the good drive train.

  • avatar

    Unbelievable! Toyota quality slips and it’s the fault of the American Consumer? Time to face the reality that Toyota is slipping. The mounting tab of lackluster products seems to enforce this reality. To blame the U.S> consumer is just stupid. If the American Consumer was happy with the quality level found in the new Highlander GM would still be the #1 automaker in the U.S.

    I am not an apologist for the U.S. auto industry by any stretch. (my primary ride is Japanese, allbeit a Kawasaki). If I were to buy a new car would it be an American one…At this stage probably not. But it wouldn’t be any of Toyota’s new offerings either for the same reasons. Looks like Honda and the South Koreans are the only ones who get it at the moment.

  • avatar

    Fit and finish was horrible? Was this a pre-production model that was tested? Perhaps it was a lemon?

    Reason I ask is that so far all other reviews of the new Highlander have said it had good fit and finish.

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz


    Not a preproduction model, nor was it an abused “everyone reviews it” vehicle.

    It was, in fact, a vehicle arranged for my by a dealership and it subsequently will be sold.

    What sources did you read that lauded the Highlander’s F&F?

  • avatar

    Here is one review which said it had a good interior with good quality:

    Here is another review which also praised the interior quality and said nothing negative of the fit and finish:

    To be honest, yours is the first review I’ve read that talks about the fit and finish being horrible and the materials not up to par. Even from pictures, fit and finish looks pretty damn good.

    EDIT: the links I posted, one review is from Australia and one is from Canada.

  • avatar

    Toyota is judged against higher standards due to its reputation. This vehicle looks truly outstanding. Only fault I’d find is the 5 speed auto. My mitsu outlander has 6 cogs. But ofcourse it does lack refinement of highlander for sure..

  • avatar

    Johnson As the publisher of this site, I have the privilege of working with writers whose opinions I respect. I have every faith in Mr. Berkowitz' judgment on the new Highlander's fit and finish. Our writers call it like they see it; they have no ax to grind.  This does not necessarily mean the other reviewers were lying…  Although we tend to think of cars as perfectly identical products, this is often not the case– "even" when you're talking about Toyota. As readers within the biz will attest, improvements in the production process are often made "on the fly." Plenty of consumers won't buy the early examples of a new model for this reason. I have little doubt that Toyota will address these fit and finish issues– especially after this review. I would expect to see an improvement within months. There is also the not-so-small matter of the preparation of press cars… Most manufacturers go to great lengths to make sure that their press cars are immaculate. As you might imagine, they do not simply take a car off the line and hand it to a journo. The car is physically and mechanically inspected and tweaked to an inch of its life. Because of our editorial stance and style, TTAC does not have access to press cars. We've been officially banned by BMW, GM, Subaru and Honda. We've been unofficially excluded from all the rest. At the moment, our writers test drive cars supplied by car dealers or friends of the site. They are the same cars readers can buy. We are currently negotiating with a used car chain to gain longer tests in more cars. This would suit me fine. I would rather our writers test "real world" cars later than the buff books, Edmunds, etc. than have them critique manufacturers' highly massaged examples. In any case, I invite our readers to examine the new Highlander in the showroom and report back. None of us is infallible and, as I've outlined above, your results may vary. Rest assured that our search for the truth is ongoing. It is, in fact, relentless.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. What I also meant to say was that this Highlander likely isn’t representative of all Highlanders.

  • avatar

    I really don’t think the interior is as bad as you make it out to be. And your response may be that pictures are deceiving. Well I sat in one 2 days ago, and the fit and finish is quite commendable, with the materials and feel of the buttons are top notch. I’m not sure where you’re coming from bashing the interior like that, but why not turn your focus on the cloned fisher price interiors of nearly every single identical GM.

  • avatar
    P.J. McCombs

    I thought the ’01-’07 Highlander was a near-perfect package for its intended buyers: people who needed a five-seat station wagon, but wanted it to look bigger, and less like a station wagon.

    Why not a 4Runner? Because the Highlander feels marginally roomier inside, has a lower step-in height, and has a big cutout beneath the center console for one’s purse. Important stuff to the target market.

    Of course a minivan makes more sense from a packaging standpoint, but as long as American parents feel the need to wear an REI costume–mustn’t have people thinking they might be (gasp) parents, you know–the Highlander will probably keep selling in droves.

  • avatar

    Very nicely written. I especially like the “homage to cubism.” I’ll keep an eye out for fit and finish issues when I test drive one myself this week.

  • avatar

    I have sat in and looked over this vehicle in my local dealership in Davie, Fl. I found the fit and finish amazing, but then again I have been driving and beating to death a 2005 Yukon Denali with a 6 liter engine. No matter, as a father of two young kids this will be my next vehicle.. Why, well the Hybrid gets 27 in the city and has every gadget I could ever need. Although the 2008 Honda Odyseey is probably a better vehicle, some of us just can’ fathom driving a minivan.

    Now on another note – if BMW would only bring me a 335 Wagon, I could stop worrying about my next car choice, better yet a 335d Wagon would be great. BMWNA are you listening?

  • avatar

    jomatt – your commentary is the most refreshing on this christmas list of bratty wants. As an owner of this car (hybrid version), I can tell you that you’ll have zero regrets. when you and the kids get in, fit and finish excuse themselves to accomodate your ever bulging pocket book. Another excellent choice, but off the beaten track for this post, is the Camry Hybrid. Now, its no S430 (another former love of mine), but for the pennies it costs to operate, your mind will be free to enjoy the screams and fights of two kids in the back just being kids.

  • avatar

    jcross22- excellent comment as indeed the XC90 is as good (ok, i think better) than the Highlander, but the DMZ on this review focuses on the fuel economy…XC90 uses premium like its 1999

  • avatar

    I suppose time will tell but we’ve had our awd 2008 for 4 months and love it. We’ve put 4000 mi on the 28000 that was already there and haven’t had any issues. The 17 mpg city is more like 15 from what I’ve calculated.

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