Toyota Highlander Sport Review

Justin Berkowitz
by Justin Berkowitz
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toyota highlander sport review

Sir 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.

The 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.

As 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.

Otherwise, 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.

Driving, 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.

Justin Berkowitz
Justin Berkowitz

Immensely bored law student. I've also got 3 dogs.

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  • Mirkothetruthaboutcars Mirkothetruthaboutcars on Aug 02, 2008

    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

  • Bil Bil on Jun 21, 2009

    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.

  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.
  • FreedMike Many F150s I encounter are autonomously driven...and by that I mean they're driving themselves because the dips**ts at the wheel are paying attention to everything else but the road.
  • Tassos A "small car", TIM????????????This is the GLE. Have you even ever SEEN the huge thing at a dealer's??? NOT even the GLC,and Merc has TWO classes even SMALLER than the C (The A and the B, you guessed it? You must be a GENIUS!).THe E is a "MIDSIZED" crossover, NOT A SMALL ONE BY ANY STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION, oh CLUELESS one.I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THE NONSENSE you post here every god damned day.And I BET you will never even CORRECT your NONSENSE, much less APOLOGIZE for your cluelessness and unprofessionalism.
  • Stuki Moi "How do you take a small crossover and make it better?Slap the AMG badge on it and give it the AMG treatment."No, you don't.In fact, that is specifically what you do NOT do.Huge, frail wheels, and postage stamp sidewalls, do nothing but make overly tall cuvs tramline and judder. And render them even less useful across the few surfaces where they could conceivably have an advantage over more properly dimensioned cars. And: Small cuvs have pitiful enough fuel range as it is, even with more sensible engines.Instead, to make a small CUV better, you 1)make it a lower slung wagon. And only then give it the AMG treatment. AMG'ing, makes sense for the E class. And these days with larger cars, even the C class. For the S class, it never made sense, aside from the sheer aural visceralness of the last NA V8. The E-class is the center of AMG. Even the C-class, rarely touches the M3.Or 2) You give it the Raptor/Baja treatment. Massive, hypersophisticated suspension travel allowing landing meaningful jumps. As well as driving up and down wide enough stairs if desired. That's a kind of driving for which a taller stance, and IFS/IRS, makes sense.Attempting to turn a CUV into some sort of a laptime wonder, makes about as much sense as putting an America's Cup rig atop a ten deck cruiseship.