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The Toyota Highlander has become the best-selling vehicle of its type, a car-based midsize sport-utility vehicle. Its independent suspension is set up for comfort and ride quality as a priority. The 2005 Toyota Highlander offers a choice of four-cylinder or V6, with front-wheel drive or full-time four-wheel drive.
First introduced as a 2001 model, the Highlander was substantially revised for 2004. The 2005 Toyota Highlander adds standard features that were optional. Optional curtain-style airbags and side-impact airbags are designed to protect passengers' heads and torsos in a side impact or rollover.
The Highlander remains the easiest of motoring companions. Getting in and out is easy due to the relatively low floor height. Its flexible interior makes it easy to various combinations of people and cargo. Seating for five comes standard, with an optional third-row seat to carry up to seven passengers, though they'd be cramped. The third row folds flat and the second-row seat folds nearly so, revealing 80 cubic feet of cargo space, more than a Toyota 4Runner. The Highlander can swallow impromptu flea-markets buys with ease, and tote them home despite sudden worsening of the weather.
The Highlander offers a relatively soft, smooth ride for an SUV and the interior is unusually quiet and free of wind noise and engine vibration. The base model, equipped with the revised 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, performs well around town and on the open highway, delivering responsive performance when merging into highway traffic. Equipped with the larger 3.3-liter V6 and all-wheel-drive, the Highlander offers strong power and secure handling in nasty weather. Highlander offers much of what made the Lexus RX 300 popular, but without Lexus-sized monthly payments.
The Toyota Highlander is available in base or Limited trim, each with either front-wheel drive or full-time all-wheel drive. A choice of engines is available: A 2.4-liter inline-4 comes standard, rated at 160 horsepower. A new 3.3-liter V6 that produces 230 horsepower is optional on the base Highlander and standard on the Limited. Four-cylinder models come with a four-speed automatic transmission; V6 models get a five-speed automatic.
The base four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive model ($24,080) comes with air conditioning, power windows and door locks, cruise control, cloth upholstery, sophisticated anti-lock brakes, seating for five, and electronic stability control (VSC). The all-wheel-drive model ($25,480) is similarly equipped. The V6 is optional ($1,060), but if you order it on the 4WD model, then you have to take the optional third-row seat as well ($850).
Highlander Limited 2WD ($29,980) and 4WD ($31,380) come standard with V6 and third-row seat as standard equipment. The Limited also gets automatic climate control, an eight-speaker JBL sound system, eight-way power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, four-way power passenger seat, 17-inch aluminum wheels, roof rack, fog lights, rear privacy glass, heated mirrors, remote keyless entry with security system and engine immobilizer, wood-grain interior trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and other amenities.
Leather-trimmed seating (Ivory or Ash Gray) is available for the Limited ($670) or base model ($2,255). Other options: tilt-and-slide glass sunroof ($900), in-dash six-CD changer ($595). The optional rear-seat DVD system ($1,770) includes two wireless headphones, RCA input jacks for video games, and a household-style 115-volt AC power outlet. GPS navigation ($2,200) is offered on Limited only. A Towing Package ($160) includes trailer wiring plus an upgraded radiator, transmission oil cooler, and 130-amp alternator.
We strongly recommend getting the optional side-curtain and seat-mounted side-impact airbags ($680), which are designed to protect the heads and torsos of passengers in the first two rows. Highlander's airbag system uses sensors in both front seats to adjust the frontal airbags to react appropriately to the severity of the collision and the weight of the passengers. A new low-tire-pressure warning system is standard. Always wear your seatbelts as they are your first line of defense in an accident.
The Highlander Hybrid, which will go on sale late in 2005 as a 2006 model, will deliver the fuel economy of a compact sedan and will be classified by the government as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle, or SULEV. The 2006 Highlander Hybrid combines a 3.3-liter V6 with electric motors. Toyota expects there will be a waiting list for the vehicle when it hits the market.
The Toyota Highlander looks smart and trim, falling somewhere between the edgy high style of the RAV4 and the muscular purposefulness of the 4Runner. There's a slight family resemblance between the Highlander and the Lexus RX 330, although the Highlander looks more dressed down, rather like wearing faded jeans and a favorite windbreaker instead of dry-clean-only lunch-with-the-ladies attire.
Highlander is slightly larger inside, as measured by total EPA interior volume, than the RX 330, although the Lexus has slightly more cargo volume.
Highlander's front bumper, light clusters and grille were revised for 2004 and remain essentially the same to this day. The bumper cover has sharp lines molded into it, so its shape is better defined than before. The grille's horizontal bars are bold and well defined, while the various elements of the light clusters seem to blend together more smoothly. Toyota design philosophy tends toward conservative appearance changes, and the Highlander lacks a cutting-edge design such as that of the Nissan Murano. Highlander's front and rear overhangs are relatively large, tending more toward a station wagon look.
Entry, both for cargo and for people, is easier in the Highlander than in truck-based SUVs. With its more car-like step-in and lift-into, the Highlander is even friendly to wearers of tight skirts. Not so the usual truck-based SUV. There are walk-in steps and a second-row sliding seat to help access the third row of seats.
While the Toyota 4Runner is basically a truck, the Highlander is essentially a car. Like a car, the Highlander uses unibody construction rather than having a separate frame. And, like a car, the Highlander features a four-wheel independent suspension, rather than a solid rear axle. Two-wheel-drive versions are front-wheel drive, not rear-wheel drive. The 4Runner is the opposite of each of those. The best choice? It comes down to your game: For towing and driving off road, the 4Runner is better. For commuting and transporting the family, the Highlander is the better, more comfortable choice. Properly equipped, Highlander can tow up to 3,500 pounds, not all that much by truck standards.
Few vehicles are easier to get in and out of than the Toyota Highlander. Neither climbing up nor stepping down is required. Simply slide in. This makes the Highlander one of the most convenient trucks on the planet for running daily errands. The Highlander will not likely ever annoy you.
Highlander comes with reclining front bucket seats in front. These seats are flat and lean, but supportive and comfortable and adjust to suit various-size drivers. Their higher ride height provides a commanding view of the road. The sloping hood of the Highlander makes the forward view even more encompassing.
The second row seats up to three passengers, but is better for two. The center of the second-row seat folds down into an arm rest with cup holders, adding comfort, and the seats recline for additional comfort. It's split 60/40 and folds down with a cleverly articulated seat bottom. It folds fairly flat but not perfectly flat. The second-row seat slides forward to make access to the third row easier, and to provide more legroom for third-row passengers.
Toyota intends for the third row to be used only occasionally. As average-sized adults, we found sitting in the third row uncomfortable. Our knees rode high, there's minimal leg room, hip room and shoulder room. This relatively cramped situation makes the third-row seats best for short trips or kids. The Honda Pilot offers substantially more hip and shoulder room in the third row, but legroom is the same story. Also, the side-curtain airbags do not protect third-row passengers as they do in a Toyota Sienna minivan. Bottom line: Consider a minivan if you need the third row often. Purely for transporting people, a minivan will always be better. Highlander's third-row seat does fold flat into the floor, with no need to remove the headrests, so you still get the greater cargo-carrying utility of an SUV. Third-row seats are packaged with rear privacy glass, a rear heater system with separate fan controls, and additional cup holders.
Up front, you'll find everything in its place. Power window buttons are right there on the doors. Ventilation ducts are right where you would expect to find them. Radio and heater controls use simple dials and amply sized buttons and operate intuitively. Instruments are readily visible through a panoramic space in the comfortable four-spoke steering wheel. The whole layout indicates thoughtful appraisal and wise choices.
Interior trim and fabrics in all Highlanders are conservative and generally tasteful. V6 models come with aluminum interior accents. Limited models come with simulated silver and burled maple wood-grain dash trim and door scuff plates, but the wood grain trim on the center stack looks like fake wood. The standard climate control is a single-zone system.
The shifter is uniquely positioned more as a part of the dash than on a central console. This opens up the space between the front seats. It also lends an open, unconfined air to the cockpit. The interior is outfitted with dome, door courtesy, glove box and cargo-area lighting. Map pockets, visor mirrors, and front and rear auxiliary power outlets are provided. The driver's window has one-touch Auto-down.
Highlander provides a large amount of cargo space: 80.6 cubic feet with the second- and third-row seats folded. The second row does not fold perfectly flat, but the third row folds flat and does not take up cargo space. Most people end up riding around with the second-row in place for passengers and the third row folded flat into the floor, leaving nearly 40 cubic feet of space available for stuff. Opening up the third-row seat leaves only 10.5 cubic feet behind it for cargo. The Honda Pilot offers more cargo space. A neat feature: The cargo cover stows.
The Toyota Highlander is easy to drive and operate. It feels instantly familiar with no fumbling for controls. The Highlander is quieter than truck-based SUVs both in engine and road noise. It rides smoothly on a variety of surfaces, true to the car side of its SUV heritage, though some road vibration could be felt through steering wheel.
The standard front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder Highlander makes a superb wagon for the city and suburbs, especially now that traction control and stability control are standard equipment. Highlander is far easier to deal with on a daily basis than a truck-based sport-utility. Though you ride a little taller, you look eye to eye at Volvo wagon drivers.
The four-cylinder engine offers good power. It's quick, smooth and quiet, delivering 160 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque. We found the four-cylinder version to be a happy performer and didn't feel like we were missing something by not having the V6. The four-cylinder gets significantly better fuel economy than the V6 (22/27 vs. 19/25 mpg EPA-estimated City/Highway in 2WD trim). When equipped with the 4WD system, EPA mileage is one or two mpg lower. The four-cylinder Highlander comes with a four-speed automatic transmission. It features a Snow Mode for improved throttle control when accelerating from a standstill on a slippery surface.
The optional V6 is larger and more powerful, at 3.3 liters and 230 horsepower. Torque is increased significantly, to 242 pound-feet. Torque is that force that propels vehicle smartly away from intersections and up hills. Further enhancing engine smoothness are active-control motor mounts that cancel vibration. Toyota recommends using premium fuel for the V6, but it runs fine on regular. The new V6 is mated to a new five-speed automatic.
Highlander feels at home around town, amidst traffic lights and parking seekers. It's a good size for city streets and soaks up potholes and irregular pavement well. Rolling into suburbia, the Highlander fits right in. It's a natural mall-crawler, maneuverable and quick to nose into a parking slot. The steering effort is very light at low speeds, so it's easy to turn in tight quarters.
It cruises well on major highways, offering good stability and a smooth, quiet ride. It's a solid-feeling structure. Grip is quite good for hard cornering, better than expected. On winding roads, though, the steering felt slow and a bit vague. The suspension is too soft for serious hard driving, with significant body roll. Like a lot of cushy SUVs, it wallows in corners and the body leans.
Toyota's electronic Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) with traction control (TRAC) is now standard on all Highlanders. VSC can detect sliding of either the front or rear wheels and it reduces engine power and/or applies the brakes on individual wheels to correct the Highlander's course.
Braking is certain and smooth. Standard on all Highlanders are anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist. ABS helps the driver maintain steering control under hard braking. EBD optimizes brake force at each wheel under different load conditions and as the car's weight shifts forward under braking for improved stability and reduced stopping distances. Brake Assist detects an emergency braking situation and automatically maintains enough brake pressure to engage the ABS even if the driver makes the mistake of relaxing pressure on the brake pedal.
All-wheel drive works great in slippery or inconsistent conditions. Snow melt, muddy ruts, icy patches on shadowed curves were easily handled by our AWD V6 Limited. On a meandering back road, the Highlander cut up hills through eight inches of newly fallen snow like a snowplow on a rescue mission. All-wheel-drive Highlanders use a permanently engaged system that splits torque 50/50 front/rear, and relies on the traction control to limit slippage at any wheel. Highlander is intended pr
Toyota Highlander is an excellent choice as a versatile, no-hassle 4WD wagon. Its ease of operation and convenience features make it eminently easy to live with. Highlander carries four people in comfort, seven in a pinch, and hauls a lot of stuff. It is a competent all-weather performer. Toyota's reputation for quality, durability and reliability should mean trouble-free ownership and a strong resale value. Highlander provides what most people want from a modern, on-road sport-utility.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from Pasadena, California
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We have information you must know before you buy the Highlander.
We want to send it to you, along with other pricing insights.
We will not spam you, and will never sell you email.