Overhauled externally and updated internally, the Toyota Highlander has both grown in size and popularity over the years. So with 2017 models getting ready to hit sales floors this November, it was high time we pitted the three-row SUV against the all-new Nissan Pathfinder, Honda Pilot, and Mazda CX-9.
But we immediately ran into a dilemma because the amount of available Highlander variations has grown once again, and we only had time to drive one version. While the Japanese automaker continues to offer a hybrid model (something its three competitors do not), the array of trim lines, drivetrains, and package options have swelled considerably. So in order to offer the best “middle-of-the road” review possible, we opted for a mid-grade XLE V6 version to serve as our jump start car.
The Highlander’s V6 is a new 3.5-liter setup that generates 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque, which offers 25 more ponies and 15 more pound-feet of twist than the previous powertrain. It also comes attached to a new Direct Shift eight-speed automatic, which features two more gears than the outgoing model, and is designed to help in acceleration, efficiency, and high speed capabilities.
All-wheel drive models like our XLE have received an EPA-estimated 20 MPG city/27 MPG highway, which isn’t too shabby compared to the 18/24 MPG gains 2016 models saw. Anything above the base LE trim gets automatic start/stop too, and all V6 models now come standard with a 5,000-pound max towing package that includes a larger radiator, an engine oil cooler, a 200-watt fan hook-up, a transmission fluid cooler, and a beefy 150-amp alternator.
When cruising on the freeway, the SUV runs on just the front axles to reduce gas guzzling, and if you are ever faced with tough traction issues, a centrally locking differential holds a 50:50 torque split in place for maximum traction under 25 mph. Although a TRD model is still not an option, and we were unable to test our XLE off-road like the Pathfinder, the updates that Toyota has made over the years to this chassis are reassuring. It may not have all the various traction modes like the Pilot, but the Highlander does feature a snow setting, a downhill assist control switch, stiffer framework, tuned MacPherson front struts, and double-wishbone rear suspension for increased geometry capabilities.
While the driver’s 4.2-inch multi-information display shows torque-distribution info via the flip of a switch, the interactive control systems were the big winners in our eyes. Drivers can now control AWD settings, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), and power steering systems for tailor-made results, all of which proves how serious Toyota has gotten about Highlander performance since its early days as a Camry with ground clearance.
Driving-wise, we came away pretty impressed with how the Highlander behaved, and while its handling didn’t feel as planted or as direct as the all-new Mazda CX-9, it did offer enough power to instill confident interstate overtakes and hasty on-ramp acceleration. But while a more efficient and powerful engine is appreciated, it’s the V6 Highlander’s Dynamic Torque Control AWD system that adds the cherry on top.
Taking vehicle speed, steering inputs, throttle angle, and yaw rate into account, Toyota’s AWD setup does a nice job of distributing torque to the rear wheels via its electromagnetically controlled rear differential, something we are more accustomed to seeing on cars like the Lexus RC F. But under heavy acceleration, in tight turns, or when poor traction suddenly appears, the system switches into AWD mode to prevent slip, with front-to-rear torque distribution jumping anywhere from 100:0 to 50:50.
For styling, we like the way the Highlander has been updated. The bowed horizontal grille and deeply carved, Lexus-like lower front bumper sconces offer a more masculine touch, with silver-painted finishing touches and a set of redesigned LED taillights making notable improvements.
This SUV is also larger than photos will have you believe, with a full 8 inches of ground clearance. But with an array of safety tech like blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alerts, and a standard-issue Bird’s Eye View Camera with Perimeter Scan on Limited Platinum grades, drivability remains a breeze. Camera views are crisp and proportional, and we found Toyota’s live rotating 360-degree view Perimeter Scan to be particularly useful.
When we say the Highlander has grown, we mean it; even though its 192.5-inch length is just a hair longer than that of the average mid-size sedan, its interior layout is considerable. Now in its fourth year, the third generation of the SUV seats eight, and both Limited and Platinum grades can now substitute a bench-style middle row in place of captain’s chairs for an additional place to buckle up.
Although the backseat featured ample headroom for adults, the second row had to be moved forward quite a bit in order to accommodate adult-size limbs. The way in which the second row seat folded out of the way was also not as effortless as the one-touch solution found in the Pathfinder, but did beat the CX-9 in both ease of use and weight.
The 2017 Highlander offers as much as 158.7 cubic feet of total cabin volume, and with a one-step second-row sliding seat function on both driver and passenger sides, accessing the reclining third row is still fairly painless. Unfortunately, we found the 13.8 cubic feet of storage behind the furthest row to be less than all three of its competitors, but once both rows are folded flat, the Highlander easily trumps everything but the Pilot with a sizable 83.7 cubic feet of stow space.
Another notable aspect that felt right on the money was the Highlander’s sound deadening, with hydraulic engine mounts, acoustic-style glass, and extensive body sealing preserving the serenity inside the cabin. Toyota reports that it has even gone as far as tweaking the optional panoramic moonroof in order to reduce wind noise.
Fresh tech features now include rear parking assist sonar, an upgraded Entune Premium JBL Audio system, integrated navi and a full app suite. The XLE version and anything above it also come standard with the Sienna’s “Driver Easy Speak” system, which utilizes a microphone in the overhead console and channels the driver’s voice through the audio system’s rear speakers in order to notify the third row that it’s time to pipe down.
Initial qualms with the 2017 Highlander stem from aesthetic and interior missteps more than anything else. The center console’s doors are annoying to open and close, the plastic used doesn’t do your elbows any favors, and it feels like it could easily break if too much pressure is applied. There is also the oddly-sculpted center stack, which works well, but due to its uneven shape and misaligned vents, will be an eyesore for anyone suffering from OCD.
But save for the odd design cue or two, some space constraints, a large but flimsy center armrest, and a slightly disconnected driving feel when compared to the competition, the latest Highlander SUV scores high points in our book. The interior offered a really nice environment, with plentiful soft touch materials, two-tone door inserts, numerous storage trays and pockets, and five USB ports to help make family and work life far more manageable.
Now that Toyota’s all-encompassing TSS-P safety suite comes standard, V6 performance has been re-calibrated, hybrid power is even smarter, and both traction and handling have been improved, the Highlander has an angle on the market that should last until it gets a complete makeover in the 2019 model year. Stay tuned, because as this SUV initial launch date in November looms nearer, we get the feeling that the middle of the road XLE model will offer the best bang for the buck.