For years, Toyota has fielded the Highlander as a thoroughly competent and reliable people-mover. Though it’s been — and is, and as we noted in our recent review of the 2016, likely to be built on the Camry platform, the Highlander pulls no punches offering the utility of a mere sedan. Though the Highlander doesn’t necessarily do any one thing great, Toyota has found that invaluable formula for a vehicle that seemingly can do everything well.
In our review, we were able to take the Highlander out to stretch its legs — a round-trip from, appropriately, New York City to the rolling hills of Vermont. We found it to be by and large a suitable companion for the commuting family, and in pricey Limited trim, it offered a number of amenities that until a few years ago could only be found on Mercedes S-Classes or Porsche Cayennes. Still, it had its shortcomings; for our model, that was primarily related to the powertrain.
Not wanting to rest on its laurels — the company sold 158,915 Highlanders last year — Toyota revisited it’s three-row route, and has revealed it ahead of it’s time in the spotlight next week at the New York Auto Show.
Among a host of improvements (an unusually high amount for a mid-cycle refresh), the most obvious being it’s new external adjustments. Our take from the 2016:
“The Highlander isn’t ugly, but it isn’t pretty either. Still largely unchanged from its 2014 design, it’s big, it looks modern, and it rides high — all the hallmarks of a modern SUV. Exterior fit and finish is great, and exactly what you’d expect from Toyota.”
The 2017 Highlander isn’t necessarily prettier, but the new upper and lower front grille design certainly pulls the front end together. It looks more composed, and Toyota’s large-grille design language — written off by many as garish — is actually maturing really nicely. The new Highlander echoes the much-higher-end Lexus LX 570, and in all, it looks clean and masculine.
Under the hood, Toyota is adding a new Direct Shift 8AT (automatic transmission) that will be paired with a new 3.5-liter V6 Direct Injection Engine, the company said. “The new transmission is more compact and will provide more transmission efficiency through its 8-speed gear range,” and “will be standard on all V6 Highlander gas models.”
Toyota added that the new V6 will be available on all Highlander gas models, and standard on all Hybrid ones. “The new engine will generate significantly more horsepower, provide enhanced fuel efficiency, and deliver a more direct driving feel by expanding the lock up range,” it added.
We obviously haven’t been hands-on with the new model yet, but it sounds like this could address the biggest fault with the Highlander Hybrid: The droning whine and lack of oomph of the V6 that we originally confused for the 2.5 liter-four from the Camry hybrid. Give the range-topping hybrid model some pull and the stark pricing contrast suddenly becomes more tolerable.
Judging by the interior teaser above, Toyota hasn’t done anything extreme with the cabin. This is good, because the cabin is one of the Highlander’s strongest suits — it’s easy to use, live in, and with captain’s chairs installed in the second row, it’s remarkably roomy. Our big strike against it was that it was very dark, even during the day, but that blue mood lighting looks like a promising remedy.
Toyota will also be adding a new sport-inspired SE trim, to join the LE, LE Plus, XLE, Limited, and Platinum fit-and-finishes. The SE will include unique 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels, tuned suspension, and a dark paint treatment to the front grille, which is also incorporated into the headlamp housings and roof rails, the company said.
Toyota never had an issue moving Highlanders before. With the 2017 model, it might have an issue making enough of them.