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2017 Toyota Highlander Test Drive Review
Fresh styling, an updated engine, standard safety, and a sporty new trim put the 2017 Toyota Highlander in prime position to retain its rising sales rank.
The Highlander has increased its sales every year for nearly a decade, and the only way to do that is to keep things fresh. To that end, Toyota fitted the 2017 Highlander with an updated V6 engine, some updated styling, a new “sport” SE trim, and a whole lot of extra safety by making its Safety Sense system standard.
Look and Feel
Three-row crossovers are a troublesome bunch. With consumers increasingly expecting their hulking SUVs to handle like an average sedan, the added girth and length a 3-row requires can make that a daunting goal. Still, technology marches on, and improvements in materials and suspension design continue to bring that objective into increasingly clear focus. The Highlander exemplifies this challenge perfectly, offering useable space for a larger-than-average family while managing to get you to school or soccer practice without half your passengers losing their lunch. I’m not a family man, but I can definitely see the advantage of not having to scrub vomit out of your upholstery on a semi-regular basis.
With that in mind, the Highlander gets a new trim this year—the sporty SE with a retuned suspension and some styling upgrades to match. This is in addition to the general aesthetic massage the Highlander has received for 2017, dominated by a new, larger grille that extends down to the front valence. Rear taillights also got a slight redesign, though the larger change is that they’re now LED units.
My week with the Highlander was spent in the new SE trim, which starts at an MSRP of $41,150. That’s a significant increase over the base Highlander LE’s starting MSRP of $30,630, but one I think is worth the extra money. With the LE, you’ll get the old 2.7-liter 4-cylinder, an under-powered and unrefined engine that’s simply inadequate for the Highlander’s heft. Here, the 3.5-liter V6 is a necessary option, and even at the base level you’re already at $33,000 when choosing that option.
Starting there, you’ll get the basics but not much else, though don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a stripper version. You’ll still get alloy wheels, heated mirrors, Bluetooth, wiper de-icers, and the big upgrade this year: standard Toyota Safety Sense for adaptive cruise with forward collision warning and auto braking, lane-departure warning and intervention, and auto high beams. The inclusion of that bundle alone demands comment and commendation.
The next level up, the LE Plus, is where you’ll find the options that have almost become mandatory this late in the game. Tri-zone climate control, an 8-inch touchscreen, power driver’s seat, and a power liftgate. This means the LE Plus is where you should start looking. If something a bit fancier is to your taste, you’ll just have to move north through the lineup to find things like leather, rear-seat entertainment, heated seats, and navigation. A particular gripe is that you have to go all the way to the XLE for keyless entry and ignition, features that are becoming givens, even on many compact and some subcompact cars.
With the SE, you get the retuned suspension, LED running lights, 19-inch alloys, and sporty styling inside and out. The version provided for me by Toyota was also fitted with the optional $1,810 rear-seat BluRay entertainment system with a 9-inch display, auxiliary video inputs, and wireless headphones, bringing the drive-away price to $43,900 with a $940 delivery and handling fee.
Limited trims additionally offer rear parking sensors, heat and ventilation for the front seats with a driver memory system, an upgraded, 12-speaker JBL sound system, and second-row captain’s chairs, while the Limited Platinum decks the Highlander out with a stunning panoramic sunroof, front parking sensors to match the rear, auto wipers, and heat for the steering wheel and second-row seats. Hit all the options and your Highlander can tip the economic scales at $46,260.
The new SE trim and standard Toyota Safety Sense might get all the press, but don’t let the news of extra power and a new 8-speed transmission pass you by. There’s still a 3.5-liter V6 under the hood, the same that’s been powering everything from the GS 350 to the Sienna, but this year output increases by 25 hp and 15 lb-ft. To make sure that extra power didn’t hurt too much at the pump, Toyota borrowed the 8-speed automatic from the Lexus RX 350.
The good news is that the 3.5 is very capable of motivating the Highlander, whether in traffic or on the highway, and the 8-speed transmission knows what to do with all that power. I did find it hunting a bit when traffic built up on the highway, bringing speeds down to 30-40, but otherwise it operated nearly invisibly, just like an automatic should.
The bad news? Owners who traded in their 2015 or 2016 Highlanders claim the 2017 feels more sluggish than the old. Test numbers seem to bear that out, as neither 0-60 nor slalom times have improved in 2017, even with the SE’s sport suspension. That said, I never noticed the difference and never felt the Highlander was underpowered.
The new 8-speed transmission is supposed to up mileage estimates for the V6 by 1 mpg across the board, now standing at 20 mpg city, 27 highway, and 23 combined with rear-wheel drive or 19 city, 26 highway, and 22 combined with all-wheel drive (AWD). However, the EPA’s testing procedures are more stringent this year, so that’s a bigger improvement than it looks like on paper. For real-world numbers, I did several hundred miles over the week and was never very gentle on the accelerator, and I still managed to get an average of 19 mpg. I’m impressed.
The SE’s retuned suspension goes a long way toward controlling the typical body roll and wallow a large SUV can produce. It’s enough of an improvement that it’s the trim I advise you to test drive before you make a decision, but that doesn’t mean it’s without issue. There seems to be a lack of damping that can cause some skittering over uneven surfaces when you’re really pushing the Highlander hard. Luckily, there’s a solution: Don’t drive your crossover like a Corvette.
Finally, no one will confuse the Highlander with a true off-road machine. There’s no low-range gear or locking differential to be had. However, with 8 inches of clearance including confusingly impressive approach and departure angles given the new grille and hill-descent control and hold, the Highlander can handle some moderate off-road excursions such as lawn parking or accessing some less-accommodating camping sites for family adventures.
Form and Function
The Highlander is not a class leader in power, efficiency, or cargo capacity, and yet it still manages to deliver wins on the sales floor. A lot of that is down to its interior. Innovative solutions for storage like a dash-length shelf and a cavernous center console are blended into a stylish and sleek interior with few missteps. One of the most obvious is an LCD clock still sitting in a dash recess, echoes of a time before touchscreens. This same issue rears its head with the touchscreen's placement, which is simply too far for comfortable use, even with my lanky arms on my 6-foot, 4-inch frame. I fully expect these to be corrected with the next Highlander, but sadly we won’t see this until 2020 or later.
Happily there’s no lack of room in the front or second rows, even for me. The third row is understandably tight, but small children should have no problems, and with the optional second-row captain’s chairs, access is a breeze. Behind the third row, you get 13.8 cubic feet of space, putting the Highlander about middle of the pack, but with all the seats down, that number rises to 83 cubic feet, which is much more competitive.
People expect technology with their cars these days, and an auxiliary port for the CD player just doesn’t cut it. With the Highlander, you’re getting a big boon for 2017 with standard Toyota Safety Sense, but we’ll cover that more in the Safety section. Still, there’s a lot to love here, chiefly the addition of four USB charge ports this year. With kids now toting their own smartphones and tablets, everyone can keep charged. However, this seems to work in opposition to the optional rear-seat BluRay entertainment system. When everyone can bring along their own entertainment and keep it charged, there never needs to be a fight over who gets to watch what on a single screen. Beyond that, the 9-inch display drops down to block the rear-view mirror directly, a dangerous situation at the best of times.
The 12-speaker JBL stereo upgrade is a nice feature in the Limited trim, but the standard stereo does get the job done with composure, never feeling stressed even with windows down and volume up. A particular complaint is that the rear parking sensors and 360-degree camera, features that should be available at all levels if not standard like Safety Sense, are available only on the top Limited Platinum trim.
With the standard Toyota Safety Sense suite adding adaptive cruise with forward-collision warning and auto braking, lane-departure warning and intervention, and auto high beams, the Highlander enjoys top overall marks from both the government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as well as the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). While the IIHS awarded the Highlander top scores in all tests excepting an Acceptable rating for headlights, the NHTSA gave it a 5-star overall rating but a 4-star rating in the frontal crash and rollover tests.
Given the inadequacies of the base 4-cylinder engine, the LE’s seemingly attractive 30 grand price sounds exorbitant. Tack another 3 grand onto the bill to jump up to the V6, and suddenly things make a lot of sense. The LE Plus is another great deal given the amenities provided, but with keyless entry and ignition not showing up until the XLE trim, that’s where you should start looking. For $38,520, you’re getting a lot of vehicle for the money. Again, test the SE to see if the retuned suspension there is worth another grand or so, but I’d offer that it’s the most attractive of the bunch, set apart by the sporty styling and the gloss-black grille as opposed to the silver or chrome of the other trims.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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