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Published: 06/01/2001 - by Erin Mahoney, Contributor
Goodness, Toyota has got it going on these days. As of this model year, we'd be hard-pressed to think of a more savvy automaker. At the time of this writing, the Big Three is losing market share in the SUV segment, and when we look at Toyota's current lineup, it's easy to see why.
Let's start off with such stalwarts as the venerable Land Cruiser, the trailbusting 4Runner and the compact RAV4. These three vehicles successfully establish the marque as a capable purveyor of off-road vehicles. Of course, statistics show that many SUV buyers have little or no intention of taking their vehicles into the wilderness; they simply want a cool-looking, roomy and high-riding alternative to a station wagon or a minivan. So what does Toyota do? Here's an idea why not take a popular, well built vehicle from your luxury division and rework it as a midsize on-road-favoring Toyota SUV? It worked in reverse when Lexus created the LX 450 from the Land Cruiser; the question is does it work?
Happily, it's just as successful this way. The 2001 Highlander rounds out Toyota's current SUV offerings beautifully. The automaker has successfully tapped into the minds of families everywhere and has come up with a winning fusion of minivan, station wagon and SUV. And while fusion cuisine has yet to catch on with the general population (who wants kosher salsa with their sushi?), American consumers positively salivate over all-in-one types of vehicles.
Based on the Lexus RX 300, which is built on the Toyota Camry platform, the Highlander could almost fool you into thinking you were driving the overwhelmingly popular sedan. Riding on a fully independent suspension with MacPherson struts and front and rear antiroll bars, this SUV exhibits none of the tippiness that we've experienced in some significantly smaller SUVs. Its relatively flat cornering attitude and minimal wallow and float encouraged us to drive the Highlander with considerably more vigor than we would with a truck-based SUV. In fact, while this vehicle is primarily meant to be a city and highway cruiser, it felt remarkably well planted and confident even on two-lane curvy roads. The Highlander even made it through our slalom test course at a brisk 57.5 mph. Furthermore, like its upmarket cousin, this SUV provides an exceptionally supple ride; the on-road tuned suspension proved consistently absorbent, keeping occupants peacefully isolated from bumps and dips in the road.
Regardless of its pavement-biased prowess, the Highlander proved more than competent on rutted fire roads. In spite of its relatively mediocre 7.3 inches of ground clearance and unibody construction, our full-time four-wheel-drive tester was remarkably composed over rock-strewn dirt; the suspension did a commendable job of quelling minor dips and bumps, thereby keeping the passengers from being tossed about the cabin. This Toyota's impeccable build quality also became readily apparent when we ventured off road interior rattles and creaks were kept to a minimum as we powered over the bumpy trail. We would've appreciated more sound-deadening materials in the wheelwells, however, as the impact noise from sand and gravel was transmitted directly into the otherwise quiet interior.
Similar to the RAV4's and Lexus RX 300's, Highlander's four-wheel-drive system applies a 50/50 torque split between the front and rear wheels on a full-time basis. In the event of tire slippage, torque is automatically applied to whichever wheel needs traction. Rather than serving serious off-road duty, the system is intended to prove enormously useful in foul weather, as it helps the tires to maintain grip even on rain-slicked and snow-coated roads. Unfortunately, we didn't have much opportunity to test its merit during a bone-dry May in Southern California.
Highlander was a piece of cake to pilot both on-road and off thanks to its fluid and responsive power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering. One editor even described the user-friendly steering as Lexus-like. It was pleasingly effortless while negotiating parking lots, but offered sufficient feedback and appropriate weighting at highway speeds.
Our test vehicle came with the 3.0-liter V6 engine (the base engine on Highlander is an inline four), which produces 220 horsepower at 5,800 rpm with the help of its Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) system. Peak torque of 222 foot-pounds comes at a mid-range 4,400 rpm. At the test track, 0 to 60 mph was covered in 8.8 seconds not at all bad for a midsize SUV. Under most everyday driving conditions, we found power from the V6 to be more than sufficient. Weighing in at a relatively modest 3,880 pounds (in the case of our 4WD test vehicle), the Highlander is light on its feet compared to many midsize SUVs. We were impressed with the engine's refinement at idle, it's deceptively silent, but it awakens with a pleasing, slightly muted roar once you touch the throttle. EPA gas mileage ratings for the V6 are 18 mpg city/22 mpg highway.
Highlander's electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission with snow mode displayed similar competence and precision, almost always routing this sport-ute's go power with seamless ease. Downshifts became only slightly intrusive if we happened to suddenly hammer the throttle while heading up an incline, while upshifts went largely unnoticed, so smooth were they.
Standard four-wheel ventilated disc brakes with ABS, electronic brake distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA) inspire confidence when it comes time to rein in the Highlander. Stopping action felt exceptionally authoritative, and the brake pedal was progressively calibrated for smooth modulation. It took a relatively short 124.2 feet to haul the Highlander to a stop from 60 mph.
Vehicle Skid Control (VSC) with traction control, an $850 option, added to our peace of mind in the Highlander. VSC is a yaw-control system that works to anticipate and limit understeer and oversteer conditions by reducing engine output and selectively applying brakes to whichever wheel(s) needs it. In conjunction with the full-time four-wheel-drive system, VSC keeps the Highlander on course in the case of a potential skid and further enhances this SUV's all-weather capability. Additional safety features that come standard on the Highlander are dual front airbags (side airbags are optional), side-impact door beams, whiplash injury-lessening front seats, and three-point seatbelts and headrests for all seating positions.
The cabin of this Lexus-derived Toyota received mixed reviews from our staff. There were those individuals who denigrated the simulated woodgrain trim and flimsy plastic stereo and climate controls. At least one driver, however, was impressed with the dark faux wood trim that glittered in the sunlight, and she asserted that the use of plasticky switchgear was hardly worth griping about. After all, this is a Toyota not a Lexus. If anything, the undue criticism the Highlander received for its use of chintzy switchgear is testament to the fact that the otherwise cleanly designed and sumptuous cabin could easily fool you into thinking you were driving a luxury-badged vehicle.
A $1,015 Leather package graced our tester with perforated leather seats and door trim (as a result, the vehicle smelled just lovely like brand-new leather shoes), while the $3,495 Limited package added important items like fog lamps, 16-inch aluminum wheels, a roof rack, automatic climate control, daytime running lights, keyless entry, heated side mirrors, a tonneau cover and a power driver seat (with power lumbar adjustment). Considering the costliness of this package, we were dismayed to find that Toyota didn't include a power front passenger seat. We also would have liked to see individual map lights and steering wheel-mounted audio controls. Both driver and front passenger were blessed with seat heaters, however a $440 option.
As in the Lexus RX 300, the Highlander's gearshift lever is mounted on the dash. This, coupled with the lack of a center console, makes for convenient passage to the rear seats and a roomy-feeling interior, much like in a minivan. Unfortunately, the lack of a center console cuts back significantly on storage space. A sunglasses holder folds down from the ceiling and a handy cell phone compartment pops out of the dash to the left of the steering wheel, but otherwise occupants are left to find creative ways of stowing their belongings. We had to resort to storing our CDs in the front and rear door bins, which are all generously sized. Two cupholders fold out from the base of the driver seat, but they don't ratchet, and they're too large to hold small- to medium-sized cups securely. The backseat has two deep bottle-holders in each door. We were delighted by little niceties like sun visor extenders, a one-touch open/close sunroof and driver window, driver and front passenger armrests, a HomeLink transmitter and a nifty digital info center displaying outside temperature, cabin temperature, average mph, average mpg and current mpg.
A six-disc in-dash CD player was optional on our test vehicle, and the stereo unit features simple, easy-to-use rotary dials for volume and tuning. The climate controls are counter-intuitively located above the stereo, but all functions are high in the stack and fall within easy reach of the driver.
Highlander's wheelbase is 106.9 inches long, 3.9 inches longer than its sister, the RX 300. Indeed, the Toyota offers a roomy cabin, with a high ceiling and decent legroom for all passengers. However, the rear seats should be placed higher for better thigh support, and the lack of a rear seat fold-down armrest is baffling. Hip and shoulder room are similar to what's found in the RX 300. Cargo capacity is better than in the Lexus: 38.5 cubic feet with the rear seats up, 81.4 cubes with the seats folded.
Our test vehicle came in at $35,055 considerably more than we feel we should have to pay for a non-luxury-marque midsize SUV. Of course, our tester also came loaded to the gills with just about every option available. The Limited package and the Leather package alone added $4,510 to the sticker. Foregoing seat heaters and a sunroof along with these pricey packages would even bring a V6-equipped 4WD Highlander down below the $30K mark. For those buyers who live in dry climates and don't foresee the need to venture offroad, a 2WD V6 Highlander with VSC can be had for $25,945 or $24,365 with the four-cylinder engine. Obviously, there are plenty of configuration options for those people who appreciate the Highlander's refinement and handling capabilities, but can't stomach the thought of shelling out the ducats for unnecessary frills.
On the whole, we found the Highlander to be an extraordinarily competent station wagon/sport-utility hybrid. Offering a silken ride, light-duty off-road capability, luxury content and all-weather security, this Toyota is everything a suburban family could ask for. Unless, of course, they have more than three kids. There's the rub: Competitors like the redesigned Ford Explorer, the Suzuki XL-7 and even the Buick Rendezvous all offer seating for seven. Truth be told, we think the Highlander has what it takes to dominate the refined midsize SUV market, but not until Toyota slaps a third row into that bad boy. Until then, Toyota loyalists have only the new Sequoia and the luxurious Land Cruiser to choose from, both of which are considerably more expensive than the Highlander.
System Score: 6.25
Components. This JBL system begins with a standard-issue Toyota head unit. Toyota went to this new head unit design in 2001 and is using the same basic setup for most of its fleet. It stands as a marked improvement over previous designs. The faceplate includes a number of user-friendly features that make this radio exceptionally easy to use while driving. For instance, preset buttons are widely spaced and oversized, the digital readout is large and bright, and, best of all, the radio boasts two large circular knobs, one for volume and one for fine-tuning radio stations. The head unit also includes a cassette player and a built-in six-disc CD changer, as well as a mid-range tone control for increased flexibility in adjusting the sound contour. Not to be overlooked, the head unit graces a finely wrought center stack.
The speakers in this system are JBL-branded components. JBL is a division of Harman International, a large multinational consumer electronics firm that also owns Infinity Loudspeakers and Harman Kardon. A leader in the pro sound arena, JBL has never really made a big splash in the autosound business; the company is what you'd call a second-tier player. Still, for the limited number of speakers in this system, this car sounds pretty good. It includes a pair of 6.5-inch full-range speakers in the rear doors, plus a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers in the front doors. A pair of 1-inch tweeters occupy the upper portion of the front doors.
Performance. This thing plays really loud. There's a cranking amp hidden somewhere in this system. It also has very boomy bass, which, depending on your taste, may be just the ticket for you. I found the bass response a little too muddy and flabby. The tweeters are also extremely bright and brassy. This is most likely by design, since many consumers prefer overly accentuated highs and lows. If you listen to rap, hip-hop, pop and rock, you'll like this system. For the Vivaldi set, you may find this system's lack of refinement a little jarring.
Best Feature: Great head unit and center stack.
Worst Feature: Lack of sonic accuracy.
Conclusion. If you prefer your music heavy on boom and sizzle, this system is right up your alley.
Executive Editor Karl Brauer says:
As an RX 300 knock off without the premium badging, Toyota's Highlander offers much of what the pricier Lexus offers. The available 3.0-liter V6 makes a more-than-adequate 220 horsepower, and the ride and handling characteristics are as car-like as you'll find in a high-profile vehicle. A personal bonus for this driver: The Highlander's clean outer shell is far less offensive to my eyes than the rounded and bulbous lines of the RX 300, a vehicle I've often likened to one destined for lunar rock-gathering.
Some of the Lexus' less desirable traits, however, did make the jump to Highlander, including the shifter that juts out of the lower dash rather than being mounted on the floor and switchgear that looks to be from the Camry and Corolla parts bin. Though more acceptable in a Toyota than a Lexus, these interior pieces, along with the obviously fake woodgrain and "foamy" headliner, nuke any possibility of the Highlander scoring a "premium" feel, even with our test vehicle's $36,000 price tag.
Specific issues I had with the Highlander included the primary vents in the center stack, which are mounted high and at an angle that blasts the face of front passengers. The problem is exacerbated because airflow from these vents can't be shut off, only directed in limited angles away from front occupants. The glove compartment door in our test vehicle was misaligned, making it difficult to operate, and a preponderance of squeaks emanated from the rear seat area. I also found the gauges to be small and too far recessed in their respective pods for easy reading.
On the upside, Highlander's seats are quite comfy with excellent lower-back bolstering and headrests that articulate. The transmission does a superb job of maximizing engine power, and both the sunroof and driver's window are one-touch open and close. Finally, the interior feels massive, with plenty of head and legroom for all passengers. It would seem a no-brainer for Toyota to offer third-row seating, and I'd bet money on seeing it in the near future.
Though our test model was priced in MDX (and RX 300) territory, careful option-checking could net you a well-appointed Highlander for under $30,000. At that point, you're getting a quick, quiet, comfortable and attractive people-mover that will likely hold its resale value and run for years with minimal visits to the service center. Here's hoping that more automakers can figure out this rather obvious recipe for creating the next generation of SUVs.
Contributing Editor Erin Riches says:
More athletic handling characteristics make the Toyota Highlander an appealing alternative to the Acura MDX (and the de-contented 2003 Honda variant) for shoppers seeking a reliable, pavement-friendly midsize SUV (unless you must have a third-row seat) in lieu of a station wagon. During my driving, the Highlander's suspension delivered a smooth, decently controlled ride. The one thing I disliked about the MDX was its tendency to throw its weight around on the curves (resulting in a side-to-side bobbing motion) and the ease with which it grew unsettled on broken pavement. The Highlander did neither, though there was still plenty of body roll during turning maneuvers which is to be expected from an SUV with a soft suspension. Additionally, the Toyota's slightly heavier steering made it more manageable on the curves than the Acura. Overall, though, the Highlander was light and easy to steer, which should please those who spend most of their time in city/suburban traffic.
A refined V6 delivers plenty of power for everyday driving. The transmission seemed to downshift a bit late, but it was not afraid to take the needle to redline under full throttle. The Highlander performed quite well on the freeway: It had plenty of energy for passing maneuvers and its agile handling ensured that quick lane changes were completed without a fuss.
The driver seat provided an optimum balance of cushioning and support, a wide range of adjustment and plenty of room for legs and feet (despite the Highlander's Sienna origins, the footwell was not tight) for a 5-foot 10-inch adult. The dash-mounted shifter did not bother me it's easier to use than a column shifter, and it preserves the aisle between the front seats (a thoughtful minivan convenience). However, the interior materials leave a lot to be desired, but I suppose Toyota cut costs here so that the Highlander could be priced as a Toyota and not a Lexus. While the leather on the seats looks OK, high-gloss faux wood accents are all over the center stack and dash it looks as though someone slapped on a cheap aftermarket kit. High-grade plastic or polished stainless steel would look so much better. Some of the center stack controls are made of flimsy plastic, but excellent ergonomics compensate for this.
At the end of the day, the Highlander is a pleasant, unassuming midsize SUV, albeit one with a cheap interior, limited seating and no low-range transfer case. I would encourage prospective buyers to consider the Volkswagen Passat 4MOTION wagon and Subaru Outback wagon in addition either one will offer better handling and a more effervescent personality. If you really want an SUV, then why not the Nissan Pathfinder with its 240 horsepower, greater agility, low-range transfer case and richer materials?
Editor in Chief Christian Wardlaw says:
What a fantastic family vehicle, especially if you live in a state that suffers through months of inclement weather each winter. Highlander is a perfect blend of family sedan, minivan and sport-utility, exhibiting a clear understanding of how people use these kinds of vehicles and what they want in a do-it-all car/truck/van thingy.
From the moment you climb behind the wheel of a leather-lined Limited, you can tell the Highlander has been created from a Lexus, not the other way around. The doors shut with a solid yet silent thunk. The leather is soft and supple. Interior materials are of generally high quality, with lots of fake wood to warm the dashboard's appearance. It's quiet inside, even at highway speeds.
Fire up the powerful 3.0-liter V6, shift the funky dash-mounted selector into gear, and off you rocket in any kind of weather. The smooth-revving engine brings plenty of power to the party, and I was amazed by how imperceptible shifts were, even when hammering the throttle. Steering provides the same fluidic heft you find in a Lexus, and the brakes work superbly, hauling the Highlander down from speed with ease.
Interior space is generous for occupants and cargo, and I liked the flat passenger compartment floor and the pass-through between the front seats. Unfortunately, this means you're stuck with sub-par cupholders that fold out of the sides of the driver seat's base. They don't ratchet, and they aren't deep, so tall, thin bottles will spill Coca-Cola all over that oak-colored carpet if you take a turn too quickly.
Also, storage space for all the bric-a-brac carried by the average American family is limited to the door-mounted bins and the large glovebox (the latter of which, on our test vehicle, was poorly fitted and stuck each time we tried to open it). And I wasn't a fan of the seats, which, in front, offer a limited range of adjustment and, in back, are mounted too low to the floor to provide adequate thigh support.
Other gripes include the lack of a power passenger seat adjuster, seat and mirror memory system, individual front map lights and steering wheel-mounted radio controls. Also, poorly illuminated door panel and dash switches make rolling down passenger windows, locking doors and adjusting the sideview mirrors after dark a real chore.
Then there's the price of our fully loaded test vehicle. Thirty-five grand and change? For the same money, you can get the larger, arguably more comfortable, albeit less refined seven-passenger Acura MDX. Plus, the MDX is more adept in the dirt and offers an available navigation system.
But the Highlander sure is a smooth operator. If you can live without leather, a sunroof and the goodies in the Limited package, it makes fantastic sense at less than $30,000.
"My husband and I were looking at [SUVs like the Highlander, Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Pathfinder]. We ended up buying the Highlander because of its comfortable drive. It feels like you are driving a car. The turning radius is great. I don't have to try as hard as with the others to hike myself up into the seat. We have been supremely happy with our choice. When I first looked at the Highlander, I thought...it looked a little 'minivan-ish,' but for some reason, now that we own it, I don't feel that way. Could be that the one we looked at in the showroom was in red and we purchased a black Limited, which although it is more difficult to keep clean, is much more sharp looking than red. One last thing, the Highlander has the same engine and was built on the same platform with the same lead engineer as the Lexus RX 300. The Lexus RX 300 has been extremely favorably reviewed in terms of reliability. That was important to us when looking for a car. My other car is a Volvo 850, and that car has had many major things go wrong with it. I wanted something that wouldn't end up in the shop." palmerswanson, "Toyota Highlander vs Toyota 4Runner vs Nissan Pathfinder," #3 of 14, April 16, 2001
"...My experience with the Highlander is that it is a little sluggish at low speeds but really shines as you get the engine wound up. Passing at higher speeds is effortless and a lot of fun. I believe it is geared extremely well, and is far superior to my Explorer V8, which produced 288 foot-pounds of torque at only 3,300 rpm. It was relatively sluggish in fourth gear due to the overdrive ratio. Due to small displacement engines, neither the Explorer nor the Highlander is a good tow vehicle for anything but a small utility trailer. Don't ever believe the manufacturer's tow ratings they are more than optimistic, and really place undue strain on a light-duty vehicle. Each time you drive your HL, thank Toyota for having the foresight to properly gear the drivetrain for your personal enjoyment." sirfile, "Toyota Highlander," #1588 of 2209, April 2, 2001
"I own a black Highlander. It is rather troublesome to keep clean. However, when it's clean, there is no color more beautiful. Looks outstanding with the gold package. Color made all the difference for me. When I first saw the Highlander in gold, I didn't care for it. When I saw the black one I was sold.... I also considered American SUVs vs. the Highlander. As a former Chevy Blazer owner, I prefer the more aggressive looks of the American SUVs (as well as foreign truck-based SUVs). However, the Highlander makes you feel like you're in a luxury SUV. I don't miss the truck feel. I rented a 2002 Explorer on a recent business trip what a joke. I've read all of the articles about how great the ride is; I was not impressed. Since everybody else threw in their one complaint, I'll throw mine in. There is no way Toyota should be selling a $30,000 plus (MSRP) vehicle like the Highlander with no fog lights!" jblaze13, "Toyota Highlander," #2182 of 2209, May 5, 2001
"I joined the proud group of Highlander owners at the end of January. As most of you did, I tried several SUVs (including the Lexus RX) and even all-wheel-drive station wagons, but waited until the HL came out before I bought. I'm glad I did. Never spent this kind of money on a vehicle before, but it is also my third Toyota; and therefore, it was an easy decision. I got the all-wheel-drive V6 model with the Limited package, VSC and a number of other goodies. With nearly 1,500 miles on it, here are my early impressions: Pros: Great car, truck, whatever. 'Toyota Quality' isn't just a pair of strung-together words. Good and comfortable seating throughout. Built for people! Outside mirrors are excellent (providing good visibility around). Controls are intuitive, although somewhat different from previous Toyota experience. While the ride is a little more jiggly than the Camry, it's not unexpected, and the best SUV I've tried. Powerful engine, great brakes. Super sound system (6-CD JBL). And it's got something I hadn't planned for: head-turning potential. I was having supper at a friend's house, and a stranger came to the door to comment on the nice-looking vehicle in the driveway!!! Cons: Well, the lack of center console tops the list. It isn't as bad as I thought it would be but still results in scarce storage for any item more than three inches across. And the front cupholders are not the best. They also are not as bad as I expected, but the insertion of a soda can or a 'Gulp' must be done by the Braille method. No spills yet...." toyotawalt, "Toyota Highlander Owners: Meet the Members," #19 of 100, March 10, 2001
"Just picked up my HL and put on about 150 miles. We purchased a gold two-wheel-drive, four-cylinder with minimal options: daytime running lights, quick order package, color mudguards, power driver seat, carpeted floor mats (not including rear storage area), and alarm system pre-wiring. The price came out to $23,890, and with tax, license and document fees, the total price totaled up to $25,184. I thought that was a price I could live with. I was a little apprehensive of the lack of power that the four-cylinder might present going up the steep mountains here in Hawaii. I was pleasantly surprised. It drove smoothly uphill and I didn't feel like it was underpowered. Of course, I test drove one up the steep mountain road, but I still wasn't quite sure it could keep up with the road conditions. Of course, I don't expect to be carrying a whole bunch of people or things in this car. It's mainly for my wife and little boy. You have to make sure that the overdrive is shut off so it stays in the lower gear. It's funny but I haven't seen any other HL on the road in my area in Honolulu except at the dealers. So far driving the HL has been a very happy and rewarding experience." localboy49, "Toyota Highlander," #1570 of 2209, April 1, 2001
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