As more and more Americans realize that they don't need low-range gearing and a massive V8 to pick the kids up from school, the popularity of the traditional truck-based sport-ute is slowly abating. Waiting in the wings to take up the slack is a new breed of utility vehicle that promises equal parts capability and drivability. Widely labeled as "crossover" sport-utes, these automotive half-breeds retain all the attributes that made sport-utilities so popular in the first place plenty of room for five (or even seven) and their cargo, a high seating position, all terrain capability and blend them with the economy and performance of a sedan. A tall order, for sure, but as we found out during our two-week-long test, a very attainable goal.
Although our comparison includes only three examples of this new class of vehicle, expect to see at least a half dozen more in the near future. As it stands now, however, only Toyota, Subaru and Buick have what we consider to be true crossover sport-utes in this price range. With sticker prices well into the $30,000s, we added the additional label of "entry-level luxury" as well, as all three provide amenity and comfort levels equivalent to many high-end sedans. The competitors consisted of the Toyota Highlander, Buick Rendezvous and Subaru Outback.
Each vehicle was put through our usual battery of performance testing, as well as extensive test drives on both city streets and mountain fire roads. The editors examined and rated each vehicle using a 23-section evaluation sheet as well as picking the 10 features they considered essential for cars in this class. Each editor was also asked which vehicle would be his personal pick, as well as which vehicle he would recommend for the average buyer in the respective category. These scores, combined with additional statistics comparing price and performance, were then thrown into the Edmunds mainframe to compute a winner.
When it comes to vehicles that are attempting to be so many things to so many different buyers, it can be difficult to name one or the other as the best in class. So, although we declare a winner, another member of the trio might be the vehicle that suits you best, so read carefully. And, of course, if none of them seems appealing, just wait a year or two, 'cause there's plenty more on the way.
Third Place - 2002 Buick Rendezvous
Sure, Tiger says it's the greatest thing since metal drivers, but after our two weeks with the Rendezvous, we were more convinced of the power of the endorsement dollar than we were of the Buick's capabilities. Touted as the ultimate combination of sedan luxury, minivan utility and sport-ute capability, the Rendezvous is an admirable first attempt from Buick. But when stacked against the competition, the Rendezvous' sluggish performance, limited ability to mimic a sport-ute and overall lack of refinement kept it from convincing us that it's the ultimate expression of the breed.
Of primary concern is the lethargic performance from the standard 3.4-liter V6. Although rated at a respectable 185 horsepower, this old-tech six-cylinder has trouble motivating the 4,024-pound vehicle. A 0-to-60 mph time of 11.1 seconds was more than two seconds slower than either of its competitors, and this was with a lone test driver on board. Load it up to its seven-passenger capacity, and those times will really get long.
Another Rendezvous weak spot is off-road capability. Buick claims that the Rendezvous possesses the "capability of an SUV," so we decided to find out for ourselves.
Fully aware of the limited rough-terrain ability of the vehicles on hand, our test loop consisted of nothing more than a relatively easy rock-strewn fire road, passable by just about any average car (we know this because we encountered an odd assortment of Geo Metros, Chevy Camaros and otherwise completely non-off-road machines along the way).
On our initial run, the Rendezvous made it all of five minutes down the road before one of its rear tires went down with a puncture. We chalked this up to bad luck and continued on our way in the other vehicles. After replacing the damaged tire with a brand-new one, we again tried to negotiate the same trail; but once again, just a mile or so in, the Rendezvous was halted with yet another flat. Again, this could have been nothing more than pure coincidence, but considering that the six other vehicles along for the ride made it up and down the same road multiple times with no such incidents, we couldn't help but question the Buick's ability to handle anything more than smooth pavement.
This apprehension was bolstered by the fact that for the few short runs we did manage in the Rendezvous, its suspension crashed over bumps and bottomed out more often than any other vehicle on the test. One editor's comment: "I feel like I'm about to break something over every bump, it's hard to believe this is the same road I took so easily in the Toyota and the Subaru."
So the Buick isn't much of a trail runner, not a big deal really, considering what most buyers are looking for in this type of vehicle. To its credit, the Buick's road manners are considerably more enjoyable. Highway cruising yields a comfortable ride quality without the typical "float" associated with most Buick sedans. Push it a little bit harder, however, and the physics of its tall, narrow body take over, resulting in considerably body roll in corners. The steering got mixed reviews, with some calling it "lifeless," while others felt it was well-weighted for a vehicle of its type.
It became apparent that if there was going to be any salvation for the Rendezvous, it was going to have to come from within. As is quite obvious from the outside, the Rendezvous offers an expansive cabin and serious cargo capacity, not to mention the fact that it was the only vehicle in the test to offer seven-passenger seating.
The interior design aims for an elegant, upscale look, and, to a certain degree, it succeeds. Material quality is better than in most GM products, although there are still traces of cost-cutting. The metallic-faced gauges look great, while less obvious items like a high-quality headliner and a thick leather-covered steering wheel add to the luxury ambiance. We were less impressed by some of the cheap-looking plastic pieces covering the dash, and the faux metallic door trim wasn't fooling anybody.
Seat comfort was deemed acceptable by most, but a distinct lack of lateral support, mid-grade leather and hard halo-type headrests render it a step below those in the Subaru and Toyota. We liked the well-positioned radio controls that sit high in the dash for easy adjustment, and the optional dual-zone climate control system is simple to use and free from excessive button clutter. Storage space up front is best-in-class, with a huge reconfigurable console, well placed netted map pockets and two large cupholders right where you need them.
In addition to the Rendezvous' optional third-row seat, buyers can also choose to upgrade the second row from a 50/50 split bench to a set of individual captain's chairs. Comfort with our test vehicle's standard bench was deemed about average better than the Subaru, but still below the Highlander. Head and shoulder room are generous, but footroom is tight and the seats don't recline for more space.
Buick claims that the third-row seat can accommodate two 95th-percentile adult males comfortably. We're not sure what population they sampled, but our less scientific tests indicated that if you're an adult male on this planet, you'd better call shotgun. Small kids won't mind the tight confines, however, and the three-point seatbelts will hold them in securely.
Without a full house aboard, both the second- and third-row seats can be folded to give the Rendezvous an impressive 109 cubic feet of available cargo space. The low liftover height at the rear makes for easy loading, but the third-row seatbacks don't fold completely flat, causing anything resting on top of them to slide rearward upon acceleration. Another major gripe is the fact that there's no outside release latch on the liftgate, forcing you to use either the dash-mounted button or the key fob. How the Rendezvous can offer something as sophisticated as a bumper-mounted sonar parking system, yet fail to incorporate something as simple as a door latch is beyond us.
Speaking of bumper-mounted sonar, the Rendezvous was the only vehicle in this class to offer this highly useful feature. Not only does it make parallel parking a snap, it provides an extra measure of security around small children who might wander unseen behind the vehicle. Front and side airbags are standard for both the driver and front passenger, and the Rendezvous received an "Acceptable" rating (second highest) in the IIHS front impact crash test.
Coming in at about $32,000, our Rendezvous tester wasn't cheap. The extra dough added nice touches like leather seating and the third-row seat, but that couldn't make up for its cumbersome driving dynamics and overtaxed engine.
Two weeks in the Rendezvous led us to the conclusion that while it may incorporate certain aspects of luxury cars, minivans and sport-utility vehicles, at no time does it provide an adequate substitute for any one of the three. It doesn't handle as well as a car, it has less room than a minivan, and the only capability of a sport-utility it has is all-wheel drive a feature that can be found on any number of sedans and/or minivans. Unless you absolutely have to have seven-passenger capacity, stick with the quicker, better handling and more refined vehicles offered by the competition.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
I wasn't as harsh on the Buick as some of my colleagues. Yes, it had some hard plastic trim, but it also had an accommodating cabin in terms of room and comfort. And GM's superb automatic transmission makes the most of the V6's available power; the Rendezvous felt more peppy than the Outback, which has 27 more horsepower. I have to ding the Buick for getting two flats when we attempted to go off-road with it. Of course, different tires would help in this area, but they won't do much for the way the suspension handles (or rather, doesn't handle) harsh impacts. When we finally did tackle the rock-strewn and chuckholed part of our loop, the Rendezvous responded with the suspension crashing over the more severe impacts, sending a jolt to the cabin in the process. I found this the biggest problem with the Buick, and although most folks won't venture away from the blacktop, these vehicles are still meant to allow one to get off the beaten path occasionally. Perhaps Buick should spend some money on a European suspension engineer rather than Tiger Woods.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
You meet someone, you have a little fun, and hopefully a few months later something comes out that you hope won't cause too much grief in the world. I'm sure that's what GM had anticipated when engineers cross-bred an SUV, a luxury sedan and a minivan. Unfortunately, sometimes it turns out to be less than you had expected. I mean I'm sure that Mr. and Mrs. Rock had high hopes for Kid, and look how he turned out.
Same goes for the Rendezvous. I think GM had good intentions, but ultimately the package fails to deliver on key attributes of this vehicle. In order to boast SUV aspirations, a car must have some modicum of off-road ability. Even putting aside the two blown tires mishap, the Rendezvous crashed and jittered all along our dirt road course. In order to brag that it handles like a car, it must keep its body movements to a minimum. The Buick jiggled and waddled, plus the lackluster engine does little to scoot the porker of a vehicle. In order to claim minivan spaciousness, you've got to have a minivan's cargo capacity. While the Buick's 108-cubic-feet cargo area beats those of the other crossovers, it's a far cry from the mini-minivan Mazda MPV's 127 cubic feet, let alone the Honda Odyssey's 146 cubic feet. If you're looking for a vehicle that needs to be proficient in any of the above categories, look elsewhere.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
The minivan-based Rendezvous drives like a minivan and not a very spectacular minivan at that. When driven conservatively, it rides comfortably and handles adequately. Try to push it even a little, and its body rolls and wallows and its large steering wheel offers few hints about what might be happening to its meek Firestone Affinity tires. When taken on a light-duty off-road trail, the Buick's suspension seemed to bottom out over every rut. The powertrain is the probably the best part of the driving experience: Although the 3.4-liter V6 sounds unrefined and must dig deep into the tach for passing power, it's matched with a responsive four-speed automatic that makes the most of its reserves while helping it achieve good fuel economy.
Inside, the Buick is outfitted with flat, unsupportive seats; features like height-adjustable outboard belts for second-row passengers and easy access to the third row via the fold-slide-and-flip second-row seats somewhat atone for the marginal comfort levels. In order to make the Rendezvous distinctive, designers apparently thought it necessary to adopt a tri-color scheme with additional faux metal and turquoise accents while others found it a bit much (particularly with our test vehicle's orangey hues), I rather warmed to it. Interior materials are ostensibly higher in quality than those of almost any other General Motors product I consider the woven synthetic headliner and sunvisors a triumph. Except for the silly rearview mirror-mounted front reading lights, all of the controls and instrumentation are easy to use, and there is an extraordinary amount of storage space.
For the money you'll pay, the Rendezvous offers a great deal of functionality for a large family living in the suburbs, but you'll only enjoy this as long as you don't mind its lumbering personality, awkward exterior proportions and aversion to anything more rugged than an icy driveway.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Buick Rendezvous
Ranking in Stereo Test: First
System Score: 9.0
Components: This system is similar, though not identical, to the one we listened to when we road-tested the Rendezvous several months back. It begins with a feature-laden head unit. In addition to Traffic, Random, Song List, RDS and the like, it boasts eight different preset EQ curves (Rock, Pop, Classical, Jazz and the like.) and even has one curve called Custom where you can save your own customized setting. Luckily, these features are ensconced in a newly redesigned head unit, which we find much improved over the earlier one. That GM head, which we first saw in 2001 in a Pontiac Montana minivan, had some strange design cues, such as two dials (volume and tuning) on the same side of the faceplate. This one is much more logically laid out and, despite all the features, easy to use. The Rendezvous also has excellent satellite steering wheel controls. Without lifting your hands from the steering wheel, you can control the following functions: seek/scan, AM/FM/source, mute, volume up/down.
They've also upgraded the speakers in the Rendezvous. Speaker locations include a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers in the front doors, coupled to a pair of 1-inch dome tweeters above. The rear doors each house a 6.5-inch full-range speaker. The piece de resistance here, though, are the dual 6-by-9 subwoofers, which grace the rear quarter-panels. These speakers introduce a welcome raucousness to this vehicle, a rowdiness that blows away any preconceptions of a Buick being "your dad's car." Nope, this is no longer your dad's Buick, nor anyone else's in his age range. This is a party system.
Performance: This thing really plays loud. Thanks to the rear-mounted subs, bass is thumpy and strong, highs are soaring and clear, and overall, the setup is a good party system. The designers of this system have intentionally trumped up the highs and lows, artificially accentuating boom and sizzle to please young ears. It's enough to roast your eardrums and make your eyeballs bleed and furthermore, your grandpa would not be pleased.
Best Feature: Dual 6-by-9 subs.
Worst Feature: Overly busy head unit.
Conclusion: With youth-oriented Buicks, can skateboards for the elderly be far behind? With Oldsmobile already gone, and Buick and Cadillac fighting for new prospects, GM has begun targeting younger customers. The sound system in this Buick Rendezvous may go some distance toward dispelling the myth that Buicks are exclusively for the Geritol set. It's a real rocker. Scott Memmer
Second Place - 2002 Subaru Outback
With its car-like drivability, classy but functional interior, and first-rate build quality, the Outback wasn't too far behind the Highlander when all was said and done. It tackles rough terrain with verve, has a well-controlled and comfortable ride on the pavement and boasts a long list of standard luxury features. If not for a drivetrain that failed to meet our expectations and a cabin that, while well-trimmed and well-assembled, lacks space compared to its competitors, the Outback might have given the Highlander more of a run for its money.
Our test vehicle was a top-of-the-line Outback H6 3.0 VDC wagon with a sticker price of $32,420. In plain English, this means an Outback wagon (an upgraded version of the standard Legacy) powered by a 3.0-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine watched over by Subaru's Vehicle Dynamics Control stability system. With 212 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque, the H6 engine places the Outback just below the Highlander on the power scale; although, it surpasses the Toyota in efficiency, with EPA mileage ratings of 20 city/26 highway (18/22 for the Toyota). The VDC system integrates the Outback's standard all-wheel drive with electronic stability and traction control for the ultimate in handling and control in the most adverse situations.
Although the Outback's power numbers nearly match those of the Toyota, in real-world driving, the Subaru's H6 falls short when it comes to usable power. Nearly every editor commented on the Outback's lack of low-end thrust, remarking that while it eventually wakes up nicely above 4,000 rpm, it's pretty much asleep until then. More generous comments were directed toward the engine's smooth power delivery and quiet operation, both of which are about on par with the Toyota.
Another sore spot is the standard four-speed automatic transmission. Shift response is abysmally slow, making the already soft engine feel that much more underpowered. We often resorted to manual shifting to keep the engine in its lofty sweet spot, but the gated shifter made even that last resort somewhat of a chore. In typical day-to-day driving, it's easy to overlook the transmission's laziness, as it does provide seamless transitions from gear to gear, but when you need that extra power for passing or merging, the Outback's drivetrain leaves much to be desired.
The suspension, on the other hand, suffers from no such deficiencies. On the street, the fully independent setup delivers a ride described as "plush" and even "Lexus-like" while maintaining a reassuring feel for the road. Body roll is moderate in the corners, but unlike the Highlander and Rendezvous, the Outback transitions quickly from one turn to the next, giving it a much more nimble feel than its more sizable competitors'. Most thought the steering could use a little more heft, but for the average driver, the light weighting only adds to the car's feeling of agility.
To no one's surprise, the Outback felt right at home in the dirt. Whereas the Highlander and the Buick merely survive the rough stuff, the Subaru thrives on it. It hardly never bottomed out thanks to a long-travel suspension and nearly 8 inches of ground clearance, while its small stature made it easy to place on the trail. The VDC system rarely intruded, allowing enough leeway to have some fun, while maintaining perfect traction and control. If you're thinking about buying a crossover vehicle because you like the idea of having at least a little off-road ability with your station wagon, the Outback is the one you want.
Cabin aesthetics have never been one of Subaru's strong points, but substantial improvements over the past few years in both design and material quality have turned the Outback into a legitimate entry-level-luxury contender. The wood trim is convincing, the leather is supple, and there's plenty of soft-touch material where it's needed. The classic dial gauges are large and easy-to-read, and the automatic climate control system keeps it simple with a minimum of buttons. The standard Momo leather and wood steering wheel feels great in your hands, while the front buckets tied for first with the Toyota in the seat-comfort category.
On the flip side, the Outback's rear accommodations are easily the worst of the three. Small doors make for difficult entry and exit, and legroom and headroom are considerably lacking for normal-sized adults. One editor went so far as to say, "This should really only be considered a four-person vehicle, as wedging three people in back would be seriously uncomfortable."
Loading cargo in the Outback's hindquarters is a snap thanks to a low liftover height and a wide rear opening. The cargo bay itself is lined with a hard rubber mat with side ridges high enough to contain messy liquid spills or that can be easily pulled out for carrying more delicate items. The second-row seats fold easily to create 68.6 cubic feet of total cargo space, although they don't lay completely flat so items tend to slide toward the rear.
After weeks of testing, it became clear that the Outback isn't really a lesser version of the Highlander as much as it is an alternative to it. In return for the smaller cabin and less cargo space, you get a more car-like feel and an easier-to-maneuver package. The engine makes almost as much power, but it feels completely different on the road. If you only need something big enough for four people and all-weather/all-road capability is a major factor, the Outback is probably a better bet. But if you're looking for something more along the lines of a family car alternative with all-wheel drive, the Highlander offers a more practical overall package.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
How is it that an engine with more than 200 horsepower fails to deliver lively performance? A pudgy body and an uncooperative transmission. The Subie's tranny had to be one of the slowest-thinking and -acting slushboxes I've experienced. It just sucked the life out of the engine with its lazy reflexes. This top-of-the-line Outback does have everything standard, including stability control and heated seats. I like Subarus, but I was disappointed with this Outback DeLuxe. Like the Audi allroad, I think this wagon is too pricey to compete in a segment where more functionality is available for the same money. Factor in the tepid performance and I'm looking elsewhere.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The Subaru Outback is one of the OGs of the crossover breed; the H6-3.0 VDC makes refinements to a good idea. The Sube showed remarkable equanimity on the dirt road trail that had enough bumps to crash out several vehicles with higher ground clearances while it handles like an ordinary station wagon.
However, Subarus are known for their pecuniary appeal; one may have a hard time digesting a $30,000+ Outback. While the interior is outfitted with leather and has an overall upscale look to it, some important bits like side curtain airbags and a six-disc in-dash changer are missing. And the McIntosh stereo? Cool looking but ridiculous to operate. Plus, the powertrain needs more fine-tuning; the transmission was as phlegmatic as the engine was, resulting in a leisurely ride even when the accelerator was stomped. It was hard to believe that the H6 makes more than 200 horsepower. The Outback is a good package; Toyota makes a better one.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
While the Subaru wouldn't be my top recommendation to a crossover buyer, it's probably the one I would choose for myself if I felt that I was worthy and needy of a crossover. What's so likeable about it? Well, even though its overly tame suspension and steering are clearly intended for a softer sort of buyer than any member of the Impreza family, the Outback won't mind too much if you decide to give it a workout on a canyon road and when taken into the dirt, it knows exactly what to do. Of course it doesn't have enough ground clearance to be a serious off-roader, but with this amount of suspension travel, you can still have lots of fun on sandy trails.
But what if you just want a heavy-duty wagon to drive around town and on road trips with your spouse, three growing kids and dog? Well, in that case the Outback might not satisfy. For one thing, the H6 engine doesn't feel as powerful as perhaps it should. Also, the backseat is petite compared with the accommodations in the Toyota and the Buick and I concluded that these quarters were best for two adult-sized passengers or three small children.
Finally, you might not like the packaging: If you want the H6 engine and stability control (VDC) with your all-wheel-drive wagon, you're forced into this leather- and wood-trimmed specimen that stickers at 32 grand still less than a fully loaded Highlander but maybe not a bargain if you feel as though you've already compromised on power and interior room. But then again, you might be swayed by the Outback's tight construction (no rattles in our test car) and great fuel economy (best in the group).
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Subaru Outback
Ranking in Stereo Test: Tied for second.
System Score: 6.0
Components: Anyone who's been around the home audio business for any stretch in the last 50 years would recognize the name McIntosh. This American manufacturer is a stalwart in audiophile circles, producing high-fidelity components for the home dating back to the 1950s. Along with Marantz and a few other names, the McIntosh logo carries a cachet that few companies can rival. What is less known, though, is that McIntosh was purchased a decade ago by Clarion Corporation, a large Japanese multinational that is a major player in the car audio business. Since then, various car audio permutations have come to market utilizing the McIntosh name, the latest wrinkle being McIntosh-branded stereo systems in Subaru vehicles. If you're as puzzled by this as we are, we understand.
Let's get right to it: A Subaru customer is not a McIntosh customer at least, not in any market research we can conjure. McIntosh home audio components have always been targeted toward the well-moneyed set, the very upper crust, the kind of individual Shakespeare described in As You Like It as "In fair round belly with good capon lined/With eyes severe and beard of formal cut." Does this sound like your typical Subaru customer? It doesn't to us, either.
What Subaru has attempted to do here is take a standard Clarion radio, slap a McIntosh name and faceplate onto it, and pass it off as an audiophile system. The problem is, it doesn't sound like an audiophile system, or anything close to it. Unlike the Lexus/Mark-Levinson collaboration the most successful such alliance to date which took a particular vehicle and designed and engineered a set of components from the ground up, this system appears to be McIntosh in name only, added on rather than engineered in.
The system begins with the aforementioned McIntosh faceplate, which mimics, in miniature, the cosmetics found on McIntosh home components. The problem here is two-fold: one, the radio cosmetics clash with the rest of the interior; and, two, McIntosh cosmetics haven't changed in 50 years. While this may look okay in your study, it's less attractive in your dashboard. The radio has chrome dials and vertical chrome trim, set against smoky black plastic. Trust us, it's not as attractive as it sounds. Rather than looking classy and high-toned, the cosmetics come off as cheap and cheesy-looking. On the plus side, the radio is feature-laden and very competitive. In addition to a cassette player and a single-disc in-dash CD player (a six-disc in-dash is available as an option), the head unit also boasts round dials for both volume and tuning, as well as excellent pop-out dials with center detenting for bass and treble. Very nicely executed. Some of this user-friendliness is undone by the radio's low position in the dash. And there are also no steering wheel controls for the stereo in this vehicle.
Things get better on the speaker side of the equation. Starting with a generous 6-by-9-inch subwoofer in the passenger-side rear quarter-panel, the Outback also offers a separate tweeter-mid-bass combo in the front doors (6.5-inch mid-woofs below, with 1-inch tweets above), as well as 6.5-inch full-range speakers in the rear doors.
Performance: This is a good, but not a great, sounding system. We found a solid, punchy attack on percussion and fine definition in the mids. We also thought the high end sounded crystal clear. However, certain instruments, such as horns, sounded boxy and thin, with a nasally, reedy quality. And the amplifier, while powerful, began to clip at about two-thirds gain, meaning you're getting nothing much but distortion above that point.
Best Feature: Generous speaker array.
Worst Feature: Funky head unit design.
Conclusion: While we admire the attempt, the Subaru engineers should go back to the drawing room on this one. We would contend that a McIntosh customer is not a Subaru customer. Scott Memmer
First Place - 2002 Toyota Highlander
We can almost hear the uproar already. The Highlander comes home with an overwhelming first place victory in our entry-level comparison test, while its cousin, the Lexus RX 300, comes in last in our luxury crossover test. While this might seem like contradictory recommendations, it boils down to two different vehicles with two very different sets of competitors and customer expectations.
The Highlander earned top honors for displaying a near-perfect blend of practicality and refinement in a functional, easy-to-drive SUV alternative. From the tall stance to the silky drivetrain to the cavernous interior, the Highlander is exactly what a crossover vehicle should be.
At $35,444, our loaded four-wheel-drive V6 Limited was by far the most expensive vehicle of the group, but a more carefully selected options sheet will yield a bottom line that more closely resembles its competitors. And if paying more than 30 grand is still too much to stomach and you can get by with front-wheel drive and considerably less horsepower, the base Highlander starts in the mid-20s.
Built on the same platform as the last-generation Camry, the Highlander shares much of its cousin's easy-to-drive character. Even with its significantly larger body, you rarely feel like you're piloting an oversize sport-ute. Light steering makes it easy to maneuver in tight spots, but at higher speeds, there's a distinct lack of road feel. The elevated seating position and large side mirrors give drivers outstanding visibility in all directions.
A fully independent suspension delivers an excellent combination of comfort and control; although, like the Camry, it favors ride quality over handling. Slicing through the slalom course at 60 mph, it trailed the first place Subaru (60.3 mph) by only the slimmest of margins, proving that, when pushed hard, it can deliver surprisingly competent handling.
This was backed up during our street drives, with most editors noting that while it does exhibit substantial body roll, the Highlander always feels stable and predictable. Our off-road test loop was the only time the Highlander's suspension felt overmatched, as it bottomed out easily and was sloppy over heavily rutted surfaces.
The Highlander's drivetrain proved hard to beat, as nearly every editor gave both the engine and transmission top scores. Our test vehicle was equipped with the top-of-the-line 3.0-liter V6 rated at 220 horsepower and 222 lb-ft of torque. Ultra smooth and extremely quiet, this V6 delivers plenty of power at low- and mid-range rpm levels where it's needed most. In comparison, the Subaru's performance numbers were slightly better, but with most of its power coming on at high rpm, it doesn't feel as strong in day-to-day driving.
An electronically controlled four-speed automatic is the only transmission offered on the Highlander, and we see no reason why you would want anything else. Shifts are smooth, quick and rarely ill-timed. The placement of the shifter in the center of the dash seems a little odd at first, but we quickly warmed up to its easy-to-reach placement. The optional full-time four-wheel-drive system requires no driver input, splitting power between the front and rear wheels in a 50/50 split under normal conditions. If traction is lost at either end, a viscous coupling redistributes the power to the wheels with the most grip. We never experienced any noticeable losses of traction during our relatively easy off-road excursion, so, to the best of our knowledge, the system works seamlessly.
Brake testing yielded average results for a vehicle of this type, with the shortest distance from 60 to 0 coming in at 131 feet, slightly longer than the quick-stopping Subaru. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) are standard on all models. Pedal feel was excellent, with one editor calling them "practically perfect." Our test car also came equipped with the optional Vehicle Skid Control (VSC) stability system for an added measure of safety. Although a little too intrusive for our tastes, the VSC certainly works as advertised, keeping the Highlander pointed in the right direction even in the most adverse handling situations. In crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the Highlander received a rating of "good," the highest possible.
Inside, the Highlander racked up points for its spacious cabin, high-quality materials and simple yet elegant design. Our heavily optioned test model wore so much leather and fake wood trim that it almost looked as good as the Lexus. Clearly defined gauges and a well sorted control layout make you feel right at home the minute you sit down. Articulating headrests, firm side bolsters and a fold-down armrest earned top marks for the driver seat, but we were a little disappointed that the passenger still had to make do with manual controls, considering the vehicle's lofty price tag.
We were also a bit taken aback by the number of squeaks and rattles that permeated the interior of our test car. With Toyota's reputation for exceptional build quality, we often dismiss less-than-perfect test cars as exceptions to the rule, but as this was roughly the third Toyota in a row that displayed less-than-perfect build quality, we're starting to wonder if the reputation has begun to outpace the workmanship.
Rear-seat accommodations would be hard to improve upon. There's plenty of legroom and headroom, dual cupholders in each of the doors and high seatbacks with headrests for all three passengers. The 60/40-split folding seats can be laid flat by lifting just one latch, expanding the rear cargo area to 81 cubic feet better than the Subaru, considerably less than the Buick. The load floor was the flattest of the group, although the rear wheelwells intrude on the space considerably. The tailgate opens wide, and the liftover is low, but the lack of a separate liftglass prohibits transporting longer items.
There are very few reasons not to like the Highlander. It's easy to drive and quiet, and the cabin is attractive and spacious. Sure, maybe the styling isn't the most daring, but Country Squires weren't exactly the epitome of style in their day, either. If you're shopping for a family vehicle and thinking about a midsize SUV, check out the Highlander instead. It will get you and your family everywhere they need to go, and spare car lovers the burden of sharing the roadway with yet another oversize sport-ute in the process.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
If you like the way the Lexus RX 300 drives but want to save some money, buy the Highlander. These two vehicles share drivetrain components, and if you opt for the Highlander Limited, you won't want for luxury. Driving impressions mirror those of the Lexus: an isolated but (mostly) refined experience. The Highlander did exhibit something uncharacteristic of a Toyota or Lexus a number of rattles when bumping around on the trail were an unwelcome surprise that lowered my perception of the vehicle's build quality. Since this was atypical and this Highlander test vehicle had seen a fair amount of tough miles, I won't hold it against Toyota.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
What a well-rounded vehicle! From its smooth-shifting tranny to the utterly competent suspension, the drivetrain leaves little to be desired. All 220 horses routed through the smart tranny work hard to keep the Highlander moving. The suspension appeals to me because of its smooth yet controlled road manners and enough wheel travel to iron out rutted roads.
Inside, the leather feels premium, as does the switchgear, as well as the structure, evidenced by the substantial sound of the door and rear hatch closing. Neither the Subaru nor the Buick comes close in the arena of feature content, although the Highlander's price can grow alarmingly high when too many options are checked.
The too-aggressive grille will attract detractors, but overall, the Highlander offers a highly sensible compromise to a premium brand. So why are you buying that Lexus RX 300 again?
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Although our test vehicle's 35K price tag certainly doesn't indicate it, the Highlander (especially in base trim) offers the best value in the group for the target crossover buyer which I've gone ahead and defined as the family who really only needs five seating positions, a generous cargo hold and all-weather capability for occasional snow and ice during the winter months. During testing, I didn't find the Highlander to be the ultimate people mover, nor could it be considered the consummate off-roader. But it was the most comfortable, capable vehicle for the everyday travels of the family above.
The Toyota's ultra-smooth V6 offers a reasonable supply of power and acceptable fuel economy (at least as sport-utilities go) in almost all situations. The Highlander's ride and handling characteristics really aren't far off from a Camry's, as it delivers a pleasant ride in suburbia and on the highway; rolls predictably around corners; steers lightly but accurately and wouldn't be anyone's first pick for an aggressive run on a two-lane road.
It's a good choice for the crossover shopper though I would encourage any budget-conscious family to skip the Limited trim and expensive options like leather upholstery and the sunroof.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Toyota Highlander
Ranking in Stereo Test: Tied for second.
System Score: 6.0
Components: This JBL-designed sound system begins with a standard-issue Toyota head unit. Toyota went to this new head unit design in the 2001 model year 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 comes with two large circular knobs, one for volume and the other 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 sonic flexibility (almost like having a built-in graphic equalizer). There are no steering wheel controls in this system.
Speaker locations include a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, plus a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers in the front doors coupled to a pair of 1-inch tweeters above.
Performance: This system plays really loud. There's a cranking amp hidden somewhere inside here. Highlights include a very boomy bass, which we found slightly muddy and diffuse, and tweeters that are extremely bright and brassy. Many consumers actually prefer this kind of sound (if you're one of those who turns the bass and treble all the way up before you buckle your seatbelt, then this one's for you.) We don't, but that's us. You'll probably like it. And it does play plenty loud.
Best Feature: User-friendly head unit.
Worst Feature: Lack of sonic accuracy.
Conclusion: If you prefer your music with a lot of snap, crackle and pop, then this one's right up your alley. If, on the other hand, you lean toward softer listening, you might be a little put off by the overly aggressive nature of this system. Either way, it represents a good value for most consumers. Scott Memmer
Like we said in the beginning, there is no "perfect" crossover vehicle. The process of combining multiple vehicles into one all-encompassing wondercar is not an exact science. At some point along the way, compromises have to be made, and the extent to which those compromises affect the final product largely depends on what the manufacturer had in mind to begin with.
The Highlander is really nothing more than a traditional station wagon in design, but by adding the elevated ride height, a slightly larger size and four-wheel-drive, it offers SUV-like attributes without straying too far from its Camry roots. The result is an easy-to-drive practical utility vehicle with few, if any, drawbacks. If your family numbers five or less, we can't imagine needing much more than the Highlander.
On a slightly smaller scale, the Subaru also sticks with the station wagon configuration, while adding surprisingly capable all-terrain performance in a compact package. If you don't need a large vehicle, and off-road and/or four weather ability is of primary concern, the Outback is an appealing setup.
Although there wasn't much to rave about with the Rendezvous, it certainly has its place within this category. As it's the only vehicle to offer seven-passenger capacity, larger families might find this vehicle ideal. And since real off-road ability isn't much of a concern to most owners, our unfortunate luck shouldn't completely deter those who might otherwise appreciate the practicality that the Rendezvous provides.
When you're dealing with crossovers, it all comes down to deciding exactly what it is you're looking for. The Highlander represents what we consider the best of the breed for now. Within two years, there will be a significant number of newcomers to the segment, all with their own ideas of what constitutes the best mix of utility and performance. If you want something now, the Toyota is about as good as it gets, but should you decide to wait awhile, the chances of finding that "perfect" crossover only stand to get better.