Full 2008 Toyota Highlander Review
What's New for 2008
Toyota's midsize SUV is fully redesigned for 2008. Significantly larger than the original, the 2008 Highlander features a standard V6 engine and a habitable third-row seat.
At the dawn of the 21st century, while other automotive manufacturers were reveling in the profitability of sport-utility vehicles, Toyota was looking ahead. The company foresaw a day when consumers would no longer have patience for the poor fuel economy and sloppy handling of traditional SUVs and would instead turn to more refined vehicles that offered SUV-like convenience combined with a carlike driving demeanor. That kind of thinking resulted in the original Toyota Highlander. Not only was it an immediate hit with families, it served as the template for many of the rival midsize crossover SUVs that followed it. After seven years, though, the Highlander had begun to show its age, particularly in the cabin, which was cramped by current class standards. Accordingly, the 2008 Toyota Highlander benefits from a top-to-bottom redesign.
The first thing you'll notice about the second-generation Highlander is its increased size. Built on the same platform as the current-generation Camry, the new SUV is longer, wider and taller than its predecessor. Gains in shoulder room, hiproom and legroom are substantial in the first two rows, and you feel them as soon as you get inside this crossover SUV. You'll also see a difference when it comes time to load up groceries. Maximum cargo capacity has ballooned from 81.6 cubic feet to 95.4, and for the first time, a power liftgate is available as an option.
Third-row seat dimensions haven't changed much on paper, but in the real world, the Highlander's rearmost seat is much more usable than it was before. Partly, it's due to improved access, as the second-row outboard seats are easier to scoot out of the way. Alternatively, you can just walk through the center aisle to get to the third row. The middle section of any '08 Highlander's 40/20/40 second-row bench can be folded away into its own cubby, leaving you with a pair of captain's chairs -- just like in a minivan. Toyota calls this handy innovation "Center Stow."
A couple extra hundred pounds of curb weight is a consequence of the new Highlander's added utility and size, so Toyota has discontinued the base four-cylinder engine. Instead, all 2008 Toyota Highlanders come with a 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, the same engine Toyota makes optional in the Camry and RAV4. This puts Toyota's midsize crossover right in line with key rivals like the Buick Enclave/GMC Acadia/Saturn Outlook triplets (275 hp), Mazda CX-9 (270 hp for '08) and Hyundai Veracruz (260 hp), while giving it an advantage over its traditional adversary, the aging Honda Pilot (244 hp).
All of these vehicles are worth considering if you're shopping for a practical, easy-to-drive family vehicle with three rows of seating. Larger families will prefer the added space of GM's crossovers or the CX-9, but for medium-size families who already liked the Highlander's combination of convenience, economy and out-and-out refinement, the 2008 model should prove quite desirable.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2008 Toyota Highlander is a midsize crossover SUV with seven-passenger capacity. Toyota sells it in three trim levels -- base, Sport and Limited -- all of which are available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (AWD).
Base Highlanders start you out with 17-inch alloy wheels, privacy glass, a fold-flat third-row seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, air-conditioning, a CD stereo with an auxiliary input jack and full power accessories. Stepping up to the Sport provides 19-inch wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, a flip-up rear hatch window, a 3.5-inch information display screen, a back-up camera, an in-dash CD changer (with MP3/WMA capability), upgraded seat fabric, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and one-touch folding capability for the second-row seats. The Highlander Limited also wears 19-inch wheels, but its suspension tuning is softer than the Sport's. In addition, the Limited is fitted with power-folding/heated outside mirrors, an auto-dimming inside mirror, leather upholstery, a 10-way power driver seat, dual-zone automatic climate control (for the front seat), keyless start and wood-grain interior trim.
A manual rear air-conditioner is available on base and Sport models, while Limited models offer optional automatic climate control for the rear seats. Base and Sport buyers can also choose to delete the third-row seat (dropping passenger capacity to five) for a price credit. Other options of note on the Toyota Highlander include a sunroof, a power liftgate, heated front seats, a rear DVD entertainment system and towing preparation. The premium-grade JBL sound system supplies Bluetooth connectivity and increases the speaker count from six to nine, but its in-dash changer maxes out at four CDs instead of the usual six. The available navigation system can only be ordered in conjunction with the JBL audio upgrade.
Powertrains and Performance
Every 2008 Toyota Highlander comes with a 3.5-liter V6 rated for 270 hp and 248 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed automatic transmission is standard, and 87 octane fuel is all that's required. Even under the more stringent 2008 fuel economy ratings system, the Highlander's mpg estimates are better than average: Front-wheel-drive models carry an 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway rating, while AWD models rate 17/23. Notably, these numbers are higher than the '08 ratings on GM's crossover SUVs, as well as the CX-9 and the Pilot. Towing capacity is a respectable 5,000 pounds when properly equipped.
All major safety equipment is standard on the Toyota Highlander, including antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, and hill-start assist (which keeps the vehicle from rolling back when starting on uphill grades). All-wheel-drive models also come with a downhill assist feature to enable slow, controlled descents down snow-covered driveways. Airbag coverage includes front-seat side airbags, three-row curtain airbags and a driver's knee airbag. In frontal-offset crash testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the '08 Highlander earned the top rating of "Good."
Interior Design and Special Features
Larger and taller adults will find the '08 Highlander's interior more accommodating than in past years, as the first- and second-row seats have grown noticeably in all directions. At the same time, the control layout remains simple and easy to understand, and interior materials quality is high.
The Highlander's third-row legroom still falls short of the Acadia/Outlook and CX-9, but getting into the third row is much easier this year thanks to the second-row seats' improved fold/slide mechanisms. Just as useful is the new "Center Stow" feature, which allows owners to easily stow the center section of the 40/20/40 second-row bench seat, thus providing walk-through access to the third row. The "20" section simply slides into its own cubby under the front-seat center console, and the operation is so simple, the 6-year-old child of one of our editors had it mastered within minutes.
Cargo space remains scant when all three rows are in use, as there are just over 10 cubic feet. Folding the third row yields 42 cubes, though, and with the second row down, there are a healthy 95.4 cubic feet -- still short of the Mazda and GM crossovers, but otherwise a good figure for this class. Our only complaint is that the third-row seat folds as a single piece rather than offering a 50/50 split, thus limiting your options when you have a mix of passengers and cargo to carry.
Although the redesigned Highlander is considerably larger and heavier than before, it's still easier to drive than most midsize SUVs, even those of the crossover variety. Visibility is excellent and the steering is light enough to make it easy to maneuver in tight spaces. The now standard V6 delivers strong, smooth acceleration in any situation. The ride quality of all 2008 Toyota Highlanders still leans toward the soft side, but choosing the Sport trim level does get you more tightly controlled body motions without resorting to a harsh ride.