Full 2009 Toyota Highlander Review
What's New for 2009
Toyota offers a four-cylinder version of the Highlander for 2009, but only on the base two-wheel-drive version of this popular crossover.
Boasting midsize SUV versatility without the attendant poor fuel mileage and trucklike handling and ride, the 2009 Toyota Highlander exemplifies the virtues of a now-flourishing vehicle breed -- the crossover SUV. When the first-generation Highlander debuted nearly a decade ago, it was a trailblazer in this segment, demonstrating that a vehicle could look and function like an SUV without driving like one. Today, the second-generation Highlander is in its sophomore year of production, and it's just one of many highly competent crossovers on the market. It remains one of the best, though, thanks to its flexible and ergonomically sound interior, secure handling and forceful yet frugal V6.
For 2009, the Toyota Highlander stands pat with the exception of a new four-cylinder version being offered in base two-wheel-drive trim. As such, most new Highlanders will still be fitted with Toyota's superb 3.5-liter V6 that is doubly blessed with impressive output (270 horsepower) and higher-than-average fuel economy. Inside, the Highlander continues to offer useful features such as Center Stow, which allows easy stowage of the center section of the 40/20/40 second-row bench seat, thus providing walk-through access to the third row.
As good as it is, the Highlander now competes in a segment that is awash with many strong candidates. General Motors' Lambda-platform quadruplets (Buick Enclave/Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia/Saturn Outlook), Hyundai's Veracruz and Mazda's CX-9 are all excellent choices. The Highlander isn't quite as cavernous inside as the GM crossovers, so it might not be the best choice for bigger families. However, if you don't have five kids who could stand in for the New England Patriots' defensive line, and you find the Toyota's all-around versatility appealing, the refined and relatively economical 2009 Toyota Highlander is hard to top.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2009 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).
The base version comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, privacy glass, a fold-flat third-row seat (which can be deleted for a credit), 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, automatic headlights, foglights, 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 power driver seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and one-touch folding capability for the second-row seats.
Like the Sport, the Highlander Limited wears 19-inch wheels but goes with softer suspension tuning and adds more luxury in the form of power-folding and heated outside mirrors, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, leather upholstery, a power passenger seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless entry and ignition and wood-grain interior trim.
Options include a rear air-conditioner for base and Sport models, automatic rear climate control for Limited models, a power 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 2009 Toyota Highlander except the base front-wheel-drive version comes with a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 270 hp and 248 pound-feet of torque. Front-wheel drive is standard, and all-wheel drive is optional on all but the base four-cylinder model. A five-speed automatic transmission is standard, and regular 87-octane fuel is all that's required. The new 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is not exactly a slouch, cranking out 187 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque, and it's matched to a six-speed automatic to optimize performance and fuel economy. At our test track, a Highlander Limited V6 AWD sprinted from zero to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds, making it one of the quickest vehicles in its segment. Properly equipped, the V6-powered Highlander can tow 5,000 pounds, a respectable figure for this segment.
With the V6, the front-drive Highlander's fuel mileage stands at 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined; an AWD V6 version rates 1 mpg less across the board. As of this writing, estimates for the four-cylinder Highlander were not yet available.
All expected safety equipment is standard on the Toyota Highlander, including antilock disc brakes, stability control and hill-start assist (which keeps the vehicle from rolling backward when starting on uphill grades). All-wheel-drive models come with a downhill assist feature to enable slow, controlled descents down snow-covered driveways. Airbag coverage includes front-seat side airbags, three-row side curtain airbags and a driver-side knee airbag.
In government crash tests, the 2009 Toyota Highlander scored five stars (the highest possible) for the driver and four for the passenger in frontal impacts and five stars for side impacts. In frontal offset crash testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Highlander earned the top rating of "Good."
Interior Design and Special Features
Larger adults will find the Highlander's interior more accommodating than in the previous generation, as first- and second-row room have grown noticeably in all directions. At the same time, the control layout remains simple and easy to understand, and the quality of the interior materials is high.
The Highlander's third-row legroom falls short of what's available from competing large crossover SUVs, but getting into the third row is much easier, thanks to the second-row seats' improved fold-and-slide mechanisms. There's also a specialized center section of the 40/20/40 second-row bench seat that provides walk-through access to the third row. The middle "20" section simply slides into its own cubby under the front seat center console.
Cargo space is scant when all three rows are in use, measuring just over 10 cubic feet. Folding the third row yields 42 cubes, though, and with the second row down, there's 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 current Highlander is considerably larger and heavier than the previous generation, it's still more pleasant to drive than most other midsize SUVs, even those of the crossover variety. Visibility is excellent all around, and the steering is light enough to make the 2009 Toyota Highlander easy to maneuver in tight spaces yet adequately precise while cornering. The V6 is a highlight, delivering strong, smooth acceleration in any situation. The ride quality leans toward the soft side, even with the Sport trim level, but that's to be expected in a family-oriented crossover.