Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
A friend from my college days always told me that if something is good, then more of it must be even better. This idea might have been worthy of philosophical debate had it not been for my friend's empirical testing procedures, which usually meant having three beer bongs in an hour and passing out on the bathroom floor.
I think Toyota might be operating under the same logic. If one SUV is good, more must be even better, right? For 2001, Toyota will have five different SUV models available for the American public, approximately the same number of new reality-based TV shows appearing each week. Toyota's stable includes the RAV4, the 4Runner, the new Highlander, the new Sequoia and the Land Cruiser. Ford, the previous champion of SUVs, must be livid; it has only four. Maybe we can convince Ford or Toyota to donate a spare SUV to Volkswagen; it's SUV-less until 2002.
The way Toyota sees it, having five distinct SUVs allows it to cover the full spectrum of potential buyers. And you have to admit, that's a pretty solid business strategy. Want a compact, sporty SUV? Toyota's got the RAV4. Want a full-size model capable of hauling you and seven of your closest friends to go skiing in Vail? The Sequoia should work nicely. Want more luxury? Step up to the Land Cruiser. Until this year, your singular choice for a midsize Toyota SUV was the 4Runner. It's a capable SUV, does well off-road and placed third out of eight vehicles in our Midsize SUV Comparison Test. Its on-road handling and ride quality aren't great however, especially when compared to some of the latest SUV competitors such as the Nissan Pathfinder and 2002 Ford Explorer. This is where the Highlander comes in.
The Highlander (no relation to Christopher Lambert) is designed to complement the 4Runner in the midsize SUV segment. Built at the Toyota Motor Kyushu Inc. plant in Japan, the Highlander is based on the same platform that is used for the Lexus RX 300 (which is itself similar to the Camry). This means that, like the Lexus, it has a car-like unibody design rather than the 4Runner's truck-based body-on-frame design. The advantages to a unibody design include increased body stiffness (which generally leads to better handling and less NVH), improved crash worthiness and easier entry and exit for passengers.
Body-on-frame designs still have advantages. They are more rugged and are better suited for towing because a trailer hitch can be bolted or welded directly to the frame rails. The 4Runner's body-on-frame design, along with its high ground clearance, big tires, two-speed transfer case and locking center differential make it ideal for scrambling over rocks and dirt. The Highlander, in contrast, is meant for people who like the image and versatility of an SUV but prioritize the ride, handling and comfort of a sedan. Think of the Highlander as a kind of oversized Camry wagon that went clothes shopping at REI, and you've got the general idea.
In terms of size, the Highlander is similar to the 4Runner and slightly bigger than the RX 300. The main dimensional differences between the RX 300 and Highlander are in wheelbase and overall length. The Highlander's wheelbase is 106.9 inches and overall length is 184.4 inches, 3.9 and 4.1 inches more than the RX 300, respectively. This extra length is used to create additional cargo capacity. With the rear seats folded flat, the Highlander will hold 81.4 cubic feet of cargo, 6.4 more than the RX. Headroom, legroom, shoulder room and hip room measurements for all passengers are nearly identical to the Lexus, with the Toyota having a slight half-inch advantage in headroom. Compared to the 4Runner, the Highlander's 5.5-inch wider width translates to vastly superior hip and shoulder room. Rear legroom is also better than the 4Runner's.
For power, Toyota will equip its latest SUV with either an inline four or V6 engine. The all-aluminum 2.4-liter four has been developed specifically for the Highlander. It features design elements similar to other recent Toyota four-cylinder engines. Highlights include Toyota's VVT-i, engine block-mounted accessories for less vibration and weight, a 10mm crankshaft offset from centerline for reduced internal friction and iridium electrode spark plugs that last 120,000 miles. Because four-cylinder engines larger than 2.0 liters generally cause too much noticeable vibration, Toyota has equipped the Highlander's four with dual gear-driven counter-rotating balance shafts to cancel out most of the vibrations. Output is listed at 155 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 163 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.
Those numbers are decent, but if you want to be the sword-wielding immortal of your neighborhood cul-de-sac, you'll want the Highlander V6. This engine is the same 3.0-liter V6 that Toyota drops into the RX 300 and the ES 300 entry-level luxury sedan. It makes a healthy 220 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 222 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm. More power can be found elsewhere, especially from the optional V8s in the Dodge Durango and 2002 Ford Explorer. Both of those vehicles weigh more than the Highlander however (a two-wheel-drive Highlander V6 weighs 3,660 pounds), so our early prediction is that the Highlander V6 will be able to out-accelerate or at least hold its own against any other midsize SUV.
Both the four-cylinder and V6 models come with an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission with a snow mode. No manual transmission will be available, though four-wheel drive will be optional on either version. The Highlander's 4WD operation is similar to the RX 300's and RAV4's, with a 50/50 front-to-rear torque split on a full time basis. Unless there is tire slippage, then the viscous coupling will apply torque as necessary, front to rear, depending on which wheels are slipping. Four-wheel-drive models can be equipped with an optional limited-slip differential to further improve traction in slippery conditions.
OK, so it has 4WD, most certainly advantageous for rain and snow, but don't expect the Highlander to go trail bashing. Ground clearance is less than what both the RX 300 and 4Runner provide, and there's no low range for the 4WD. The fully independent suspension, consisting of MacPherson struts with antiroll bars front and rear, is tuned for on-road use. For stopping power, Toyota has gone with standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS on all models. Also included is Brake Assist (BA) to improve a driver's potential panic stop reaction times, as well as Electronic Brake-Force Distribution (EBD) to reduce braking distances for Highlanders carrying or towing loads. Towing capacities are feeble unless the optional towing package is ordered, at which point the four-cylinder model can tow 3,000 pounds and the V6 can tow 3,500 pounds.
In terms of standard features, Toyota equips the Highlander with items such as air conditioning, an AM/FM/cassette audio system with CD player, cruise control and 16-inch steel wheels. Optional equipment available on both models includes a roof rack, 16-inch aluminum wheels, power heated side mirrors, an eight-way power driver's seat and a moonroof. For improved safety, there are optional side airbags for front passengers and a vehicle skid control system with traction control. If you've still got money to burn, you can get the Highlander V6 with leather seats, seat heaters for the front passengers and a premium eight-speaker JBL audio system. There's also a limited package for the V6 that bundles most of the desirable options and includes a few additional minor features.
The cabin is nothing spectacular, with decent ergonomics but middling plastic and upholstery. There's also no center console, which leads us to believe that storage for cell phones, CD cases and other bits of detritus might be problematic. But passenger room is more than adequate, with comfortable front seats and reclining rear seats. The rear seats also fold completely flat to maximize cargo room. A noteworthy exclusion is a third-row seat, something that is available with the Dodge Durango, Mitsubishi Montero, 2002 Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer, and the Suzuki XL-7. Toyota says a lack of a third seat helps to achieve the company's target pricing for the vehicle. While we don't feel a third-row seat in a midsize SUV is a "to die for" option, its absence is something to note if you plan on hauling extra kids around. No NHTSA crash-test scores were available at the time of this writing, but we can tell you that all Highlanders have dual front airbags, whiplash-reducing front seats and front seatbelt pre-tensioners and load limiters.
Our initial driving time with the Highlander was limited, so you'll have to wait for our road test to get the full scoop. But we can tell you that the Highlander pretty much does everything Toyota says it does. If you were to blindfold an average consumer, put him into the driver's seat and then let him drive (taking the blindfold off, of course), we'd guess that he would have a difficult time determining that he was driving an SUV. It's got the high seating position and expanded outward visibility of an SUV, but otherwise the driving experience is very similar to what you'd get in a Toyota family sedan or minivan. On pavement, the Highlander provides a smooth ride and does an excellent job of minimizing wind, engine and tire noise. We drove a 2WD four-cylinder model as well as a 4WD V6. The four-cylinder Highlander surprised us with unexpected verve and the V6, not surprisingly, provided swift acceleration.
Pricing should be competitive. Toyota says a 2WD four-cylinder Highlander will start at $23,515 and a 4WD V6 will be $26,495. If we had included a 4WD V6 in our Midsize SUV Comparison Test, it would have had the cheapest base price by a considerable margin. But is it really an SUV? The character traits have been further blurred. The Highlander is designed to meet consumer needs rather than wants. If you can acknowledge that you have no intention of ever bouncing over boulders, then the Highlander is a very strong contender in the midsize SUV market.
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