2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder
2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder. Click image to enlarge

We left home at 5:30 a.m. on Friday and hit the highway. The four-cylinder makes 187 horsepower, to the V6’s 270 horses, and 188 lb-ft of torque, versus the 248 lb-ft churned out by the six-cylinder. Perhaps putting passengers in all seven seats would have made a difference, but I found that with just two of us, the four-cylinder worked just fine in most driving. It did have to downshift hard in the mountains, but that’s to be expected. The only down side was a loud drone at idle, which sounded similar to buffeting. The engine is officially rated at 10.4 L/100 km (27 mpg Imp) in the city and 7.3 (39 on the highway); in mostly highway driving, I averaged a very reasonable 9.2 (31), especially since the U.S. interstate speed limits are 112 to 120 km/h equivalent, where four-cylinders typically get thirstier.

2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder
2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder
2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder. Click image to enlarge

For being a base model, the four-cylinder Highlander is well-equipped, and certainly doesn’t feel like the starter trim: alloy wheels, privacy glass, heated mirrors, wiper de-icer, auxiliary jack, eight-way power driver’s seat, a movable second-to-third row console, Optitron gauges, tilt and telescopic steering wheel, whiplash-reducing active front head restraints, driver’s knee airbag, and tire pressure monitoring system. The optional $1,520 Upgrade Package adds a six-CD stereo, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, rear air conditioning, automatic headlamps, illuminated vanity mirrors, fog lamps, roof rails with crossbars, and pre-wiring for satellite radio, although oddly, without the XM radio itself. The package is the only option available for the four-cylinder. Moving up to the base V6, which includes most of the features of the four-cylinder with Upgrade Package, along with backup camera, power liftgate and tonneau cover, is $37,870 – an additional $3,100. The base Highlander Hybrid, with 3.3-litre V6 and hybrid electric drive, is $43,025. All things considered, the four-cylinder isn’t a bad deal at all.

2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder
2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder
2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder. Click image to enlarge

Surrounded by what seemed like relative luxury for the price, we settled in for the drive, but not for long. The Highlander’s seats, like those in far too many vehicles these days, are not made for old-fashioned motor trips. After a couple of hours, my husband complained of cramps in his legs, while I developed an ache in my hip that lasted for the duration of the journey.

Overall, the Highlander is roomy, at least in the first two rows. The small centre seat in the second row can be removed and stowed to provide mid-row access to the third row. That last set of chairs is cramped, as is usually the case in vehicles this size. It’s also a single unit, and while it folds flat into the floor, it might be more useful if it could be folded in two pieces – allowing, if necessary, for one third-row passenger, with the other side folded for more cargo space. There isn’t much room for luggage when the third row is up.

The suspension is well-done, keeping all but the worst road imperfections to itself; smooth and serene is the story here. The variable-assist electric steering is the usual Toyota combination of light and not terribly communicative, but since most buyers are more likely to be everyday commuters than canyon-carving auto journos, they should be fine with it. There isn’t a need to keep correcting it to stay on-course, which was much appreciated during the ten-plus hours we spent on the highway. Sometimes steering this light can get sloppy on-centre, but the Highlander tightens up on the highway to prevent this.

2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder
2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder. Click image to enlarge

The two-tone interior is heavy on plastic, but it’s nicely textured, and the panels fit well together. I’ve noticed Toyota’s fit-and-finish to be going downhill on a few other models, but the Highlander seems to have gone in the opposite direction. Dials and buttons are large and intuitive, and there are plenty of cubbies and cupholders throughout.

We arrived in Louisville on Friday afternoon, and found the city to be an odd mix of exquisitely-dressed folks on their way to private parties, and in the middle of town, a huge street festival dedicated to cheap beer, rather than the bourbon-laced mint julep that’s a mainstay of race day. The beautiful weather on Friday disappeared late in the evening, and Saturday was a downpour. But Derby Day was a series of small miracles: the rain stopped about an hour before the big race, the sun (and a rainbow) came out just as the horses stepped onto the track, and while I can usually tell you anything you’d ever want to know about racing except for who will win, I picked winners every time I bet, including the Derby victor.

2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder
2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder. Click image to enlarge

Taking a slightly longer but more interesting drive route on the way home, which took us through Ohio and Pennsylvania, the Highlander performed as it had on the way down: nothing out of the ordinary. I did notice, though, that when I was using the cruise control in very hilly areas, the vehicle would stay in high gear for a long time. It would then downshift and accelerate rapidly, and with considerable engine noise, in order to maintain the preset speed as the incline grew steeper. I wonder if some drivers, already made nervous by news reports, are mistaking this for “unintended acceleration.” It would settle down once it reached the desired speed, and of course, tapping the brake or pulling the cruise control lever stopped the acceleration immediately.

While the seats could prove to be a major problem for those who use their vehicles regularly for long-distance travel – snowbirds need not apply – the Highlander handled everything else just fine. This is one of Toyota’s more popular models, and it’s easy to see why: the price seems reasonable for the content, the four-cylinder does its job, it’s roomy (especially if you keep the third row folded in favour of cargo), and fuel consumption proved reasonable on my trip. Test-drive the V6, but don’t neglect this lower-priced version, which should work equally well for everyday commuting and once-in-a-lifetime dream trips.

Pricing: 2010 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder
  • Base price: $33,250
  • Options: $1,520 (Upgrade Package of leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, rear a/c with climate control, six-CD changer, XM satellite-ready antenna with pre-wire, roof rails with crossbars, illuminated vanity mirrors, leather-wrapped shift knob, automatic headlamps and fog lamps)
  • A/C tax: $100
  • Freight: $1,490
  • Price as tested: $36,360
    Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

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