2001 Toyota Highlander
Click image to enlarge

“I was surprised at how well the Highlander handles – though it’s tall and rather heavy-looking, the Highlander feels confident and well-balanced when cornering quickly.”

Highlander offers car-like ride, sporty performance

New for 2001, the Toyota Highlander is a mid-sized, five-passenger sport-utility vehicle based on its upscale cousin, the Lexus RX300 – it shares the RX300’s platform, suspension, and 3.0 litre V6 engine.

A little larger than the Toyota 4Runner, the Highlander offers a choice of a four cylinder engine with front-wheel-drive, or a six cylinder engine with all-wheel-drive – but you can’t mix and match. With its unit-body platform, fully independent suspension, low step-in height, and comparatively comfortable ride and sure-footed handling, the Highlander is a more ‘car-like’ SUV than the truck-based 4Runner.

Potential Highlander buyers are families who need a tall wagon that’s roomy, easy-to-drive and offers the security of four-wheel-drive and a little extra ground clearance for winter driving.

Four and six cylinder powerplants

2001 Toyota Highlander
Click image to enlarge

The base Highlander model, which starts at $31,500, has an all-new 2.4 litre DOHC four cylinder engine which develops 155 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 163 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. (This engine is not available in the RX300). A four-speed automatic transmission is standard equipment.

Highlander 4WD V6 models, $36,100, have a powerful 3.0 litre DOHC V6 engine which offers 220 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 222 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.

Other than their powertrains, both four cylinder and V6 models offer the same, fairly extensive list of standard equipment. These include four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS, air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette/CD with six speakers, 5-passenger seating with front captains seats and fabric upholstery, 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks, power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, power steering and tilt steering wheel, variable intermittent wipers, rear wiper and defogger, front and rear cupholders, power mirrors, tachometer, digital clock, roof rack and P225/70R-16 radial tires.

All Highlanders have five three-point seatbelts, five adjustable head restraints, dual front airbags, height-adjustable front shoulder belts, rear child door locks, rear child seat anchor points, and engine immobilizer. Side airbags and head airbags are not offered.

2001 Toyota Highlander
Click image to enlarge

The four cylinder, front-wheel-drive Highlander is available with very few options. Most of the options are available only on the V6 AWD model, and only as part of an expensive $9,200 Limited Package.

The Limited Package includes alloy wheels, fog lamps, leather upholstery, heated front seats, power driver’s seat, woodgrain trim, automatic climate control, JBL AM/FM/cassette/CD changer with 8 speakers, power moonroof, and Vehicle Skid Control and Traction Control. None of these options can be ordered individually – it’s the whole package or nothing.

Equipped with the Limited Package, the Highlander V6 comes to $45,300. Add a freight charge of $475 and air conditioning tax of $100, and the total comes to $45,875. With taxes, you’re looking at over $50,000. Wow.

Interior impressions

Even though the Highlander has a fairly generous 7.2 inch ground clearance, its step-in height is fairly low. This is due in part to the fact that the Highlander is based on a car-like unit body platform rather than a truck-like body-on-frame design. As well, the Highlander’s doors are quite large, making entry and exit for front and rear passengers quite easy.

The Highlander’s driving position is higher than in a car – the front captain’s chairs have a higher hip point than the front seats in a Camry, for example. My vehicle had the standard soft cloth upholstery which feels warm and fuzzy against your skin. The front seats are wide and comfortable – their inboard folding armrests are very useful on long drives because the driver can rest both arms while gripping the steering wheel. On the lower, right side of the driver’s seat near the floor are two fold-down cupholders – this is a good position for them because any spills will spill onto the floor rather than the dashboard.

Click image to enlarge
2001 Toyota Highlander interior
2001 Toyota Highlander interior
2001 Toyota Highlander interior
2001 Toyota Highlander interior
2001 Toyota Highlander interior

A tilt steering column is standard, but a power height-adjustable driver’s seat is available only as a part of that expensive option package. Still, I found it easy to find a good driving position. Visibility all around is unobstructed – I liked the fact that the none of the three rear head restraints block rear visibility. I also liked the larger-than-average side mirrors (which are also heated on Limited models).

The driver faces a three-pod gauge cluster which includes a central speedometer, tachometer on the left, and small fuel and coolant gauges on the right. There’s also an illuminated transmission gear selection indicator which lets the driver see at-a-glance what gear they’re in without having to look down at the gear shifter (on the lower centre console).

The centre control panel includes a small digital clock near the top of the dashboard. Just below that is the heating/air conditioning system. Base models have three large dials for fan speed, temperature, and ventilation choices, while uplevel models have an automatic climate control with two large dials and an LCD screen showing fan speed and temperature.

Below that, but still fairly high up on the control panel, is an AM/FM/cassette/CD with easy-to-use control and large, well-marked buttons. Under the stereo are buttons for the seat heaters (optional), a 12 volt power point, and a cigarette lighter.

The gear shift lever is in an unusual position: in a raised pod protruding from the lower dash. As a result, the gear lever is higher than normal, and easier to reach than most floor shifters. Other interior controls are well thought-out too: the power window/door lock buttons are on an inclined armrest facing the driver, the lights are on the left stalk, wipers on the right, and the ignition keyhole has an illuminated ring. However, the power mirror controls and rear wiper/defogger buttons to the left of the steering wheel are partially obscured.

I had two complaints with the interior design. There is no room to put CD’s, sunglasses, phones or cameras in the lower dash area, and there isn’t a centre armrest/storage bin. CD’s can be placed in the driver’s door pocket, but they rattle around when turning corners. And the glovebox is just a bit too far away for the driver.

Another quibble: I found the fan to be noisy, except on low speed.

The interior colour scheme is unusual: the lower half of the doors is finished in a darker shade while the lower dashboard is in a lighter shade. I didn’t like the cr�me-coloured carpet and floor mats in my test car – they get dirty easily and they’re hard to clean.

The Highlander’s tall roof provides generous headroom for front and rear passengers, and since Highlander passengers have higher seating positions than Camry passengers, legroom is more generous.
Rear passengers have bottle holders built into the doors, and for storage, rear door pockets and map pockets on the back of the front seats.

The rear seatbacks are split 60/40, and fold down almost level with the cargo floor. With the rear seatbacks folded down, the cargo floor is over six feet long and 38 inches wide (between the wheelhousings). The carpeted cargo area has a 12 volt power outlet and a small, open storage bin with grocery bag hangers, and rear heater vents.

Underneath the cargo floor is a hidden storage area that consists of a long, oblong bin and a round bin which covers the spare tire. The spare is a full-size tire: 225/70R-16.

The rear hatch door has its own door handle and can be locked/unlocked with a key or with a remote key fob. The rear window glass has a defogger and rear wiper, but the rear window glass does not open separately from the rear hatch.

Driving Impressions

I drove the V6 AWD model with the Limited option package. My first impression was that this is a very quiet vehicle. The body is solid, the powertrain is quiet and vibration-free, and wind-noise is minimal. The fact that it’s based upon the luxurious RX300 may have something to do with its quiet cabin.

2001 Toyota Highlander
Click image to enlarge

The 3.0 litre DOHC 24 valve V6 engine offers surprising performance over the complete rev range. It incorporates variable valve timing which automatically adjusts timing to suit the rev range and provide more torque at lower revs. Though it weighs 1760 kg (3880 lb.) unloaded, the 220 horsepower Highlander accelerates very quickly from a standing start and also exhibits excellent mid-range passing power. The adaptive 4-speed automatic transmission responds quickly to throttle input and changes up and down with barely a ripple.

Fuel consumption is reasonable for a mid-sized SUV with all-wheel-drive: 13.0 l/100 km (22 mpg) in the city and 9.7 l/100 km (29 mpg) on the highway.

The Highlander’s all-wheel-drive system splits engine torque 50/50 front to rear via centre viscous coupling. More power can be sent to either end if one set of wheels has traction difficulties. As well, models with the Limited Package include traction control and VSC (Vehicle Skid Control) to help prevent wheelspin when accelerating and to prevent loss of directional control when cornering on slippery surfaces.

The Highlander also has standard four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS, EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution) to distribute braking forces evenly, and Brake Assist, an emergency assist for panic braking.

If you intend to tow a trailer with your Highlander, it’s worth noting that maximum towing capacity with the V6 engine is more than twice that of the four cylinder model: 1587 kg (3500 lb.) vs. 680 kg (1500 lb.)

I was surprised at how well the Highlander handles – though it’s tall and rather heavy-looking, the Highlander feels confident and well-balanced when cornering quickly. This is due mostly to its fully independent MacPherson strut suspension. It must be the only SUV to have one – rear MacPherson struts are tall and take up valuable trunk space, so most wagon and SUV makers prefer lower-profile multi-link or rear leaf spring suspensions. There’s no doubt a fully independent MacPherson strut suspension provides superior handling – the Porsche Boxster has one.

The Highlander’s standard rack and pinion steering with variable power-assist has a very light feel at most speeds, which makes it easy to drive around town, but detracts from its sportiness at higher speeds.

Best value in base models

The four cylinder, front-wheel-drive model is the best value. Except for the V6 engine and all-wheel-drive system, it has all the same features as the V6 model for $4,600 less. If you want all-wheel-drive and a V6 engine, the base V6 model is sufficient for most people’s needs. Most of the options available in the $9,200 Limited package are luxury extras, but not necessities.

See Grant Yoxon’s winter test-drive of the Highlander. More info can be found on Toyota’s web-site, www.toyota.ca.

Technical Data:

Base price $31,900
Price as tested $45,875
Freight $475
Type four-door, five-passenger sport-utility vehicle
Layout transverse front engine/full-time 4WD
Engine 3.0 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves, VVT-i
Horsepower 220 @ 5800 rpm
Torque 222 @ 4400 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Tires P225/70R-16
Curb weight 1760 kg (3880 lb.)
Towing capacity 1587 kg (3500 lb.)
Wheelbase 2715 mm (106.8 in.)
Length 4685 mm (184.4 in.)
Width 1825 mm (71.8 in.)
Height 1745 mm (68.7 in.) w/roof rack
Cargo capacity 909 litres (32.1 cu. ft.) rear seat up
  2304 litres (81.4 cu. ft.) rear seat down
Fuel consumption City: 13.0 l/100 km (22 mpg)
  Hwy: 9.7 l/100 km (29 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

Connect with Autos.ca