2004 Toyota Highlander
Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Paul Williams

Since its introduction in 2001, the Camry-based Toyota Highlander has received widespread praise for its ability to combine a car-like ride with practical SUV attributes. Indeed, “crossover” SUVs like the Highlander seem to be just what many consumers want these days: the utility and profile of an SUV and the drivability of the familiar family sedan.

For 2004 the Highlander is further refined with a new front-end treatment, grey leather interior on leather package models, a new V6 engine, and optional third-row seating for 4WD versions.

The Highlander is not designed or marketed as an off-road vehicle, but it does pack some very sophisticated electronic systems designed expressly to do the opposite — namely, keep drivers on-road and moving when the going gets tough. This year, vehicle stability control (VSC) and traction control come standard on all Highlander models.

These systems were given a good work-out at the international sports/endurance event called the Fulda Challenge, held at various locations throughout The Yukon this past winter. The roads were partially snow-covered, but neatly ploughed, and the dry climate caused the snow to behave more like dust or sand, compared with the sloppy concoction many Canadians typically endure in the south.

But ice is ice, and a slippery road surface can easily result in an unintentional off-road experience. While drivers enjoyed flinging Toyota Tundra trucks sideways around the Lake Bennett ice track, or performing handbrake-induced 180-degree turns in RAV 4s, the Highlander’s on-board electronics permitted no such shenanigans. In fact, getting this vehicle to skid or slide at all was just about impossible, no matter what the surface.

The result was the same when driving through deep snow. There, the preferred technique was to simply floor the accelerator, whereupon the computer that controls the traction control and four-wheel drive calculated what wheel required how much power, and when. The result was a Highlander doing about five-km/h while tip-toeing through conditions that would have stopped most vehicles in their tracks.

2004 Toyota Highlander

2004 Toyota Highlander

2004 Toyota Highlander

2004 Toyota Highlander
Click image to enlarge

For drivers concerned with winter traction, and maximizing their margin of safety when in corners or when stopping on slippery surfaces, the Highlander’s stability control system, traction control and ABS are truly impressive.

The new 3.3-litre V6 engine, which is shared with the Lexus RX 330, generates 230-horsepower and 242 lb.-ft of torque. The ultra low emissions engine is lighter and more fuel-efficient than the previous Highlander motor. It’s mated to a five-speed, electronically controlled, transmission that selects shift points based on speed and load. On the road, this combination of engine and transmission is smooth and refined (a front-wheel drive Highlander is available with a 160-hp, four-cylinder motor and a four-speed automatic transmission).

Like the Lexus, the shifter is located below the centre stack, off the floor. This gives more room for a useful centre console and falls easily to hand.

The instrument cluster is bright and clear and the entire metal-trimmed dashboard features a design that is more familiar, less high-tech looking, than some vehicles in this class. The result is that you don’t really have to learn how to adjust the controls of the Highlander — their purpose is self-evident and they are easy to grasp and operate.

The light-grey leather interior, with which our vehicle was supplied, looked very smart, although the leather is confined to the seat surfaces, shifter and steering wheel (this is not unusual, but some vehicles will use leather on the door panels as well). The front seats were comfortable, heated, and provided good legroom. The second row seats also provided good legroom and can “fold and tumble” for extra cargo capacity. Each second row passenger gets two cupholders.

The third row split-folding seats flip up to provide room for an additional two, small, passengers who are supplied with shoulder belts and a cupholder each. These seats are accessed from the rear door, as the second row seat slides forward to improve entry. I’m waiting for one of those “hidden” doors that open toward the back of the vehicle, like those found on the Mazda RX-8 or the Saturn Ion, to be fitted to seven passenger SUVs. This would make it a lot easier to get in and out of the back of vehicles like the Highlander.

When folding into the floor, the head restraints of the third row seats must be pushed into the seat-backs. This is good — you don’t have to take them out and stow them — but they protrude from the front of the seat when raised. If you don’t know the head restraint needs to be extended, it will push uncomfortably into your back, as I learned at least one potential buyer found when testing the Highlander.

With the third-row seat raised, cargo room is of course compromised. There would still be room for groceries for seven behind the seat, but not for their luggage as well. However, when you need occasional seating, and depending on your needs, the $1,050 feature will add to the utility of the vehicle.

Standard features on the Highlander V6 ($37,950) include power door locks, windows; air conditioning, cruise, in-dash CD player, power and heated rear view mirrors with windshield wiper de-icer, and roof rack.

Option Package B adds $3,750 and includes leather interior, 16″ alloy wheels with full-size spare, power driver’s seat. Limited package adds $8,550 and includes Package B plus 17″ alloy wheels, rear heater, premium sound, full side curtain airbags, automatic climate control, sunroof, auto-dimming mirror and simulated woodgrain trim. A fully loaded Highlander V6 goes for over $47,000 plus tax.

Competitors for the Highlander are several, and include the Honda Pilot, Buick Rendevous and Chevrolet TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy. Indeed, there’s a lot of choice in this popular segment, but Toyotas are known for their quality, reliability and resale value, and the Highlander should be on your list if you’re in the market for an SUV in the $40,000 price range.

Technical Data: 2004 Toyota Highlander V6

Base price $37,950
Options $3,750 (Package B: leather, alloys, power seat)
Freight $1,260
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $43,060
Type 4-door, 7 passenger mid-size SUV
Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 3.3 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves, VVT
Horsepower 230 @ 5,600 rpm
Torque 242 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm
Transmission 5 speed automatic
Towing capacity 1588 kg (3,500 lb.)
Curb weight 1785 kg (3985 lb.)
Wheelbase 2715 mm (106.9 in.)
Length 4685 mm (184.4 in.)
Width 1825 mm (71.8 in.)
Height 1745 mm (68.7 in.)
Cargo capacity 297 litres (10.5 cu. ft.) (behind 3rd seat)
  1124 litres (39.7 cu. ft.) (behind 2nd seat)
  2304 litres (81.4 cu. ft.) (behind 1st row)
Fuel consumption City: 12.7 l/100 km (22 mpg)
  Hwy: 9.0 l/100 km (31 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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