2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Chris Chase

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Ottawa, Ontario – Bigger than a breadbox and about as exciting as one – that pretty well sums up the Toyota Highlander. But you’re not surprised, are you? After all, Toyota’s made its name over the past couple of decades by building workaday cars that just… work. With the exception of a few overtly sporty cars – the last-generation Celica, which the company offered a couple of years ago comes to mind – there’s been little among Toyota’s recent offerings for the enthusiast.

Of course, we’re talking about a big SUV/crossover (or whatever they’re being called this week), a type of vehicle that’s not meant to be exciting. The Highlander’s new styling is a little more adventurous than the old version, but not so much that buyers cross-shopping other crossovers and minivans will be turned off. Same goes inside, too.

My tester was a base model, and despite its relatively light feature load, the interior is a pretty nice place to be. The materials feel more substantial than those used in the smaller RAV4, including the V6 Sport model we conducted long-term testing on earlier this year. Of course, you’re not getting this nice interior for free: the basic Highlander is about $6,000 more expensive than that RAV4.

2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander. Click image to enlarge

Nice details are the radio and HVAC controls: the knobs are huge and they and the accompanying buttons work with the quality feel expected from Toyota.

The Highlander’s front seats are comfortable, as we discovered on a day trip to Montreal. This basic model featured manual seat adjustments and no lumbar adjustment, but we didn’t miss them. The rear seats are fine, but that’s all. Passengers riding back there on that trip complained of so-so comfort, citing adjustable backrests whose most upright position wasn’t upright enough. Nice of Toyota to put armrests back there, but these were too hard, complained our passengers. We didn’t need to use the centre seat in that second row, and that’s probably a good thing: as James Bergeron noted in his blog entries on this very vehicle, this seat should be reserved for whoever draws the short straw. Better to replace it with the removable tray that hides under the front-seat centre console.

Space in front and in the second row is great, though: lots of headroom and legroom for four travellers.

Of course, the new Highlander comes standard with seven seats, but the two third row chairs aren’t great either. Headroom is tight and legroom is only reasonable if second row riders slide their seats forward a few inches. Even if there was useful room for adults back there, the seat itself is hard and the bottom cushion too low.

Better, I think, to leave the third row folded away into the floor and take advantage of the large cargo area this creates.

2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander. Click image to enlarge

There’s a wide and flat load floor here, with rear wheel wells that don’t intrude too much, and there’s a smallish-but-useful compartment hidden under the floor at the rear of the cargo area. Even with the third row in place, there’s actually enough cargo space for a week’s worth of groceries for two – my personal benchmark for cargo space, though bringing home food for the size of family that would necessitate a vehicle this large will likely require significantly more room.

If the Highlander’s second and third rows of seating aren’t as comfortable as they could be, Toyota has at least given the Highlander a suspension that feels like it could easily handle the weight of seven passengers, or a trailer (the Highlander’s rated to tow up to 5,000 pounds, or 2,268 kg). The ride is firm, but not the flinty kind of firm I experienced in the RAV4 V6 Sport I drove last winter; note that there is a Highlander Sport too, which gets what Toyota calls a “sport tuned” suspension, but if it’s anything like the one in the RAV4, I’d avoid it.

Handling is not exciting but the Highlander takes quick corners willingly, even if there’s a fair bit of body roll and understeer. Sadly, those comfortable seats don’t offer much lateral support.

2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander. Click image to enlarge

The steering is about as light as it can be and still be connected to the front wheels. I got into the Highlander after driving a Volkswagen the previous week, and the difference in steering feel – or the utter lack of feel in the Highlander – was disconcerting. Another passenger who came along for a ride one night said he thought it felt too isolated from the road – and he was riding in back. At least the light steering makes for easy parking lot manoeuvres, but a variable assist set-up that backed off at cruising speeds would be nice.

The brakes are strong, but they grab too hard when touched lightly, and braking force is hard to modulate. Add pressure for more urgent braking and things do indeed slow down quicker, but the ABS is an on-off affair in hard stops.

Acceleration is generally good. The throttle is much easier to modulate, with a nice tip-in. Mash the throttle, and Toyota’s wicked 3.5-litre V6 provides lots of thrust; naturally, things get a little slower with extra bodies on board, but I wouldn’t be too eager to hitch up that Bayliner: tackling hilly backroads on the way to the cottage might be better suited to something with a torquey V8.

2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander
2008 Toyota Highlander. Click image to enlarge

At least real-world fuel consumption is reasonable. At home in the city, I averaged about 13 L/100 km, and used 10.3 L/100 km on our highway trip, which included 115 km/h highway cruising speeds and a bit of tooling around Montreal’s crowded downtown streets.

For all of its good points – and there are many – I can’t get past the feeling that this new Highlander seems a little pricey in base form: for my tester’s $39,650 price, you can get a far better-equipped Hyundai Veracruz or a Saturn Outlook with more comfortable second- and third-row seats. But Toyota knows what its buyers want: a Toyota. Sure, spending $40,000 grand gets you a rather basic vehicle with a sparse – though well-made – interior, but it’s got the stuff that Toyota loyalists, not to mention many other mainstream buyers, are looking for: good power, decent interior space and great fuel economy.

Forget the bread box – the Highlander is the Wonder bread of the large crossover segment: recognizable and maybe a little dull, but it’s got what people want, and you can bet your peanut butter and jam sandwich Toyota knows that.


Pricing: 2008 Toyota Highlander


Specifications

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