At the launch of the latest Corolla a couple years ago, Toyota announced the redesigned 2014 model would no longer be available in beige. This was of course seen as a tacit admission that for many years, the Corolla was, quite possibly, the world’s most boring car.
That tongue-in-cheek nod to the Corolla’s reputation as a favourite of drivers who don’t really like to drive was the beginning of a revival of sorts. The new Corolla was the first mainstream Toyota model to show a hint of the kind of charisma that the brand’s cars had lacked for some time.
Next in line for an attitude infusion was Toyota’s big crossover, the Highlander. The second-generation model aged quickly following its 2008 introduction and was soon left behind by competitors that looked more modern, drove better and packed more value for money. A 2014 redesign aimed to place the Highlander squarely back in the mid-size crossover game with more distinctive styling and improved driving dynamics.
Not that this segment generally prizes sports car-like responses: Highlander remains a middle-of-the-road family vehicle; a firmer ride gives the impression of sharper handling, but a lack of steering feel makes negotiating corners with any enthusiasm a bit of a guessing game as far as how the front tires are interacting with the asphalt.
That tighter suspension was a detriment during my wintry week of testing: the Highlander pitches around on frost-heaved roads more than seems fitting, given a big crossover’s family-comfort raison d’etre.
That’s a shame, because the 3.5L V6 used across the line here in Canada (American buyers can choose a base model with a four-cylinder motor; a gas-electric hybrid variant is available in Canada and the U.S.) is a strong, smooth machine whose 270 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque are plenty to motivate an unloaded Highlander around town, but even with just me aboard, that engine had to work hard to maintain speed on a hilly drive from Ottawa to a destination in the mountains north of Montreal. If it felt like the Highlander could have used a bit more power on that drive, the upside is that this engine sounds good when pressed, and the worst of its mechanical vibrations are kept out of the cabin.
Official fuel consumption figures are 12.5/9.3 L/100 km (city/highway), but cold weather and that hilly drive drove my tester’s thirst to 12.0 L/100 km in highway driving, and nearly 17.0 in the city.
As the ‘cooler’ alternative to the minivan for family transport, the Highlander is one of a busy class of three-row, mid-size crossovers designed to seat seven or eight people. Like its competitors, Toyota’s entry will get that done, but not everyone inside will be happy about it.