2008 Toyota Highlander Sport
2008 Toyota Highlander Sport; photo by Bill Petro, Toyota Canada. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Greg Wilson

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Photo Gallery: 2008 Toyota Highlander

At a time when sales of mid-sized SUVs are plummeting precipitously, it’s understandable that Toyota would want to emphasize that their new larger, heavier, and more powerful Highlander is actually more fuel-efficient than its smaller predecessor, and differs from truck-based SUVs because of its lighter Camry-based unit body platform, comfortable ride, and car-like driving experience.

That doesn’t entirely excuse its size and weight gain for 2008 – but what could Toyota do when faced with customer surveys that said current Highlander owners wanted more interior room, more power, bigger tires, and more aggressive styling? That, combined with the fact that the Highlander’s major competitor, the Honda Pilot, is larger and roomier than the previous Highlander, made the decision to ‘go large’ an educated gamble.

To their credit, Toyota has improved the ’08 Highlander’s fuel economy despite its size, weight and horsepower gains. Compared to the 2007 Highlander, the 2008 model is 96 mm (3.8 in.) longer, 84 mm (3.3 in.) wider and the wheelbase has been lengthened by 75 mm (3.0 in.).

2008 Toyota Highlander base
2008 Toyota Highlander base; photo by Bill Petro, Toyota Canada. Click image to enlarge

The base curb weight (seven-passenger model) has gone up by 110 kg (243 lbs) to 1895 kg (4178 lb). Its powerful new 270-hp 3.5-litre V6 engine, which replaces the 208-hp 3.3-litre V6, accelerates the ’08 Highlander from 0 to 100 km/h in just 7.8 seconds compared to 8.5 seconds for the 2007 model; and towing capacity has been increased to 5000 lbs from 3500 lbs.

Despite this improved performance, city fuel consumption has improved slightly to 12.3 L/100 km (23 mpg Imp.) from 12.7 L/100 km (22 mpg Imp.) and Highway fuel economy has improved to 8.3 L/100 km (32 mpg Imp.) from 9.0 L/100 km (31 mpg Imp.) (Toyota supplied figures). According to Toyota, the improved fuel economy is due to new aerodynamic covers underneath the vehicle, reduced rolling resistance, a lower coefficient of drag (0.34) and advances in engine efficiency.

2008 Toyota Highlander base
2008 Toyota Highlander Sport
The centre rear seat is removable
The removable centre rear seat can be stored under the front centre console
2008 Toyota Highlander base and Sport (top two photos); the removable centre rear seat can be stored under the front centre console (bottom photos); photos by Bill Petro, Toyota Canada. Click image to enlarge

A four-cylinder engine, which was offered in the Highlander from 2001 to 2005, is not offered in the ’08 Highlander. And all ’08 Highlanders have full-time four-wheel drive – no front-wheel drive models are offered in Canada.

For 2008, the Highlander is offered in four trim levels with a minor increase in the base price: base models start at $39,650; the SR5 is $41,900; Sport $46,200; and Limited $49,900 (see sidebar for complete details). All Highlanders now have seven seats: a five-seat model is no longer offered.

With its larger body, passenger and cargo space is up considerably: for example, behind the first row seats with both second and third row seatbacks folded, cargo space has increased to 2701 litres (95.4 cu. ft.) from 2282 litres (80.6 cu. ft.). Behind the second row seats with the third row seatbacks folded, cargo volume has increased to 1203 litres (42.5 cu. ft.) from 1124 litres (39.7 cu. ft.). Space is still tight behind the third row seat though: 291 litres (10.3 cu. ft.).

New for 2008 is a removeable centre second-row seat that stores underneath the console between the front seats when not in use. This is a great idea that turns the rear bench seat into two bucket seats with “walk-through” to the third row seats. Alternately, a removeable storage tray with cupholders can be snapped into place between the second row seats. The outboard second row seats slide fore and aft to increase legroom for second or third row passengers, and both second row seats slide forwards when the seatbacks are lowered to offer access to the third row. As well, both second row outboard seatbacks fold flat for cargo storage.

2008 Toyota Highlander Sport
2008 Toyota Highlander
Getting into the third row seat isn’t easy (top photo); the all-new interior is Lexus-like in look and feel; photos by Bill Petro, Toyota Canada. Click image to enlarge

The two third row seats also fold flat individually, and have folding head restraints that can be lowered when passengers aren’t occupying the seats. In all models except the base model, both second and third row seatbacks can be lowered from the rear cargo area with two levers on the side wall – a good idea that saves having to open both rear doors to access the seat levers.

I drove the base, Sport and Limited models and found the front seats and the second row outboard seats to be very comfortable with plenty of legroom and headroom and more elbow room than in the previous model – inboard folding armrests are standard in the first and second rows. For safety, the front seats have new active head restraints designed to move forwards in a collision to reduce whiplash. The third row seats have adequate headroom and kneeroom, but as the floor is high, the occupant’s knees tend to stick up too high. And getting in and out of the third seat isn’t easy.

2008 Toyota Highlander Sport
The separately-opening rear liftglass is a new feature; photo by Bill Petro, Toyota Canada. Click image to enlarge

Another new feature for 2008 is a separately opening rear liftglass – a handy feature that allows you to toss in smaller packages from outside without lifting up the entire hatch. As well, a new power rear hatch door with remote control is available on some models. Also new is a cargo area privacy cover that stores under the cargo floor when the third seat is being used.

The ’08 Highlander’s all-new interior has a classy look and top notch materials that look almost Lexus-like, with the possible exception of the base cloth seat material. A new feature is a 3.5-inch display on the top centre dash that provides vehicle information such as average fuel economy and distance to empty, and a backup camera display when the vehicle is put in Reverse (except base model). This screen is separate from the optional large screen that comes with the Navigation system on Limited models.

2008 Toyota Highlander Sport
2008 Toyota Highlander Sport
2008 Toyota Highlander Sport; photo by Bill Petro, Toyota Canada. Click image to enlarge

The new “Optitron” backlit gauges are bright and easy to read, and the big dials and large buttons on the instrument panel are easy to see and operate. A single CD/MP3/WMA player is standard on base models, but all other models have a six-disc CD changer, and Limited models have an excellent JBL stereo with nine speakers. An auxiliary input jack is also standard on all Highlanders.

Dual zone automatic climate control is standard on SR5 and Sport models, and Limited models have a three-zone system with separate rear temperature and fan speed controls. Other features I liked were the extra-large glove-box, a large storage bin under the centre armrest, a coin drawer near the door, and a flip-down convex ‘conversation mirror’ on the overhead console.

The standard five-speed automatic transmission shifts very smoothly and holds in gear when climbing a hill, and downshifts when descending a hill. New for 2008 is a manual shift mode that allows the driver to select gears by moving the floor lever to a left gate, and pushing forwards or backwards to change gears. I found the shift interval times to be quick, and shifts sharp and smooth. There is also a pushbutton “Snow” mode for “slippery Canadian driving conditions” that starts the transmission in a higher gear to avoid spinning the tires. However, with standard traction control, stability control, and an all-wheel drive system that operates in a constant 50/50 front/rear torque split, excessive wheelspin is unlikely.

2008 Toyota Highlander Sport
2008 Toyota Highlander Sport
2008 Toyota Highlander dashboard (top photo); 2008 Highlander Chief Engineer, Yukihiro Okane, was the driving force behind the new Highlander’s development; photo by Bill Petro, Toyota Canada. Click image to enlarge

A handy new feature is a new Hill-start Assist Control that brakes the vehicle on a hill for 2 to 3 seconds after the driver removes their foot from the brake to stop the vehicle rolling back.

Also standard is Downhill Assist Control: by simply pressing a button, the Highlander will automatically “creep” down a steep hill by automatically applying the brakes. I tried this on a steep mountain trail and enjoyed the sensation of taking my foot off the brake and the throttle – applying the throttle will temporarily deactivate it, but it won’t disengage until you press the button.

With a fully independent suspension (MacPherson strut front and rear), the Highlander negotiates corners well and rides well on the freeway with either the standard 17-inch radials (base and SR5 models) or 19-inch radials (Sport and Limited models). I preferred the Sport suspension on the Sport model because the ride seemed to be better and more controlled – however, I’ll have to wait for a longer test drive to verify this.

2008 Toyota Highlander Sport
2008 Toyota Highlander Sport
2008 Toyota Highlander Sport (top photo); bottom photo, left to right, Limited, Base and Sport models; photo by Bill Petro, Toyota Canada. Click image to enlarge

The Highlander’s new rack and pinion electric variable-assist steering is very light at slower speeds, which helps when making tight turns and parking – I liked it but my co-driver thought it was too light. The steering effort firms up at freeway speeds and the Highlander tracks well at high speed. Braking is also very solid, with standard disc brakes, ABS, Brake Assist for panic stopping, and Electronic Brake Differential to even out braking forces.

Overall, the new Highlander offers more for the money – more performance, more room, more features, more luxury – and is now truly a mid-sized SUV… er crossover. But even with its improved fuel economy, it remains to be seen whether a mid-sized seven-passenger utility vehicle that costs between $40,000 and $53,000 will prove popular on in an era of higher gas prices and a country-wide trend to smaller utility vehicles.

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