2007 Toyota Highlander
2007 Toyota Highlander. Click image to enlarge

Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Highlander
Auto Tech: 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Manufacturer’s web site
Toyota Canada

By Chris Chase

Photo Galleries: 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid; 2007 Toyota Highlander

Toyota’s SUV heritage dates back to the 1984 4Runner, a compact ‘ute that was based on the company’s pickup truck. Ostensibly a competitor for the Jeep Cherokee, the once-basic 4Runner received its share of comfort and convenience upgrades over the years; the current model is quite a posh truck, but it’s still just that – a truck.

As the 4Runner grew, Toyota needed a new SUV to fill the gap between the compact RAV4 and the now-mid-size 4Runner. That new vehicle was the Highlander, a Camry-based mid-sized crossover SUV that first made it to North American showrooms in January 2001, following a debut at the 2000 New York Auto Show.

The first Highlanders were powered either by a 2.4-litre four-cylinder (2AZ-FE in Toyota geek-speak) (155 hp; 163 lb-ft) or a 3.0-litre V6 (1MZ-FE) (220 hp; 222 lb-ft), both shared with the new-for-2002 Camry sedan. Both engines were mated to a four-speed automatic transmission; no manual was offered in Canada, but one was available to U.S. customers, at least in early models.

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

The 2004 model year brought a larger V6 engine: a 3.3-litre (3MZ-FE) good for 230 horsepower and 242 lb-ft of torque – and a new five-speed automatic to go with it. The four-cylinder powertrain lasted through 2005, and was replaced in 2006 by the Highlander Hybrid.

In 2004, stability control was made standard (it had been optional in certain models before), and seven-person seating was added to the option sheet.

Fuel consumption, according to Natural Resources Canada, ranges from 10.7 L/100 km (city) and 7.9 L/100 km (highway) for front-drive, four-cylinder models, but the optional all-wheel drive resulted in significantly higher consumption: 11.8 L/100 km (city) and 9.1 L/100 km (highway). Older V6 models were rated at 13 L/100 km (city) and 9.7 L/100 km (highway), while the larger and more powerful V6 used in 2004 and newer models actually did a little better, with ratings of 12.7 L/100 km (city) and 9 L/100 km (highway). Naturally, the 2006 gas-electric hybrid version trumps them all, with its super-low ratings of 7.5 L/100 km (city) and 8.1 L/100 km (highway).

Many Highlander owners recommend skipping the 3.0-litre V6 that came in 2003 and earlier six-cylinder models; apparently, aside from its less-thirsty nature, the more-potent 3.3-litre engine is also of a superior design and will more forgiving if maintenance has been less-than-perfect.

Water pump failures are common in the 2.4L engine. This is not an uncommon problem to have with any car as it ages, but the pumps used on the Highlander’s six-cylinder engines appear more robust. The discussion at that link includes a handy do-it-yourself guide to replacing the pump, a task that is not for the mechanically faint of heart.

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Another seemingly common flaw with the four-cylinder motor has to do with cylinder head bolts that strip (all on their own, apparently) and no longer keep the head adequately clamped to the engine block. The result is oil and engine coolant leaks.

Less common, but still known to first-generation Highlander owners, is a problem of a leaking transfer case (the set of gears that sends power to the rear wheels in AWD models), from the seal between it and the transmission.

As is the case with Toyota’s other hybrid models, the only serious weak point is the inverter. This device converts power between the alternating current (AC) used and produced by the motor/generator, and the direct current (DC) that the hybrid battery requires. The actual problem here is with a coolant pump that meant to keep the inverter from overheating. If the pump fails and you don’t know it, the inverter will soon be toast (if you’ll pardon the expression). Toyota issued a recall for the inverter that suggests that it could indeed be damaged by excess heat generated by a “large current flow during high-load driving,” or, though Toyota’s press release doesn’t say as much, because the coolant pump has failed.

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