‘Nearly’ ticks all the SUV boxes
Toyota has just facelifted its highly popular Highlander. ROB MAETZIG takes the top version camping.
You’d have to think you’re doing something right when a particular vehicle enjoys sales growth of more than 100 per cent over 12 months.
That was the case with the Toyota Highlander last year. Not only that, but within that doubling of sales there was a 180 per cent increase in sales to private buyers.
It’s all rather impressive – and Toyota New Zealand claims the reason behind the popularity of Highlander is because it ‘‘ticks the boxes’’ more than any other SUV in the Toyota lineup.
What the company means by that is that Highlander’s fundamental design concept is for the vehicle to deliver car-like performance, but with an SUV’s practicality and off-road ability. For that reason the company is describing the Highlander as the complete SUV.
But is it? Over the January holiday period we had the opportunity to take an all-wheel drive Limited version away for a few days’ camping and to test out just how complete this Highlander is.
This Toyota has just been facelifted, but the vehicle’s dimensions remain exactly the same as before.
The exterior has undergone some freshening in design, particularly at the front where there are new horizontal lines that flow along the bonnet, grille and bumper, and there are newlydesigned headlights that help give what Toyota describes as an arrowhead design.
Overall, the exterior change doesn’t amount to much, really. Not much has happened to the interior either, apart from the introduction of a new high gloss silver trim on the instrument panel.
But that’s OK, because the interior of the Highlander always has been spacious, comfortable and versatile.
Our Limited road tester boasted seven seats, with the middle seat in the second row able to be removed to enable the two remaining seats to become ‘‘captain’s’’ chairs, while the third row can be folded down into separ- ate cubby holes to provide a flat load space. And if the second row is folded down as well, the amount of available luggage space increases to 2700 litres, which is a lot of room indeed.
We took full advantage of all that room, loading up the Highlander with tent, bedding, clothing, food, fridge and other necessary camping equipment including drinks and golf clubs.
I honestly didn’t think the vehicle would be able to accommodate everything we wanted to take away, but it did. What helped no end was a heap of floor room between the second-row seat squabs and the front seats, which proved an ideal storage area for bedding and clothes.
A further major help was the design of the rear hatchback which is vertical until it reaches the rear window – and the window itself can be lifted independently of the rest of the hatch. This meant we could load up the rear of the Highlander as much as we could, close the liftback, then finish the loading via the open window. It all resulted in a very safe and secure cargo.
I think SUVs are very much like utes in that they ride and handle much better fully laden than they do with not much aboard, and as we headed out on the camping trips this rapidly became quite obvious.
The Highlander rode and handled nicely, and its 3.5-litre quad cam V6 petrol engine offered sound performance. This is the same 2GR-FE engine that is aboard the Aurion sedan and the Previa people-mover, although it has been slightly detuned to suit its particular SUV requirements. Power output is 201 kilowatts and the torque is 337 newton metres, both of which are less than the grunty Aurion, but it is sufficient to provide a relaxing sort of driving experience.
And I didn’t notice the Highlander to be lacking in any performance potential, with maybe the only thing holding it back being its automatic transmission which ‘‘only’’ has five speeds.
Overall, however, the vehicle just did the job as we toured to the intended camping location at Raglan in the Waikato, with the only downside being fuel consumption – I couldn’t get anywhere near the claimed official combined consumption figure of 11.6 litres per 100 kmh.
But it didn’t really matter. The Highlander has a 72-litre fuel tank (and runs on 91 octane petrol), and this meant we still had more or less a half a tank of gas by the time we arrived at our destination, which was sufficient to let us tool around the delights of Raglan for several days without having to refuel.
The vehicle is easy to drive at the lower speeds too, but don’t expect to be able to pull off quick U-turns on narrow streets because the Highlander’s turning circle is a somewhat high 11.8 metres.
The SUV features an electric power steering system which gives a light steering response for easy parking at low speeds, and a solid feel at higher speeds for more confident driving on the open road.
Anti-lock braking is standard, with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist, steering-assisted vehicle stability control and traction control are also aboard the Highlander.
For more adventurous driving, the Highlander is a capable off-road vehicle. Its full-time all-wheel drive system has a centre differential that provides a 50:50 torque split between the front and rear axles, and the vehicle also boasts traction control, hill-start assist control (HAC) and downhill assist control (DAC) to help handle the more slippery conditions.
HAC is designed to help stop the vehicle from rolling backwards when starting off on a steep hill, while DAC helps control downhill speed in the offroad environment when engine braking alone isn’t enough. Both systems work very well and I love them aboard any SUV.
Highlander is available as a $54,490 front-wheel drive vehicle (I drove one of those a few weeks ago and enjoyed the experience), and the 4WD versions are a base model for $58,990 and the Limited for $66,990.
For the extra cash, the Limited model has perforated leather seat trim, power front seat adjustment with front seat heaters and vari- able seat cushion length adjustment for the driver’s seat. The vehicle also has a dual-zone front climate control system and another system at the rear, and a more sophisticated audio system with a six-CD changer.
So is the latest Toyota Highlander the complete SUV? Does it tick all the boxes? Almost – I had a couple of niggles, primarily that I just couldn’t seem to get the driver’s seat adjustment right for my particular size and shape, and that when unladen the vehicle feels a bit too uncommunicative. And I think it deserves an automatic transmission with one more ratio. But overall, Highlander appeals as an outstanding SUV. Little wonder it’s going great guns in the sales department.
Capable and comfortable: The Limited spec includes leather and highend electronics.