2008 has brought the most snow southern Ontario has seen in years. As a result, I’ve been pretty happy to be sampling a pretty wide variety of AWD and 4WD vehicles this winter. Every one of those vehicles has done a decent job getting off the line in the white stuff, but none of them were able to beat the laws of physics when it came to stopping. As I mentioned before, Toyota realizes that all season tires are really 3 season tires and have equipped their media fleet with true winter tires. What a treat!
On my second day with the Highlander we received about 6 inches of heavy snow, causing mayhem in the city. To avoid all the idiots, I took my usual route home through the north country on nearly abandoned rural roads. The winter boot shod Highlander took everything old man winter could throw at it in stride, including when coming to a stop. The Highlander with Toyo Observe snow tires may just be the ultimate winter machine.
There is more to life than winter though, and the Highlander excels in the dry too. In fact, Toyota’s mid size SUV drives more like a car than some of the competition. Highlander feels lighter and more nimble that the Taurus X and the transmission shifts much more crisply than the Subaru Tribeca. Both of those vehicles actually feel quite slow compared to the Toyota and feel like they are straining when pushed hard. The 3.5 liter V6 is smooth as silk and never feels like it is struggling, even on hard acceleration, while the 5 speed automatic always finds itself in the right gear. In our time with the Highlander, we averaged 15 l/100 km (16 mpg) in combined city & highway driving, which is almost identical to the mileage we got from the Taurus X in similar driving conditions.
If there was any criticism of the previous Highlander, it was that it wasn’t rugged enough. With this in mind, Highlander underwent a full redesign for 2008. With a longer wheelbase and longer track to cover, the fenders were thrust outwards which gives a more aggressive look. That look is completed with the addition of larger 17″ tires on the base and SR5 models, while the Sport and Limited models are sporting 19′s. Active families will appreciate the 5,000 pound towing capacity made possible by the stronger new drivetrain.
Utility on the inside. Truth be told, there is so much utility here that I don’t know where to start.
First off, the interior is visually typical Toyota. No crazy patterns and no instruments that look like something out of The Jetson’s, just tasteful, traditional and attractive surfaces and shapes. Most media testers come with seats clad in leather. In the real world though, a good portion of the buying public choose cloth seats and Toyota supplied our Highlander with just that. Warm, comfortable cloth seats that warm up nice and quickly on cold days, so heated seats aren’t really needed.[nggallery id=14]
Up front, Toyota has not only provided tons of storage possibilities, but some really thoughtful touches as well. Many parents are obsessed with spying on their little passengers in the back and end up adding all manner of poorly designed stick on mirrors that clutter up that dash or windshield. Instead of having one of those silly sunglass holders in the overhead console, designers have placed one of those fisheye mirrors in a pop down compartment so Mom can see when little Johnny is wreaking havoc with his little sister. On the dash, controls are well placed with thought being given to ease of operation. When I first saw the rear view camera LCD scree, I was surprised that it is much smaller than most other vehicles we’ve tested. That small size is made up for with clarity that matches the living room TV. No need to eat up the dash when you can actually give the driver a clear picture!
Moving rearward, the middle row of seats is roomy and comfortable. The center seat in the middle row is really only suitable for kids, due to the incredibly cool expandable seating option. The Highlander can be configured as a 6 or 7 passenger vehicle with a quick swap of the center seat section. I must say that it took this car industry veteran and a marine engineer an honest 10 minutes to figure out how to make the swap happen the first time, though we were probably over thinking things. The actual swap takes only seconds.
There are 2 possible center sections, one is a seat while the other is a console with cup holders and storage. The unused section is stored in a compartment under the front, center armrest. A quick flip of a lever at the back and the swap is complete.
Way back in the 3rd row, there is still more innovation. Most manufacturers struggle with storage of the 3rd row seat headrests. Most are removable, some come with their own storage sack, while other just don’t have headrests. Toyota’s engineers have created ingenious headrests that flip down flush with the seat at the tug of a strap, which allows the seat back to fold into a flat floor. Very cool.
So how did the Highlander fare in our 3 hockey bag test? Well, with the 3rd row up there is no room for 1 hockey bag, let alone 3. With the seat down however, the cargo area swallows all 3 bags with room for more. The tool kit for changing a flat tire is housed in a secure compartment below the rear floor that also has room for storage of other small items.
With a base price of $39,150 the 2008 Toyota Highlander SR5 is by no means inexpensive. For that price though, the Highlander is a capable people mover with lot’s of innovative features. With increased towing capacity, cargo space and performance it is a great vehicle for active families. Let’s face it, it is a Toyota, which means that those who keep their vehicles a long time will be rewarded with great longevity. Those who like to flip their car every couple of years will be rewarded with a vehicle that holds it’s value much longer than some of the competition.
This review was originally posted in 2 parts at The Garage