Toyota Highlander 2011 Review

Toyota Highlander 2011 Review

“There can be only one” is the tagline from the cult classic Highlander movies of the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately for Toyota’s SUV which shares the same name, there are many more than just one in the market segment it occupies. In fact, the mid-size car-based SUV battleground is one of the hardest fought in the current automotive climate and it’s only getting fiercer. After a recent mid-life update the Toyota Highlander is going back to war, fresh-faced and with some new moves. But will it be enough to slash away rivals to become NZ’s SUV champion? Car and SUV mounted up with the Toyota Highlander to find out more.

The visual changes to this weekend warrior are fairly subtle. There’s a more defined nose with frowning headlights and a new chrome grille. At the rear restyled tail lamps flank replaced bumper trim. The rest of the Highlander’s sheetmetal remains unchanged. Our tested Limited model had some high-spec extras like rear privacy glass, front fog lamps, integrated roof rails and striking 19-inch five-spoke alloys. Overall, the upgraded Highlander is a sharp looker, it’s well proportioned with a safe, neutral design that avoids being either too rounded or too boxy.

Step inside the Highlander and you’re greeted by a spacious environment with three rows of seating ready to accommodate seven occupants. Even the third row will fit smaller adults comfortably and there are plenty of small storage areas and cupholders throughout the cabin. The centre row of seating is versatile and can be slid forward and back, it also splits 40:20:40 allowing the middle seat to be removed creating a luxury feel for six people. Luggage room is useful in five-seat mode with 580-litres on offer. There isn’t much cargo space left with all seven seats required but no less than other vehicles with three seating rows.

The Limited models interior is finished in soft, perforated leather throughout with the heated front seats divided by a wide centre armrest.

The dashboard has received a tidy up during the facelift and is elegantly finished if not highly stylish. Dark plastics are sectioned by contrasting brushed metal trim in a thoughtful arrangement. The switchgear is an interesting mix of large buttons and dials for the climate controls and a much smaller set up for the new stereo unit with its LCD display. Sitting above the stereo is a second LCD screen that offers trip and vehicle information but its appeal is limited by its diminutive 3.5-inch size, this being most apparent when it doubles up as a reversing camera monitor.

Elsewhere, the instrumentation is large, illuminates beautifully in red and the leather wrapped steering wheel is thick and houses various control buttons. The materials in the cabin feel good quality and like all Toyotas it feels robustly assembled, while this Highlander isn’t immortal it will certainly hold up for a lengthy lifespan.

The standard equipment list on the Limited model includes an armoury of gear like dual-zone climate air-conditioning, separate rear air-con, electric-adjusted front seats, six-disc CD stereo, cruise control, Bluetooth and a glass hatch in the tailgate.

Even with all those bells and whistles the Highlander’s most potent weapon sits sheathed under its bonnet. There can be only one engine option for the Highlander range and its Toyota’s well-proven and unchanged 2GR-FE motor that’s shared with the Aurion large sedan. This 3.5-litre V6 motor stabs out a solid 201kW of power and 337Nm of peak torque. It’s a smooth six-cylinder unit that really feels purpose built for the Highlander. It also endows the SUV with good acceleration off the line and can take the hefty 2720kg vehicle from 0-100kph in just over eight seconds. This establishes the Highlander as one of the quickest vehicles in its class. Higher end power is also very good with the Highlander pushing hard in the 80-120kph overtaking range.

Although there are no diesel engine options for the Highlander, owners can enjoy the quiet, refined nature of the V6 petrol unit and its towing capacity is ample at 2,000kg for a braked trailer.

Shifting the power to all four wheels is a 5-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission. It’s a real no-fuss piece of kit that provides smooth and predictable changes. If manual shifts are required there’s a sequential mode that is handy for holding the vehicle in a lower gear when climbing steep hills.

All up, it’s a well-sorted petrol powertrain, the only drawback is an obvious one — fuel economy. Quoted at 11.6l/100km on the combined cycle it doesn’t seem too bad, but during our testing we struggled to achieve that figure. With seven occupants, heavy cargo or when towing a boat the Highlander has the potential to be one thirsty beast.

Dynamically, the Highlander has a car-like feel that’s easy to like. The ride is nicely refined and compliant with only the most vicious road conditions unsettling it. There’s also a lot of on-road grip thanks to Toyota’s full-time, all-wheel drive system that creates a feeling of stability and control beyond competitors that have a part-time set up. There is a small amount of body roll but the Highlander imparts plenty of mid-corner confidence through a well-weighted and communicative steering system.

Off-road the Highlander will struggle to match the rugged ability of its Land Cruiser stablemates. However, with it’s full-time 4WD system 20cm ground clearance and electronic aides like Hill Start Assist and Downhill Assist it is well prepared for lighter off-road duties.

Being a family vehicle safety features are obviously important for the Highlander and begin with firm power-assisted disc brakes all around. Helping with the stopping is ABS and electronic brake-force distribution. Further electronic safety assistance comes from a stability and traction control system that steps in at the first signs of trouble. There are front, side, curtain and driver’s knee airbags and pre-tensioners on the front seats.

So can this Highlander be the last SUV left standing?

Well, perhaps. It has plenty of strengths like it’s spacious, well-configured 7-seat interior and broadly appealing exterior styling. It also rides very comfortably offering excellent refinement and a good dose of power through its muscular V6 motor. The handling is a definite highlight with plenty of grip available through the 4WD system and a genuine car-like feel. Unfortunately there are some weaknesses to the Highlander as well, like the equipment list, which is fair but doesn’t include some items that rivals are offering in this price range like parking sensors and automatic headlights. Fuel economy is also a concern and with so many buyers shifting to diesel power it’s a shame Toyota can’t offer a diesel option for the Highlander.

The bottom line is that the Highlander remains a solid choice in this category and won’t get its head sliced off by any competitors. It has the right skills and the recent facelift has given it an attractive refresh. With Toyota’s reputation for durability and ongoing mass appeal in NZ the Highlander will understandably make sense for many Kiwi buyers.

Price: from $54,990 (2WD) as tested $59,990

What we like:

  • Refined and powerful engine
  • Car-like driving dynamics
  • Safety features
  • Spacious and practical interior

What we don’t like:

  • Fuel economy
  • Could use more standard equipment
  • No diesel engine option

Words and Photos: Adam Mamo

Other reviews of interest (click link):

Toyota Land Cruiser Prado (2010) — Road Test

Hyundai Santa Fe CRDi Elite (2010) — Road Test

Jeep Cherokee Sport (2010) — Road Test

Nissan Pathfinder 450T (2010) — Road Test

Mazda CX-7 GSX (2010) — Road Test

Mitsubishi Outlander VR (2010) — Road Test

Kia Sorento R Ltd (2010) — Road Test

Ford Territory Ghia Turbo (2009) — Road Test

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