Even if you are ill-informed about new cars, getting into the Highlander is a subliminal lesson on how to masterfully design a car-driver interface that works with intuitive ease.
The Highlander’s interior is a good example of how Toyota has become an undisputed powerhouse in the automobile industry. Behind the wheel, all it takes is one quick glance at the instrument cluster, radio, HVAC and other ancillary controls, and the driver feels right at home.
The clean centre stack is home to a set of large dials and switches for the sound system and HVAC – a godsend not only for bifocalled baby boomers, but for any driver new to the Highlander.
In addition to the typical steering wheel controls – radio, cruise and Bluetooth – Toyota has added another unusual but convenient feature – temperature and Off/Auto controls. The only irritants in the otherwise superb cabin of our test Highlander are the front-seat heater controls – two thin-post, spring-loaded rheostat controls that are frustratingly finicky to operate with heavy gloves. Otherwise, the interior is a comfortable and welcoming space.
Our demo vehicle (4WD V-6 with sport package) was equipped with a long list of features such as leather interior, heated front seats, three-zone climate control panoramic moon roof, power liftgate, 19-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels, third-row seating, voice-activated navigation and back-up camera. Driving the full-time all-wheel drive V-6 Highlander on snow-packed streets during a -20 C December cold snap demonstrated how good the Highlander is when the road are slick.
Fitted with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires, the Highlander is confident. Further enhancing the winter driving capabilities of this mid-size crossover SUV is a Snow switch, mounted on the centre console, which when activated, minimizes tire slip by forcing the vehicle to start in second gear. (Other manufacturers, such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, offer similar automatic transmission-control traction aids.)
The Highlander’s permanent all-wheel drive system works seamlessly with its electronic traction control and vehicle stability control, and it takes a very sharp stab at the throttle and a jerk on the steering wheel (neither of which is recommended) in an icy corner to cause the Highlander to slip from its intended course.
Real-world testing on ice- and packed-snow covered streets reveals the Highlander’s well-tuned suspension, which soaks up winter ruts and potholes commendably. Appropriate for a family hauler, the suspension is tuned for comfort, and highway performance is very good as well. Unlike many vehicles we’ve tested recently, the Toyota insulates its occupants nicely from suspension thumps when hitting pavement expansion joints, and the cabin is quiet on the highway.
While overall handling is best described as solid and secure, the Highlander doesn’t qualify as a sport SUV by any stretch of the imagination. For starters, the electric power steering feels numb, and that blessedly refined suspension is too soft to tolerate sportscar antics.
Complementing the Highlander’s excellent packaging, fit and finish is Toyota’s excellent 3.5-litre DOHC V-6 engine mated to a smooth-shifting five-speed transmission. With 270 horsepower, this powertrain moves the Highlander effortlessly and its quite fuel-efficient, rated at a very good 12.6 L/100 km in the city and 8.7 on the highway. But this engine is no longer the class leader. Jeep’s new-for-2011 3.7-litre V-6 Pentastar engine is rated at 290 horsepower and achieves comparable fuel mileage.
Overall, it’s easy to understand why the Toyota Highlander is such a strong seller. It’s loaded with all the features that make it a stellar family hauler: It’s right-sized, neither too big nor too small, build quality, fit and finish are excellent, instrumentation and interior controls are intuitive and ergonomically correct, and it feels safe, secure and easy to drive.
With seating for seven (yes, the third row is tight and better suited for kids, but its there) and the carrying flexibility afforded by a completely flat cargo floor, its easy to recommend the 2011 Toyota Highlander 4WD V-6 as one of the top picks in the mid-size SUV class.