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Motoring: Highlander falls short for Toyota

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | March 10th, 2008

Last year, Toyota became the largest manufacturers of cars in the world. It finally dethroned GM from for the title.

So you would imagine that a company that builds and sells as many cars as Toyota does, it would know a thing or two about making good vehicles.

Generally speaking, Toyota builds many good vehicles, most of which are the best in their respected category, like the Sienna, which is a brilliant minivan and the Tundra, which is the best pick-up truck ever made.

So you would anticipate that when they redesign one of its most popular SUV's, the Highlander, Toyota would have done its homework and this would be a brilliant truck.

Well like any Toyota product, it is very well built. You get a quality feel in all Toyota vehicles, and this is no exception. You also immediately see that this is a refined vehicle, as it is smooth and comfortable, and it'll be very reliable as every time you drive it you get the feeling this vehicle will keep on driving for the next 10-years without any issues.

However, I do think the new Highlander has missed the mark you normally would come to expect from Toyota.

Let's start with the styling. Yes I know styling is a personal thing, you might hate the Lancia Hyena (very limited edition, Europe only vehicle) but I love it. So if I were not bowled over by this new Highlander's looks, maybe you wouldn't mind it. However, everyone I showed the new Highlander too, didn't care much for it.

They didn't care much for the interior either, and frankly neither did I. For a start, the interior styling is not special. It does not make you go wow. Then there is the matter about what you actually get for your money.

My test vehicle was worth over $43,000, which is not cheap, so you would expect to get a lot of luxuries for that sort of money. Well for that money, you don't get a sunroof, you don't get leather seats, you don't get automatic climate control, you don't get a navigation system and you certainly don't get a rear-seat DVD entertainment system. You do get a back-up camera surprisingly, but the screen it showed the image from the reversing camera was so small it was almost impossible to use it effectively.

However, don't think the interior is useless. There is a decent amount of room and you can even fit up to seven people. However if you do fit seven people in there, just hope they didn't bring any luggage because with the final row of seats in the upright position, you won't have any space left for their belongings.

This is really not shaping up to be a good vehicle, but maybe its charm lies with the way it drives. Well it certainly has the power thanks to its fantastic 3.5-litre, V6 engine that produces 270 hp and 248 lb/ft of torque. The transmission is a smooth shifting five-speed automatic, which works fine, but come on Toyota, the rest of the competition is offering six-speed gearboxes so why not you?

The extra gear ratio would have helped its fuel economy too, as I averaged about 13.5-litres/100km, which is neither good nor bad. The same engine in the Sienna minivan managed a much more impressive economy figure of 9-litres/100km. Perhaps the all-wheel drive system in the Highlander saps too much power.

The all-wheel drive system does mean that you do make mince-meat of any winter weather conditions, but on a dry day, the handling is less than thrilling. Mazda, Nissan and Mitsubishi have recently shown that an SUV doesn't have to handle like a big truck, but Toyota seemed to have failed to notice the new trend. This Highlander is way too soft and is certainly not composed in the corners at all.

This is surprising and quite mind boggling, because after all Toyota makes the Sienna, which is a great handling minivan, so they do know how to make big vehicles handle well, so how did they miss the boat with the Highlander?

I don't know, but all I can say is I am quite dissappointed. I expected an under performing product from some other manufacturers, but not Toyota.

So, my advice is this, if you have a family and want a big vehicle to move your family around in, and have about $40,000 to spend, buy a Sienna minivan, that really is the best way to spend that type of money. If you think minivans are not cool and hence you need an SUV (and please don't try to pretend you need an SUV because you will go off-roading, because you won't, and even if you did, you wouldn't use something like a Highlander anyway, because this is not a real off-roader) you would need to get your head examined.

So please, go buy a Sienna instead and trust me, you'll thank me.
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