2012 Toyota Highlander Limited Review
In the history of the automobile, families have probably never had as much selection when buying a new car as they do now. While station wagons dominated the '70s, minivans took hold in the '80s and crossovers came on strong in the 1990s, and all three have a pretty strong presence in 2012. When it comes to these family-friendly vehicles, there are none that are as versatile and practical as a three-row, mid-size crossover, and with this segment growing more each year, the choice consumers have is compounded even better. In the Toyota camp, the 2012 Toyota Highlander is already a competent crossover using the underpinnings of the top-selling Camry, but for this road test and review we had the chance to check out the luxurious Highlander Limited model which would be more than enough to keep an average-sized family happy on a long road trip.
2012 Toyota Highlander Limited Review: Pricing and Trim Levels
Assembled in Princeton, Ind., the 2012 Toyota Highlander is offered in five trim levels (base, SE, Limited, Hybrid and Hybrid Limited) with a starting MSRP of $28,240, but the Highlander Limited 4x4 used for this review brings a lot more luxury and technology into the mix while commanding a much higher starting price of $37,195. This test model added in plenty of optional features raising the as-tested price even further to $43,636. Even at this high of a price, the 2012 Highlander Limited definitely has a place on the market especially when considering that Lexus does not currently sell a three-row mid-size crossover and there are plenty of other high-end crossover models on the market from other automakers.
2012 Toyota Highlander Limited Review: Competition
Positioned in an adventagous gap between two-row, mid-size crossovers and full-size CUVs, the 2012 Toyota Highlander primarily goes up against the likes of the Dodge Journey, Kia Sorento and Subaru Tribeca, but it can also be cross shopped against larger crossovers like the Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot and Ford Flex. Despite a tough year for Toyota, the Highlander was Toyota's sixth-best selling nameplate and remained one of the top-selling crossovers on the market with 101,252 units sold (an increase of almost 10 percent over 2010). This trend did not carry over into January 2012 however with only 6,856 units sold representing an 8.7 percent year-over-year drop. While this slight dip in sales might be due to the fact that the current Highlander was introduced in 2007, a slight design update for 2011 helps give Toyota's mid-size crossover a little more visibility going up against some newer and more advanced models.
2012 Toyota Highlander Limited Review: Exterior
The 2012 Toyota Highlander carries over with the same updates introduced for 2011 which include a redesigned front end and a slightly updated rear end. Toyota's line-up of vehicles really don't share a common look like most other automakers, but the Highlander's new design is surprisingly stylish and upscale with reshaped fenders and hood, a jutting fascia and narrow, angular headlights. Despite its updated look, though, the Highlander still trails most of its competitors in this segment seeing as how most of them have been introduced or completely redesigned since the second-generation Highlander was introduced in 2007. All non-Hybrid models do get a slightly more rugged, SUV-like appearance thanks to a new matte plastic trim around the lower edges of the body. Stepping up to the Limited trim level, the Highlander adds plenty of chrome accents, a rear liftgate spoiler, puddle lamps, standard fog lights and 19-inch, five-spoke wheels. Our tester was equipped with optional add-ons such as the $649 running boards and $199 body-colored door molding. While the next-generation design is sure to get more bubbly, the 2012 Toyota Highlander has all of the typical styling elements expected from a utility vehicle such as the tall, boxy roofline that equates to a very spacious interior.
2012 Toyota Highlander Limited Review: Interior
As a family-ready crossover, the interior of the 2012 Toyota Highlander is definitely one of its strongest points from its innovative layout to its abundant options. All Highlanders come with an ingenious Center Stow seat that allows the second row to offer three-passenger seating when needed or, more likely, luxurious captain's chairs without permanently losing the extra seat. This seat is easily removable and stores in a hidden compartment under the front center console, and while this is an ingenious feature that allows the Highlander to offer luxurious captain's chairs (with individual arm rests) in the second row without permanently losing the extra seat, the allocated hip room is too for most passengers and it doesn't even seem to be wide enough to accommodate a baby seat or child booster seat. For the passengers who can fit in the second row, they are afforded improved comfort as the split row (60/40) is able to slide fore and aft and recline; the passenger side outboard seat also tilts and slides out of the way allowing easy access to the third-row seat. Though not as roomy as the rear seats in a full-size crossover, the Highlander's second and third rows still offer plenty of space for adults, and when necessary both rows fold completely flat allowing for up to 95.4 cubic feet of cargo volume which is more than the larger Ford Flex delivers.
While the Highlander's exterior was refreshed for 2011, its cabin remained the same. Aside from the fact that the Highlander Limited comes wrapped in a good-quality leather, it is also has a more luxurious appearance with its standard wood inlay on the center stack and shift lever. The overall styling of the Highlander's interior is what should be expected from Toyota with a safe design that is functional and practical but not too flashy. The large, dual-pod gauge cluster and nine-inch navigation screen have a clean look and are easy to use, while the 3.5-inch multi-information display screen that sits atop instrument panel is useful for showing important vehicle information such as fuel economy, distance to empty, door ajar warnings and climate control settings as well as being the back-up camera display on non-navigation models. To create a little breathing room for the five-passenger Toyota Venza, the Highlander is now offered only with a three-row, seven-passenger seating configuration.
2012 Toyota Highlander Limited Review: Interior Packages and Options
As well equipped as the 2012 Toyota Highlander Limited is in base form, our test vehicle added in an extra $6,481 worth of options. Part of the option list is a surprisingly pricey navigation package which retails for $2,650 but includes touch-screen navigation, an upgraded JBL audio system and Bluetooth phone connectivity and music streaming. While it's unfortunate that navigation isn't standard on the $37,000 Highlander Limited, this package is well worth the money. Other key options fitted on our test model were the $1,760 rear-seat DVD entertainment system with a flip-down screen, $529 for remote engine start and $315 for carpeted floor and cargo mats.
2012 Toyota Highlander Limited Review: Powertrain and Fuel Economy
Opt for a base Highlander and you're stuck with a 2.7-liter inline-four, but the 2012 Toyota Highlander Limited comes standard with the more powerful 3.5-liter V-6 that produces 270 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque without giving up too much in fuel economy. Our test vehicle was also equipped with what Toyota calls a full-time four-wheel drive system, but it would be more aptly named an all-wheel drive system since there is no two-wheel drive or low-range mode. What it does have, though, is a snow mode to make slippery take-offs much easier and a downhill assist mode for tackling steep terrain. Powering all four wheels does drop fuel economy as expected with the Highlander Limited 4x4 having EPA-rated estimates of 17 miles per gallon in the city, 22 mpg on the highway and a rating of 19 mpg in combined driving which is down 3 mpg in each category to the base engine. The V-6 is also down one gear using a five-speed automatic instead of the base model's six-speed gearbox. Drivers looking to put their Highlander to work will be happy to know that this model, when equipped with the $220 tow prep package which our vehicle had (although surprisingly it did not have a trailer hitch receiver) can tow up to 5,000 pounds.
2012 Toyota Highlander Limited Review: Driving Impressions
Based on the same platform as the Camry and Sienna, it is no surprise at how smooth the 2012 Toyota Highlander rides, but the older design of the Highlander's platform means that it still offers a stiffer ride than a conventional crossover while still having a softer, more manageable ride than a regular body-on-frame SUV. This middle-of-the-road driving dynamic is thanks to its four-wheel independent suspension which absorbs just about all road imperfections and the electric power steering feels good at all speeds. Weighing it at 4,255 pounds, the 2012 Highlander is on the heavy side when it comes to other mid-size crossovers on the market, but between the electric power steering and the capable V-6 engine, it delivers the same easy maneuverability expected from a CUV. We were actually looking forward to testing out the four-wheel drive system in a recent visit to Detroit to see how it performed in the snow and ice, but a warmer-than-normal winter made it so we didn’t even need the seat heaters. While the 2012 Highlander 4WD isn't expected to provide any serious off-roading capabilities (that's why the Toyota 4Runner exists), all models do offer a sufficient eight inches of ground clearance.
2012 Toyota Highlander Limited Review: Safety
Both the two- and four-wheel drive versions of the 2012 Toyota Highlander received a four-star overall crash rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) which includes a five-star side-impact rating and four-star ratings for a frontal crash and rollover. Scores were even better from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) which gave the Highlander all "Good" ratings and named it as a 2012 IIHS Top Safety Pick. Like many current Toyotas, all 2012 Toyota Highlander models come with the Star Safety System (which includes electronic brake-force distribution with brake assist, four-wheel anti-lock disc brake system, traction control and Vehicle Stability Control) as well as eight airbags, active front head restraints, daytime running lights and tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
2012 Toyota Highlander Limited Review: Final Thoughts
As a family vehicle, mid-size crossovers are expected to be fuel efficient, spacious and comfortable, and while its updated styling does little to mask the aging Highlander, its smooth ride and roomy cabin is a testament to how great this crossover was when it originally launched five years ago. Riding on a car-based platform, the 2012 Toyota Highlander is smooth and responsive in most daily driving conditions, but the optional four-wheel drive system and sufficient ground clearance helps give this family crossover some SUV-like traits when it comes to slick road surfaces or challenging terrain. Commanding an as-tested MSRP on par with some luxury brands, our Highlander Limited test vehicle came with plenty of added luxury and technology which could help keep kids and adults alike occupied on long road trips.
2012 Toyota Highlander Limited Review: Pros and Cons
- excellent cargo and passenger space
- innovative Center Stow seat
- Limited trim level brings plenty of luxury
- styling trails competition both inside and out
- positioned between mid-size and full-size SUVs
- pricey navigation system still optional on Limited trim level
Toyota provided the vehicle for this review
Photos by Jeffrey N. Ross