Taking the Long View
About a decade ago, Toyota introduced its Highlander model, a mid-size crossover suv that helped usher in the era of car-like handling in sport utes. Around the same time, a business author published The Art of the Long View, which was created to help businesses plan for an uncertain future using scenarios and strategizing that essentially boiled down to one thing: don’t panic.
Despite facing the kind of scenarios that would make any car company panic – from massive safety recalls to unprecedented disasters in its home country, Japan – Toyota appears to be emerging into the new decade, with some solid plans for the future. There’s a much-needed overhaul and a new plug-in version for its category-changing Prius, and a return to 100 percent production levels in North America, despite economic doldrums.
And now, there’s a mild refresh of the 2012 Highlander SUV line-up, in advance of what industry insiders say will be a complete model line revamp for 2014. It’s been touted for car-like handling in a package somewhat similar to many 5-passenger SUVs, but seats up to 7, with reconfigurable space for passengers and stowage.
Learning From Its Past
The 2012 Toyota Highlander comes to market as a highly-regarded sport utility vehicle that meets the requisites of couples and families who need to transport backseat riders and carry gear; it seats up to seven. With over a decade worth of design changes, Toyota engineers have continued to evolve the almost-11-year-old Highlander.
Since its 2000 release, Highlander has gone through many transitions, including two major design phases; in recent years, it has expanded trim line offerings from two to three. The most significant change was its 2007 redesign, which created a sleeker look with greater aerodynamics and fuel efficiency, as well as improved maneuverability, power and safety.
In comparing the original 2001 model to the current 2012 Toyota Highlander, the changes have been monumental: the body design has become curvier, and its optional V6 engine is much more powerful. Performance levels and fuel efficiency are about the same for the 4-cylinder models both then and now, but the V6 delivers 270 horsepower (compared to 220 horses in 2001), and the hybrid version has net output of 280 hp., as well as 28 mpg.
2011 and 2012 Highlander Models Are Almost Twins
The 2012 Toyota Highlander has been it its second phase of styling since 2007, so it looks the same as the 2011 Toyota Highlander. Each year since its make-over, this premium-but-unpretentious SUV has been a carryover model, but each year has also brought about a few slight changes, like trading out silver for chrome within the interior and on the roof rack of higher-end models. Other than the additional bling, both models are virtually the same.
What We Drove
We spent a week in the Nautical Blue Toyota Highlander SE 4 x 4, with color-keyed door handles, a rear spoiler, and black roof rails. Its exterior styling is attractive, with a bow to practicality rather than luxury--which is a parking space saved for its Lexus stablemates. Despite that, there are many upscale features such as a power liftgate, with a lift-up glass hatch; power-folding heated outside mirrors; and appealing 17-inch alloy wheels. Although tall, we found the Highlander easy to slip in and out of and, once set up at the driving controls, we liked the high vantage with good 360-degree visibility and the user-friendly ergonomics of the gauges and large-sized switch gear. The SE’s uplevel cabin steps up to the plate with a leather-trimmed interior, leather-trimmed steering wheel, and numerous comfort and convenience features.
We particularly liked the Highlander’s car-like ride and nimble handling that is derived from its unibody structure and makes it feel nimble on its feet. While we had no opportunity to directly assess the AWD system, we are very familiar with Toyota’s intelligent traction engineering and always feel safer with power distribution to all wheels, when needed. This system is a smart choice for those who live in the snow-belt regions of the country, and meant for tarmac and graded dirt roads, rather than forays deep into the backcountry. All Toyota Highlanders come with anti-skid and traction control technologies that help mitigate wheel slip.
Our test model was priced at $38, 144 (including $810 delivery), although base versions start at $25, 647 and top out at $33, 822 (without options) and carry a 36 month/36,000 mile warranty. The Highlander competes with the Honda Pilot, Chevy Traverse and the Ford Flex.
No Surprises Under The Hood
As with last year’s model, the 2012 Toyota Highlander comes with a standard 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 187 horsepower and186 lb.-ft. of torque; its EPA estimate is 20/25 mpg city/highway. The 4-cylinder is matched to a 6-speed automatic transmission.
The optional 3.5-liter V6 (standard with the Limited trim line) produces 270 hp. and 248 lb.-ft. of torque. It averages 18/24 city/highway. All-wheel-drive is optional on base Highlander and SE models, and standard (with an optional Snow Shift capability for the transmission) on Limited versions. While AWD enhances traction in general, Toyota’s Snow Shift technology is a specific computer logic program that brings more precise handling and safer driving on snow and ice.
The 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid also uses the 3.5-liter V6 and pairs the gasoline engine with a high-torque electric drive motor-generator for total system output of 280 net horsepower. Fuel consumption estimate is 28/28 city/highway. A second rear-mounted motor provides on-demand, four-wheel drive traction; an EV mode switch on the center console lets drivers choose electric-mode in conditions such as stop-and-go traffic.
Chrome Is All That's New
Chrome accents have replaced silver trim in the cabin of up-market SE versions of the 2012 Toyota Highlander. The SUV still seats seven passengers in three rows, with a 40/20/40 split and sliding second row and reclining one-touch fold-flat seats with armrests at each end. The center section can used as a seat or a stowage console. The third row is designed with 50/50 split-fold seats. With seats folded and stowed, there is 95.4cu.ft. of flat cargo space behind the front seats, enough to haul an entire dorm room of college student furniture – so long as the student rides shotgun.
Band On The Run
This Partridge family-sized utility vehicle has enough comfort and convenience features to keep families and a small flotilla of sports players happy during road trips and daily commutes. The standard stereo is an AM/FM/CD with MP3hookup and playback capability via an auxiliary jack. Two front and one cargo-mounted 12-volt jack provide additional power.
Standard features include front and rear air conditioning and an eight-way adjustable driver's seat. Euphemistically named “window jam protection” and “conversation mirror” – aka “the driver’s button for ending annoying up-down-up-down during long drives by locking rear windows in position” and “mom’s spyglass” – are also standard. The spyglass gives drivers eyes in the back of their head.
A tilt and telescoping steering wheel accommodates various sized drivers, from teen to grandparent. Cruise control, keyless entry system and a full-size spare tire also are included on all models.
Earning Its Gold Stars
The Highlander was a 2011 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) top safety pick; the 2012 model maintains the ratings (as a 2011 model) with the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA). For both years, the Highlander has earned four stars in overall rating, frontal crash and rollover tests and received five gold stars for side crash safety.
On The Road
The Highlander continues to deliver a capable, smooth and quiet ride. Four-wheel independent suspension includes MacPherson struts in front and dual-link struts in back.
Towing capacity is 1,500 lbs. for the 4-cylinder; the V6 is rated at 2,000 lbs. The towing prep package boosts capacity to 3,500 lbs. for the 4-cylinder and 5,000 lbs. for the V6.
What You Get For Your Money
Standard features on all Highlander models include front and rear air conditioning; eight-way adjustable driver's seat (10-way on Limited); power door locks and windows with driver's window jam protection and auto-up/down feature; manual tilt and telescopic steering wheel; cruise control; multi-function keyless entry system; UV-reduction windshield and rear privacy glass; digital clock; dual sun visors with vanity mirrors and sliding extensions; conversation mirror; illuminated entry system; scheduled maintenance indicator light and full-size spare tire.
The Highlander SE and Limited grades feature a standard backup camera with a 3.5-inch multi-information display; this feature is available for Highlander grade models as part of the optional Tech Package. The display includes a backup camera monitor, clock, outside temperature, warning messages, and cruise information that includes average fuel economy, average speed, distance to empty, current fuel economy, and trip timer. On models equipped with the optional navigation system, the backup camera's images are viewed on the seven-inch navigation screen.
The Tech Audio system is standard for SE and Limited and optional for Highlander grade; it features a USB port, integrated XM Satellite Radio (includes 90-day trial subscription) hands-free phone capability and music streaming via Bluetooth® wireless technology, helping ensure a wide array of “connected” capabilities for occupants. In the Base grade, this is part of a more comprehensive package that also includes a backup monitor with 3.5-inch multi-information display, an eight-way power driver seat, tonneau cover, engine immobilizer, easy-clean fabric interior, flip-up liftgate window, fog lamps and black roof rails.
The Highlander Hybrid Base grade gains standard easy-clean fabric seating, along with an eight-way power driver’s seat, the Tech Audio, the third-row seat and manual rear climate control. The Highlander Hybrid base grade offers a Leather Package that includes leather-trimmed seats with front seat heaters, leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob, power moonroof, HomeLink®, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, plus an engine immobilizer with security alarm. The Highlander Hybrid Limited features standard automatic climate control for the rear and offers perforated leather seating surfaces.
Looking Into The Future
There is speculation that the Highlander will be completely redesigned for 2014 the only thing that is sure to happen is that Toyota will continue to take the high road in its upward trend.