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  • 2008 Toyota Highlander Limited 4X4

    Posted on June 1st, 2008 ninarussin

    Toyota’s seven-seat crossover ventures off road.
    By Nina Russin

    2008 Toyota Highlander

    2008 Toyota Highlander

    I’m driving south through Oak Creek Canyon, a narrow passage formed by the waterway connecting Sedona and Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s an appropriate place to drive the new Toyota Highlander: a mid-sized crossover vehicle that builds on the original formula with new off-road technology.

    The first Highlander that debuted in 2001 was the urban counterpart to the Toyota 4Runner. Whereas the truck-based 4Runner appealed to outdoors enthusiasts with extreme off-road capability, the Highlander offered buyers enhanced passenger and cargo capability, but with a car-like ride.

    The new model that rolled out last year shares chassis components with the Camry and Avalon sedans. Full-time four-wheel drive with hill-start assist and downhill descent control  allows the new Highlander to traverse moderate off-road trails with aplomb.

    The test car is the upscale Limited grade: one of three available trim levels. A 270-horsepower engine and five-speed automatic transmission provide ample power while maintaining reasonably good gas mileage: about 20 miles-per-gallon on average. A hybrid version of the car averages 26 miles-per-gallon, thanks to power enhancement from three electric motors.

    A price increase that took effect the beginning of May boosts the car’s $34,150 MSRP by $200, and adds $40 to the $645 destination charge. Options include a navigation package ($2505) that includes a JBL audio system upgrade, with pre-wiring for satellite radio, MP3 and Bluetooth capability, power rear door ($400), rear air conditioning system ($585), power sunroof ($850), rear spoiler ($200), and car mats ($275).

    Touring the red rocks

    Memorial Day weekend in Sedona is the end of peak tourist season. Highway 89A- the two-lane road that runs through Oak Creek Canyon and continues south towards Prescott, is packed with cars. Though travelers can make better time on the interstate, the red rock formations surrounding the two-lane highway make that drive irresistible.

    There is a second route through Oak Creek: a graded dirt road that hugs the canyon wall between Sedona and Munds Park, just south of Flagstaff. Recent rains have made the road a little rougher than normal. But it’s nothing the Highlander can’t handle.

    Up above the traffic, the real spirit of the canyon springs to life. An unusual cold snap has extended the life of spring flowers. Deer occasionally peek out between the Ponderosa pines. And the scent of those pine trees is everywhere. Thanks to the rains, the normally dusty route is relatively dust free.

    Schnebly Hill is one of many graded dirt roads in and around Sedona. While most people prefer to stay on pavement, the fire roads are a quieter, more scenic way to get around. Visitors planning to run, hike or mountain bike can count of having to travel some of the fire roads to get to the nicer trails.

    I won’t say that it’s impossible to travel these roads in a car, but there are sections where piles of tea kettles or deep sand compromise traction. The Highlander’s four-wheel drive system is the perfect fix, since it automatically sends engine torque to the wheels with the most traction.

    Ample ground clearance and short overhangs prevent the underbody from getting hung up on hills. The four-wheel drive Highlander can wade through several inches of water without losing traction or damaging the drivetrain. I tried it myself just to make sure.

    While the ’08 Highlander has more off-road features than the outgoing model, it lacks the durability that makes the 4Runner capable of handling extreme off-road terrain. I wouldn’t tackle the Rubicon Trail in a Highlander: that’s 4Runner territory.

    On the other hand, the ’08 Highlander has enough towing capacity to meet our ALV minimum standards. Both second and third row seats fold out of the way to create a long cargo floor for loading in bicycles and other oversize items. Roof rails are standard on the Limited grade, and crossbars are a factory-installed option ($229).

    Plenty of power for the open road

    The trip up interstate 17 is my favorite way to test a car’s power. The road climbs about 5500 feet between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Not only does the Highlander have enough power to pass slower vehicles on steep sections of the ascent, but the transmission does a minimum downshifting. Fuel economy on the highway averages 22 miles per gallon: a touch below the 23 mpg EPA estimates.

    The Limited grade comes with standard nineteen-inch wheels, and a fully independent suspension that provides a firm but compliant ride. Visibility is good all the way around the car.

    Toyota prides itself on quiet interiors: the Highlander is no exception. Engineers increased insulation around the instrument panel on the new model and revised the engine mounts to further reduce noise intrusion to the passenger compartment.

    Four-wheel disc brakes with standard antilock braking are firm and linear without being grabby. Steering assist is ample for low-speed driving. At high speeds there is less assist for  a positive on-center feel.

    Spacious interior

    Designers made the ’08 model larger than the car it replaces in every dimension, giving second and third-row passengers more head, leg and hip room. Both first and second-row seats move fore and aft to accommodate tall passengers.

    There are plenty of storage areas around the first two rows for holding maps and small electronic devices. I was a little disappointed that the glove box and center console bin are too small to hold small packs, since I like lockable storage at the trailhead. But a tonneau cover in back conceals items in the cargo area from prying eyes.

    All four doors have map pockets and bottle holders, and there are plenty of cupholders for all three rows of passengers. Two power outlets in front and one in the cargo area recharge portable electronic devices.

    A standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel allows smaller drivers to maintain a safe distance from the front airbag. Redundant audio controls and cruise control buttons on the steering wheel reduce driver distraction.

    The center stack is logically laid out, with temperature controls at the bottom, and audio controls surrounding a central information screen that also displays a wide angle camera view to the rear when the car is in reverse. The rear backup system makes it much easier to back into tight parking spaces, and displays items that would normally fall below the driver’s sight line.

    Up above, a conversation mirror flips down, so parents can keep an eye on kids in the second row. The optional moonroof lets plenty of ambient light into the back of the car. I enjoyed having it open in the north country, so I could see the pine trees towering overhead.

    Two paths to the third row

    A new second-row seat design makes it easier for third-row passengers to get in and out of the car. The middle seat is removable: it stows behind the front-row center console. Since the Highlander has rather thick C pillars and large wheel arches, access and egress via the rear doors is limited.  Though they aren’t as spacious as the second-row seats, the two, third-row seats are big enough to hold adults.

    A standard power tailgate eliminates fumbling with the keys, making it much easier to load up the cargo area. With the third row seats folded flat, the Highlander easily meets our bicycle friendly standards.

    Standard safety features include antilock brakes, vehicle stability and traction control, front, side, side curtain and driver’s knee airbags, front headrest restraints and a tire pressure monitoring system.

    The 2008 Highlander is currently on display at Toyota dealerships nationwide.

    Likes: A mid-sized crossover vehicle with a versatile interior, standard roof rails, and the ability to handle moderate off-road trails.

    Dislikes: Large C pillar and rear wheel arches limit egress from the third row seats. Cargo and floor mats should be standard equipment on a vehicle at this price.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Toyota
    Model: Highlander 4X4 Limited
    Year: 2008
    Base price: $34,150
    As tested: $40,674
    Horsepower: 270 Hp @ 6200 rpm
    Torque: 248 lbs.-ft @4700 rpm
    Zero-to-sixty: N/A
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Towing: Yes
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: Not available
    Fuel economy: 17/23 mpg city/highway
    Comments: A recent price increase raised the Highlander’s MSRP by $200, and added $40 to the delivery charge.

     

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