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  • 2008 Toyota Highlander Sport 4WD

    Posted on June 24th, 2007 ninarussin

    Toyota’s second-generation Highlander raises the bar with a more powerful engine and roomier interior.
    By Nina Russin

    2008 Toyota Highlander

    2008 Toyota Highlander

    Toyota claims to have invented the crossover with the original Highlander that debuted in 2001. Whether or not this is true depends on how who you talk to, since there seems to be as many definitions for what a crossover is as there are new models.

    Semantics are less relevant to car buyers than function: most people don’t care how a vehicle is classified, as long as it serves their purposes. The original Toyota Highlander works exceptionally well for people with active lifestyles, and therefore has out-sold like mid-sized vehicles since its introduction.

    Once again, Toyota is faced with the unenviable position of trying to maintain dominance in a thickening pond. The manufacturer is using its tried-and-true formula for success, making the new model a little bigger, more powerful, and more refined.

    Gas-powered models roll out this summer, with front or all-wheel drive, and three grades: Base, Sport and Limited. Price ranges from $27,300 for the front-wheel drive Base model, to $34,150 for the four-wheel drive Limited. All cars get a more powerful engine, five-speed automatic transmission, a higher level of standard safety and convenience features. A hybrid model follows in October, available in Base or Limited Grades. 

    The drivetrain, while new to the Highlander, isn’t untested: it’s a variation of the Camry chassis, but with more ground clearance and a longer wheelbase. The all-wheel drive system comes from the Sienna. The hybrid uses the same synergy drive technology as the Prius, with updates culled from other Toyota and Lexus models. As I said, no big surprises: slow and steady wins the race.

    I had the opportunity to test drive the new Highlander in Scottsdale, Arizona in mid-May. The drive routes included both on and off-road components, although the off-road section was fairly bland. Even with all-wheel drive, the Highlander is not a vehicle to take out on extreme terrain: it lacks underbody cladding, and it doesn’t have a two-speed transfer case. But it’s quite capable of motoring down the average dirt road or trail and maintaining good traction on sand or mud.

    Sorry, snake…

    I didn’t mean to run over the snake. As a Buddhist, I believe in letting all living things be, even ones that might attack me. But at the time I was more intent on getting through the off-road course without scraping the heck out of the test car, as it weaved through dense patches of creosote bush. I didn’t have much luck in that department either. By the time we got the Highlander back to the hotel, it was covered with dust, bugs, and scratches that I hoped didn’t go below the clear coat.

    Aside from wear and tear on the paint, the Highlander handled the off-road course seamlessly. The loop wandered through some low desert north of Scottsdale, peppered with sand washes, rock, cactus, and the occasional snake. While the course didn’t include any hills steep enough the test the hill-start assist or descent features, it did have its share of tight corners. The sand was a good test for the all-wheel drive, that automatically transfers power to the wheel with the best traction.

    Stings like a bee.

    The best place to experience the difference between the new Highlander and the model it replaces is on the road: the new engine has a lot more spark, especially on the low end. While the original Highlander is no slouch, the new car has ride and handling features characteristic of a smaller, sportier car. The V-6 engine delivers 248 foot-pounds of torque, and reaches maximum torque fairly low in the power band. As a result, acceleration off the line is much improved, as well as in the twenty-to-fifty mile-per-hour range.

    Toyota’s variable valve timing technology allows engineers to increase power without hurting fuel economy. Even with the more stringent 2008 standards, EPA fuel economy averages nineteen miles-per-gallon for the four-wheel drive model. The additional torque also makes the Highlander capable of towing loads up to 5,000 pounds, when equipped with the towing prep package.

    The five-speed automatic transmission is buttery smooth, with little hint of shift shock. Larger wheels and a sport-tuned suspension on the Sport model improve steering response when the car is driven hard. The Highlander doesn’t feel like a high-profile vehicle. It’s extremely stable, even at high speeds. There’s a little too much steering assist on all models, which reduces the on-center feel. Braking is firm and linear.

    The two-lane roads around Lake Bartlett, north of Scottsdale, were a good test of the sport suspension. The roads are full of dips and rollers. Not only did the Highlander corner flat; it rebounded well coming off the low points, while maintaining a compliant ride.

    A back-up camera, standard on the Sport, allows the driver to see people and objects to the rear of the car. Since the Highlander has a thick D pillar, the camera is a useful feature, especially for parents of small children.

    Standard safety features on all models include front, side and side curtain airbags, a driver’s knee airbag, active headrest restraints for the front row, antilock brakes, vehicle stability and traction control, downhill assist control and hill start assist.

    Larger interior and cargo area

    First and second-row passengers should notice a difference in interior space. As usual, the designers have done an excellent job of positioning controls within easy reach of the driver and passengers. Up front, cubbies to either side of the center stack will stow a PDA or cell phone. There are two, twelve-volt power points and a plug-in for a MP3 player. The glove box is quite large, and there’s a b
    in in the center console for storing larger items. Up above, the shelf for the garage door opener and sunglass holder flips up to become a conversation mirror that allows the driver to monitor kids in the back seat.

    Front row passengers have four cupholders: two in the center stack and two in the doors. Left and right temperature controls ensure that all passengers ride comfortably.

    The Sport model comes with an AM/FM/6 disc CD player that’s pre-wired for satellite radio. An optional JBL audio system is Bluetooth compatible. A separate option package integrates the upgraded audio system with a navigation display. The navigation display stays illuminated after the driver turns the ignition off, allowing him to take a close look at the map when the car is parked.

    New for 2008 is a stowable second-row seat. When installed, the seat allows three passengers to ride in the second row. It releases by lifting up the back edge of the seat, and stows in the rear section of the center console. This gives third-row passengers another way in and out. Since the large C pillars make it harder to climb into the third row from the rear doors, it’s a practical feature. Once seated, third-row passengers have adequate head, leg and shoulder room.

    Both second and third-row passengers have their own cupholders. There are map pockets and bottle holders in the rear doors. The second-row seat on the right side slides forward to make access to the back easier.

    The cargo area has plenty of tie-downs for securing cargo. On the Limited model, there’s a button in the cargo area that collapses the second-row seats. Folding down the third row seats is a quick, two step operation. A tether on the seatbacks collapses the headrests, while a second tether below it folds the seats flat.

    With the second and third row seats folded flat, the Highlander has a large, functional cargo floor that could easily house a couple of bikes or other large cargo. A tonneau cover keeps items in the cargo area away from prying eyes. The cover stows in a small storage area beneath the cargo floor. There is a 115-volt power outlet to the left of the third-row seats, and a third, twelve-volt power point just behind it in the cargo area. Roof rails are standard on all models.
    The new Highlander is a great choice for families with active lifestyles, as an alternative to either sport-utility vehicles or minivans. Kids will appreciate the optional rear-seat DVD system, while their parents enjoy the more powerful engine, enhanced safety features and stowable second-row seat. Buyers with active lifestyles should find the cargo area spacious and easy to load, especially when the Highlander is equipped with an optional power cargo door.

    The 2008 Highlander is currently rolling out at Toyota dealerships nationwide.

    Likes: A versatile vehicle with improved performance and handling, very high level of standard safety features, and a large cargo area that’s easy to load.

    Dislikes: Angled second-row door opening makes it hard to enter the third-row seats.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $27,300
    Price as tested: $31,400*
    Horsepower: 270 Hp @ 6200 r.p.m.
    Torque: 248 lbs.-ft. @ 4700 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 17/23 m.p.g. city/highway
    Comments: *Pricing on the Sport model does not include options or a $685 delivery charge.

     

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