2017 Toyota Highlander SE AWD First Test

Toyota hopes the revised 2017 Highlander, which in 2016 was sandwiched between the best-selling so-called midsize three-row Ford Explorer and third-place Honda Pilot, can regain traction from its best-selling year in 2015.

2017 Toyota Highlander

All Highlanders gets butched-up exterior styling and a suite of standard safety features, including forward collision and pedestrian pre-collision systems with auto brake, lane departure alert/correction, dynamic radar-based cruise control, and auto high-beams. V-6-powered models co-opt the company’s 2GR-FKS engine with automatic start/stop and the eight-speed automatic transmission from the Lexus RX 350.

Sporty in Appearance

This criticism is due to the SE’s suspension tuning, which feels like the all-spring, no-damper choice we’ve witnessed in other sporty Toyota/Lexus products. On the best of roads, it feels connected and sure-footed, but bend it into a bumpy corner, and the Highlander leans, and its wheels can’t seem to follow the contours of the pavement without a jiggling/squealing protest. What we assumed would be a measurable and subjective handling improvement was neither

Wanting to feel the presumed improved response from the more powerful engine and more tightly geared transmission combination, we were disappointed to witness the throttle programming resist acceleration—and the transmission thwart downshifts—until the pedal was applied in earnest. Also, now given the choice of eight forward gears to choose from instead of six, the programming is determined to find the highest-numbered gear possible. On a steady uphill section of our test route, even with cruise control set to 60 mph, the Highlander shuffled gears up-down, up-down, refusing to maintain a single choice for more than a few seconds at a time.

Highway Comfort and Safety Systems

Using the billiard tablesmooth four-lane oval at our host’s test facility, more than a few evaluators remarked at how tall the new transmission’s gearing proved to be. “When merging onto the oval, it was just topping out in third gear at 65-ish mph,” Christian Seabaugh said. “It’s almost like it’s geared like a four-speed and has then just been given a handful of extra cogs—just because.” Mark Rechtin concurred. “The gearing of this SUV is really tall, which can be OK if you’re in the sweet spot,” he said. “Third gear easily gets you to 80 mph, but second-gear passing from 45 to 80 is another matter altogether.” Out on the oval at speed, the ride was expectedly smooth, and wind and tire noise were kept hushed, but the matter of the new lane keeping warning and assistant drew ire.

Playing in the Dirt

Our evaluations continued on a prepared off-road course, which consisted of gravel, silt, loose and packed dirt, dips and bumps, and slight sideways inclines. Here, the Highlander SE’s ample power, decent ground clearance, and relatively wide tires proved their merit. We were generally impressed with how well and how easily the crossover handled the novice course. “I’m pleasantly surprised by this thing,” Seabaugh said. “It feels impressively well-built. Solid. Off-road, it’s quite apparent that the Highlander comes from the same company that builds the Land Cruiser and Hilux.

What Remains

The best part of the 2017 Highlander appears to be what was left unchanged: its remarkably well-considered interior packaging. Abundant headroom, legroom, shoulder room, and cargo room are complemented by numerous clever storage options, such as the uniquely useful door-to-door dash-mounted shelf and a sizeable center console that Rechtin reckoned “can fit a medium-size dog—much less your purse, or your dog inside your purse.”

Conclusion

Those who already like the Highlander will love the new Highlander. Jason Cammisa uncharacteristically found the zeitgeist of the Highlander and is extremely confident that our nitpickiness was overwrought. “Wow, finally a handsome Toyota,” he said. “And although I know my opinion is going to be unpopular, I see many reasons why this Highlander will outsell many of its competitors and why more of those customers will love it more than any other:

High praise, indeed, from a typically critical reviewer, and depending on your priorities and values, the 2017 Toyota Highlander SE (or other trim with softer tuning), might just help Toyota sell more Highlanders in 2017. Time will tell.

2017 Toyota Highlander SE AWD
BASE PRICE $40,000 (est)
PRICE AS TESTED $42,000 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 3.5L/295-hp/263-lb-ft Atkinson cycle DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4,551 lb (55/45%)
WHEELBASE 109.8 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 192.5 x 75.8 x 68.1 in
0-60 MPH 7.2 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.5 sec @ 92.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 126 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.77 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.6 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 20/26/22 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 169/130 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.87 lb/mile

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