By Jeff Weidel
There was no urgent need for changes. Toyota already had success with the Highlander, a trend-setting model introduced seven years ago. It quickly became a template for a segment of crossover sport utility vehicles.
Yes, the Highlander has been around since 2001. And during that time nearly every manufacturer has taken a shot at producing a crossover SUV. It’s a market segment with increasing popularity despite increasing gas prices.
Despite its success, Toyota decided to make improvements to its beloved mid-size SUV. The Japanese automaker succeeded with the second generation redesign, taking suggestions from Highlander owners and addressing two main areas — size and performance.
Some may have been skeptical. Why would Toyota make a more powerful vehicle with a weight increase of about 300 pounds? Why not go in the other direction? Well, Toyota had already done that; It has the economy-sized Rav4. It has also been beefed up from its original design.
What you get with the 2008 Highlander is size increases in practically every area, even in the hybrid.
Still constructed on the Camry and Avalon platform, the 2008 Highlander is wider, taller and longer than the 2007 version. The result is more comfort via more shoulder, leg and hip room than ever in the first two rows. Cargo capacity has improved from 81.6 to 95.4 cubic feet.
The second row, confining in previous models, now offers more room and added versatility. It’s capable of being one long bench for three or two spacious captain chairs with a console/table top with cupholders in the middle.
The third row that increases the Highlander to a seven-seater still needs improvement. It possesses versatility, folding into a single unit if desired. And there’s a center isle with improved access. Yet it remains a seat only spacious enough for children.
The third row also folds flat with an easy tug on a strap. This allows for some much-needed cargo space practically nonexistent when the third row is in use.
Performance-wise, Toyota discontinued the underpowered 4-cylinder. It now offers one engine, a peppy 3.5-liter, V6 with 270 horsepower. It’s also an upgrade option in the Rav4 and Camry. A five-speed automatic transmission is also standard, with front-wheel or all-wheel drives as choices.
With the optional towing package, the Highlander can haul up to 5,000 pounds. The base model costs $27,300; Higher-end models are priced to $34,150. Gas mileage ranges from 18-24 mpg.
Like many crossovers, the Highlander provides car-like handling that continues to attract SUV shoppers. It’s easy to maneuver in and out of tight places, absorbs bumps well, brakes with efficiency and is sufficiently quiet — even at high speeds.
Like many Toyota vehicles, the Highlander provides solid safety features like stability control, anti-lock brakes, hill ascent control, brake assist and traction control in every model.
FAST FACTS: TOYOTA HIGHLANDER, 2008
Power — 3.5 -liter, V6, 270 horsepower; Gas Mileage Estimates — 18 mpg (city), 24 mpg (highway); Standard Features — Stability control, anti-lock brakes, hill ascent control, brake assist, traction control, automatic headlights, rear defogger, center console, CD/MP3 player, digital-media player connection, rear privacy glass; Warranty — Powertrain 5 years/60,000; Bumper-to-bumper 3 years/36,000 miles; Corrosion 5 years/unlimited mileage.