To the surprise of many, American station wagons from the 1950s and 1960s are becoming very desirable. One can only guess if the 2013 Toyota Highlander crossover will eventually become a collector’s item.
The 2013 Highlander I tested had the smoothness of one of those old, big domestic V-8 wagons—along with lots of room. Although it’s from Japan’s Toyota, this second-generation Highlander has American flavor because it was designed at Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, Calif., and is assembled at Toyota’s Motor Manufacturing facility in Princeton, Indiana—part of America’s heartland.
The Highlander won’t win beauty contests, but has clean, sculpted lines and a wide stance. However, the optional $649 running boards are recommended to ease getting in and out, although door handles are easily gripped.
The Highlander is a three-row crossover that provides carlike performance, comfort and safety, with SUV-like roominess and versatility. A gas-electric Hybrid version delivers excellent fuel economy for this type of vehicle.
What’s new for 2013? The Highlander and gas-electric Highlander Hybrid offer more standard equipment, and new option packages and audio systems.
The Highlander starts as a $28,870 base four-cylinder model with front-drive and a six-speed automatic transmission. The V-6 versions begin with a $30,248 front-drive model with a five-speed automatic. My test $39,400 Highlander Limited had a V-6 with all-wheel drive and the five-speed automatic, which has an effective manual-shift feature.
Those after maximum Highlander fuel economy can get the top-line, equipment-loaded Hybrid. Its “Hybrid Synergy Drive” system pairs a 3.5-liter V-6 gas engine with a high-torque electric drive motor-generator for a total system output of 280 horsepower. While it costs $46,370, it delivers an estimated 28 miles per gallon in the city and also 28 on highways. That’s pretty good because a Highlander weighs approximately 4,000 pounds.
My test V-6 Highlander is EPA-rated at 17 mpg in the city and 22 on highways.The four-cylinder delivers 25 mpg in highway driving, thanks partly to its six-speed automatic transmission.
The 2.7-liter four-cylinder provides 187 horsepower, but I’d go with the 3.5-liter V-6 that generates 270 horsepower. After all, it’s safe to assume that this family-oriented crossover will be driven many times with a good number of passengers, along with cargo.
The Highlander is easy to maneuver in town and is an excellent open-road cruiser. It’s quiet at highway speeds, with a soothing ride from its all-independent suspension. Helping keep things stable are vehicle stability and traction control.
The light, quick steering is responsive, although it feels a bit vague, and the V-6 delivers brisk 65-75 m.p.h. passing power. The automatic transmission provides quick responses.
Despite some sway when tackling highway on-ramps at above-moderate speeds, handling of my test Highlander was good, thanks partly to larger 19-inch alloy wheels with 55-series tires (versus 17-inch alloys and 65-series tires on lesser models).
Brakes are controlled by a firm pedal with a progressive action. The anti-lock brake system has electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and “smart stop” technology.
Safety is a major concern with a family vehicle, so the Highlander has seven air bags. There’s an advanced front air bag system, front side air bags, driver’s knee air bag, and roll-sensing side curtain air bags that help to protect occupants of all three seating rows in case of certain side collisions or a (heaven forbid) vehicle rollover.
The three-row Highlander has sliding second-row seats. Although just suited to short adults or children, the third seat is easy to enter, with those running boards helping here.
In any case, all Highlander seats need more thigh support, although the front seats are the most comfortable and provide decent side support in curves.
The interior is nicely laid out, with backlit gauges that can be quickly read. Doors have good-sized storage pockets, and even the glove compartment is spacious. The large dashboard control buttons can be easily used. The rear-seat entertainment system—almost mandatory if a family has kids–costs $1,760.
The interior has lots of plastic, but it doesn’t look cheap and is likely the best material for a vehicle that will see plenty of wear and tear. The large windshield offers a superb view of the road, and rear windows lower all the way.
The hatch swings up smoothly on twin struts to reveal a large cargo area, but the cargo opening is somewhat high. Rear seatbacks fold forward and sit flat to greatly increase cargo space.
The heavy hood has an interior lining to contribute to quietness, but it’s held open by an awkwardly located prop rod.
The solidly built Highlander should last a long time if given proper care. Its obvious that its overall design was carefully thought out.
Pros: Carlike. Roomy. Third seat. Smooth. Available all-wheel drive.
Cons: Conventional styling. Tight thrid-row seat. Rath high step-in.
Bottom Line: Good blend of carlike manners and SUV-like roominess.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for nearly 45 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.