Test Drive: 2017 Toyota Highlander
Toyota says that it is selling the Highlander just as quickly as it can build them. This success hasn’t encouraged the automaker to kick back and relax, though, so for 2017 the popular midsize, 3-row crossover SUV gets a substantial refresh that is sure to keep it on the shopping lists of American families.
Headlining the list of changes, Toyota installs a long list of driver-assistive and collision-avoidance safety technologies as standard equipment for all 2017 Highlander trim levels. Additionally, the V-6 engine is new, paired with a new 8-speed automatic transmission and adding both power and efficiency to the SUV. Hybrid versions are also stronger than before while delivering better fuel economy.
Injecting a bit of fun into the lineup, a new SE trim level debuts, supplying a more aggressive appearance and a sport-tuned suspension. The Highlander Hybrid is also more accessible, offered in LE and XLE trim in addition to Limited and Limited Platinum specification.
Styling and Design
To signify the substantial changes under the sheet metal, the 2017 Highlander receives a new face with a revised grille and headlights. The grille has a different finish depending on the trim level. Updated wheels and new taillights complete the exterior changes.
Inside, the Highlander remains largely the same. There are more USB ports, the upscale trim levels are now offered with a second-row bench seat to replace the standard captain’s chairs, and buyers can get a unique black interior treatment with the SE trim or a Lexus-grade Saddle Tan leather in the Limited Platinum version.
This year’s updates do improve the Highlander’s appearance, though it remains genuinely attractive only from the front wheels to the tailgate. Interior tones and textures are pleasing, too, especially in the sporty SE and upscale Platinum Limited.
Features and Controls
Simplicity rules within the 2017 Toyota Highlander. All controls are located where you might reasonably expect to find them, are clearly marked, and are sized for ease of use. Knobs control the stereo and the climate system, and except for functions embedded into the touch-screen infotainment screen, buttons and switches handle remaining functions. The only thing missing here is a direct button for calling up the available navigation system.
Instrumentation is large and legibly rendered, the gauges separated by a driver information center with numerous programmable settings for various vehicle functions. Sometimes operation of this screen is not intuitive, but it doesn’t take long to figure things out.
Given the Highlander’s mission as a family-friendly vehicle, it offers generous in-cabin storage space. One of the more interesting details is a shelf that runs across a significant portion of the dashboard.
As might be expected, the third-row seat chews up cargo space, so you’ll need to decide whether you want to carry up to 3 extra people or luggage for up to 5 travelers. Volume behind the second-row seat measures 42.3 cu. ft., while maximum capacity equates to 83.2 cu. ft.
Safety and Technology
Already rated as a “Top Safety Pick+” by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the 2017 Highlander builds on its reputation for crash protection by supplying several newly standard technologies that are designed to prevent a collision from occurring in the first place.
Every 2017 Highlander is equipped with Toyota Safety Sense, a package that includes forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking. It also includes lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist systems, automatic high-beam headlights, and adaptive cruise control. Also new for 2017, every Highlander except for the LE and LE Plus will have a standard blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert.
As was true before, a range of touch-screen infotainment systems is offered for the 2017 Highlander, each including a variety of features and functions. Each of the sampled vehicles came equipped with the largest screen and embedded navigation, and because I was driving in an unfamiliar area the lack of a “Nav” or “Map” button to provide easy access to the map display proved somewhat aggravating.
Aside from the Highlander’s new standard safety technologies and its redesigned front end, the big news for 2017 pertains to a new drivetrain.
Continuing from last year, the Highlander LE sticks with a modest 185-horsepower, 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine, a 6-speed automatic transmission, and front-wheel drive. You probably don’t want this version of the SUV.
Instead, upgrade to any other trim level for a new 3.5-liter V-6 engine featuring a new 8-speed automatic transmission. The engine gets both direct and port fuel injection systems, courtesy of Toyota’s D-4S technology. It is also equipped with automatic engine start/stop technology and whips up 295 horsepower and 263 lb.-ft. of torque—gains of 25 horsepower and 15 lb.-ft., respectively.
The Highlander Hybrid also sees an uptick in terms of power output thanks to the new V-6 engine, increasing 26 horsepower to a combined total of 306. The Hybrid version continues to supply all-wheel drive as standard equipment, whereas it is an option with the V-6 engine.
In addition to providing more power, another benefit of the new V-6 engine is improved fuel economy: EPA-estimated mileage ratings rise to 23 mpg in combined driving for the V-6 and 29 mpg for the hybrid. During brief drives in a Highlander XLE, Highlander SE, and a Highlander Limited Platinum Hybrid, I was unable to match these figures, in part due to mountainous terrain and in part due to energetic driving without the SUV’s Eco driving mode engaged.
Both the V-6 and the hybrid powertrains supply plenty of power, though. The Highlander Hybrid effortlessly zoomed up grades while returning close to 23 mpg, and if Toyota didn’t charge so much extra for the more efficient drivetrain I’d strongly recommend it. However, when gas is cheap and hybrid models are not, you should just get the V-6.
The new Highlander SE comes with 19-in. wheels and tires as well as a sport-tuned suspension, and it proves more enjoyable to drive than the XLE version upon which it is based. I think it looks better, too. Unfortunately, the interior comes only in uniquely detailed black leather. Still, if you’re seeking greater steering heft and improved control of body motions, the SE is the right choice.
Most people, most of the time, will like the XLE the most. A little softer and equipped with what feels like lighter steering effort, the XLE is simple and easy to drive. Aside from a slight wavering in power delivery under part-throttle acceleration, I detected nothing amiss as far as driving dynamics are concerned.
Toyota gives family-sized SUV buyers numerous reasons to consider the upgraded 2017 Highlander. From its freshened styling and new V-6 powertrain to its standard safety systems and utterly practical interior layout, the Highlander checks all of the right boxes for an American family.
Where Toyota can continue to improve the Highlander is with regard to expanding its Safety Connect subscription service to a greater number of models while at the same time adding safe teen driver functions like many of the automaker’s competitors do. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone-projection technology still isn’t available, either. And that Saddle Tan leather sure would look good inside the popular Highlander XLE.
Otherwise, it takes just one drive with your entire crew aboard in order to figure out why Toyota isn’t having any trouble selling the Highlander.