2016 Toyota Highlander – Driven

The current Highlander has been around since 2014 when it received an extensive, ground-up remake. Now in the 2016 model year, the Highlander soldiers on unchanged. That won’t be the case for 2017, however, as Toyota will give the three-row crossover a mild facelift to match the all-new 3.5-liter V-6 borrowed from the new Tacoma.

Still, the 2016 is a relevant vehicle, offering families a reasonably priced vehicle with plenty of all-round capability, including seating for seven, towing up to 5,000 pounds, and the option of a hybrid drivetrain and AWD. What’s more, the Highlander offers these things at a reasonable fee, with prices starting around $30,000. My tester, fitted with the mid-grade LE Plus package, lists for $34,795.

Since the Highlander is slotted as such a family-friendly vehicle, it worked out perfectly that I had family in town, necessitating the need for a third-row seat. Though there are other crossovers and full-size SUVs with gobs more space, the Highlander seemed up to the task. The third row did prove to be rather limiting in terms of legroom, but four adults and a four-year-old in a car seat fit well enough.

There’s plenty more info below the jump, so keep reading for the full driven review

Video Review

Exterior

The Highlander is a handsome, yet somewhat unassuming character. It’s large front fascia, long greenhouse, and bulging taillights make it easily recognizable, but its shape is somewhat forgettable. I’m just glad my tester wasn’t beige. The exterior chrome accents do help brighten things up – along the grille, around the side windows, and the clear-lens taillights that mimic chrome at a glance.

The Highlander is a handsome, yet somewhat unassuming character.

Toyota did its best to make the Highlander look like an SUV. There’s black cladding along the wheel wheels, along the rocker panels, and around the bottom edges of the bumpers. A tidy tuck in the sheet metal just above the rocker panels gives the Highlander a visually lighter look, though it does nothing to reduce its 4,244-pound curb weight.

There are several touches on the exterior that struck a chord with me. The 18-inch alloy wheels are rather good-looking, thanks to painted grey pockets and machined-faced fronts. Likewise, the plastic fender flairs give the Highlander’s flanks a more appealing look.

Interior

The interior of the Highlander is mostly fresh in terms of design. The shelf under the dashboard garners the most attention, especially from those who like placing nick-nacks in the cup holders. Toyota also designed it as a perfect place to store cell phones. There’s even a pass-through for charging cables. There’s plenty of other cubbie holes and storage spots around, including map pockets behind both front seats, large door pockets on the second-row doors, and cup holders for the third row bench. There’s also storage sots under the floor in the cargo area.

Speaking of cargo, the Highlander allows for some impressive cargo-hauling capabilities. With the second and third rows folded, there’s 83.7 cubic feet of room. That’s more than enough for a run to the local big-box store. Cargo storage does become tight with the third row in place, keeping only 13.8 cubic feet of space. Still, that’s enough for groceries or a couple backpacks.

Second row accommodations are much more adult-friendly, at least when the 60/40 split bench is slid rearward.

Entry into the third row is fairly easy thanks to the folding and sliding second row. Large sill steps also make the rearward journey easier. Once seated, the third row is pretty cramped, at least for full-size adults. Legroom is the most egregious dimension. Thankfully Toyota supplies cup holders and air vents, making the third row more livable.

Second row accommodations are much more adult-friendly, at least when the 60/40 split bench is slid rearward. In that case, legroom is generous and the reclining seatbacks allow for comfortable traveling. Second row passengers also have access to a full HVAC controls at the rear of the center console. A folding center armrest with cup holders completes the welcoming environment.

Up front, mom and dad have plenty of room to get comfortable. The seats are pretty comfortable with good support all around. Ergonomics for the drier are good as well, save for a low-hanging steering column that my right knee always found on the way in. Once behind the wheel, the Highlander’s dash and center console offer plenty of niceities to look at, along with good functionality. The center console is downright massive, with plenty of room for a large purse or small cloth cooler.

Despite the Highlander’s small flaws, it proved to be a welcoming place to spend time on the road.

Ergonomics are on point, too, with the driver having controls within easy reach. The HVAC system is easy to operate thanks to two knobs for the dual-zone temperature control, with a rocker button for fan speed. Rear air controls can be operated here as well. The Entune infotainment system works like any other Toyota Entune system. It’s easy enough to learn, with simply menus and six hard-key controls for quick access to certain features. Still, the system looks somewhat dated. My tester was lacking GPS navigation or smart-phone projection like Apple Carplay or Android Auto. This means the phones came out when needing to find directions.

Despite the Highlander’s small flaws, it proved to be a welcoming place to spend time on the road. I still maintain the crossover works extremely well for four or even five passengers, but once the third row is used, space becomes tight. Only small kids will find the third row comfortable. In short, the third row works well in a pinch, but is a pinch for daily use.

Drivetrain

Powering the Highlander is Toyota’s venerable 3.5-liter V-6. The transversely mounted engine features double overhead cams with variable timing on both intake and exhaust sides, helping it achieve 270 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 248 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 rpm. The engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, that in this case, sends power to the front wheels. AWD is optional.

My tester is EPA-rated at 19 mpg city, 25 mpg highway, and 21 mpg combined.

My tester is EPA-rated at 19 mpg city, 25 mpg highway, and 21 mpg combined. During my week of extensive driving, I matched the combined rating. That’s not too terrible, but there are more efficient crossovers on the market, including the hybrid version of the Highlander.

Driving wise, the V-6 offers enough power for most drivers. A smooth throttle allows for comfy around-town driving. Mat the pedal, and the V-6 wakes up, sending its tachometer needle screaming towards its redline. Thanks to the six-speed auto, revs at highway speed are kept down, allowing for comfortable long-haul trips.

Though the V-6 is adequate, Toyota is replacing it for 2017 with the all-new 3.5-liter V-6 that debuted in the Tacoma pickup. It should provide more horsepower and torque, while its port- and direct-injection fuel system, combined with its variable Atkinson and Otto combustion cycles make it more efficient. An eight-speed auto will also come standard.

Pricing

The 2016 Highlander comes in seven trim levels, including the two hybrid models. The base LE Highlander starts at $29,900. For that, you get the 2.7-liter four-cylinder and FWD. Up from that is the LE Plus, like my tester. It starts at $33,895. Tacking on the $900 delivery fee brings the price to $34,795, matching exactly the as-tested price of my tester.

The XLE starts at $36,815, the Limited starts at $40,415, and the Limited Platinum begins at $44,490. Above that is the Limited Hybrid and Limited Platinum Hybrid. With all the option boxes checked, it’s easy to push the Highlander’s price over the $55,000 mark.

Competition

Dodge Durango

Dodge Durango R/T

The Durango certainly caters more toward the image-conscious. It’s long, low design with tons of chrome accents and available V-8 offer what the Highlander doesn’t – attitude. While that might not be high on everyone’s list, many gravitate to the Dodge for that reason. Attitude aside, the Durango offers plenty of room for six or seven passengers, depending on the second-row configuration. The second row can be had with twin captain’s chairs. Up front is FCA’s popular 8.4-inch Uconnect infotainment system.

Most Durangos come powered by the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 mated to the ZF eight-speed automatic that sends power to the rear wheels. AWD is available. Higher trim levels can opt for the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, including the most intimidating trim level of them all, the Durango R/T.

Prices start at $30,495 for the SXT trim. Moving to the Limited and Citadel models, prices start at $36,995 and $41,295 respectively. The bad-boy R/T starts at $41,995. The range-topping Citadel Anodized Platinum trim starts at $42,390. Even with all the options selected, the Durango caps at $50,000.

Honda Pilot

Honda Pilot

Like the Durango and Highlander, the Pilot offers three rows of seating, but with a maximum capacity of eight passengers. That extra person might be the selling point for some buyers. For those not needing eight seats, the second row is offered as twin captain’s chairs. The Pilot’s dash carries the typical Honda senablity and tidy design, including the push-button gear selector.

Power is delivered by the sole engine option: a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. Base and mid-range models use a six-speed automatic, while the upper two trims get a nine-speed auto with paddle shifters. AWD is optional.

Pricing for the base LX model starts at $30,145. The EX begins at $32,580 and the EX-L starts at $36,055. The high-ranking Touring trim breaks into the $40,000 category with a MSRP of $41,170. The range-topping Elite trim starts at $46,570.

Conclusion

The Highlander proved to be a great people hauler – at least with when loaded below full capacity. As said before, the third row should only be used in a pinch rather than as an everyday spot for the tall or wide. Besides that, the Highlander makes a great case for itself as a good family vehicle with fantastic room in the first and second rows, a peppy V-6, decent fuel economy, and handsome looks.

It’s also fantastic to see a moderately priced crossover offer all the functionality found here. As a near-base LE Plus trim, my tester still came with the eight-inch Entune touch screen, driver information center, power seats, keyless entry, and likeable 18-inch alloy wheels. Sure, there are flashier, better equipped crossovers out there, but it’s hard to complain about the LE Plus’ value for the dollar. And after all, isn’t that what most families are looking for?

LOVE IT

  • Value-packed three-row crossover
  • Comfortable first, second rows
  • Wide range of trims and powertrains available

LEAVE IT

  • Third row is cramped
  • Not as flashy as the competition

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