Sober is how we'd characterize the Highlander's whisper-quiet all-aluminum 24-valve DOHC V-6. At 3.0 liters, it's the smallest engine in our trio of testers. Though Toyota tuned it to a healthy 220 horsepower and endowed it with VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence), its 222 lb-ft of torque is the lowest of the bunch. While the power felt sufficient for normal driving, it dawdled some when asked for a quick burst of opportunity in traffic, and the transmission didn't downshift as responsively as we'd like.

The 4x4 model is equipped with a full-time all-wheel-drive system that uses a viscous coupling to divide drive torque 50/50 front to rear. If a wheel or wheels at one axle begin to lose traction, the system apportions a greater percentage of the available drive force to the wheels at the other axle. Nearly half of all Highlanders are equipped with all-wheel drive.

Dynamically, the Highlander mirrors the Camry experience with good ride isolation and reasonably linear steering. Toyota endows this SUV with large-diameter anti-lock disc brakes at all four corners. Included with ABS is Electronic Brake-force Distribution, which automatically adjusts hydraulic pressure between the front and rear axles based on vehicle load. Also standard is Brake Assist, a system that senses rapid or panic braking and applies maximum brake force when needed short of wheel lockup. Regardless, our test Highlander's brake performance could've been better, with high pedal effort and longer-than-average stopping distances the rule.

Still, the Highlander is more than adequate for everyday use trolling the suburbs of Middle America. We doubt most Highlander owners will seriously tax the dynamic capabilities of their SUVs. What they'll likely pay more attention to is that the Highlander was the recipient of the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study award in 2002 for midsize SUVs, just one more in a string of third-party accolades. When an all-new second-generation Highlander makes its debut for the '04 model year, we have every reason to believe that it'll continue the winning tradition.