It's easy to imagine the Highlander as a student who's been cramming for this exam for years, its guidance counselors scrutinizing our Sport/Utility of the Year criteria to find any opportunity for improving their scores. And improve them it did.

On superiority, the upgrades to an already solid vehicle are all laudable: more passenger and cargo space, myriad new features easily controlled via a user-friendly knob-centric dash, and a new standard 3.5-liter V-6 delivering 270 strong horses that can tow up to 5000 pounds. Hybrids get standard all-wheel drive and new economy-boosting features.

In the significance category, Toyota's marketing efforts have helped make the Highlander a segment sales leader. With models ranging from front-drivers with cloth seating for five, to leather-lined Limited seven-seat Hybrids, Toyota caters to a wide slice of the SUV-buying (and tree-hugging) public, earning big points in this category.

In terms of value, the much improved Highlander starts at just $27,245, or $620 more than last year's entry V-6 model ($1680 up on the unlamented four-banger). Top Limited Hybrid models tiptoe over the $40K mark. It's not cheap, but Toyota's sterling reputation for quality, reliability, and resale delivers strong bang for the buck.

And yet, like a brown-nosing teacher's pet, the Highlander failed. Drop the hammer, and the engine moans and sounds like it's complaining. Bend it into a curve, and the tires howl in protest. Despite the "Sport" badging on its flanks, it's no jock.


2008 Toyota Highlander
Base price range $27,245-$40,635
Price as tested $40,953 (Sport AWD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.5L/270-hp/249-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (f/r dist) 4489 lb (55/45%)
Wheelbase 109.8 in
Length x width x height 188.4 x 75.2 x 69.3 in
0-60 mph 7.3 sec
Quarter mile 15.7 sec @ 87.7 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 123 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.74 g (avg)
MT Figure Eight 28.6 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 17/23 mpg
CO2 emissions 1.01 lb/mile
Ratings
Engineering *****
Design ****1/2
Interior/Functionality ****
Performance ****1/2
On-Road Refinement ****
Off-Road Ability ***
Value *****
Bottom Line A spectacularly competent vehicle that needs to stop acting like a minivan and let its hair down.