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. |