Who would've thought SUV makers would battle over having the strongest, most fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines? Just a few years ago, it was all about getting V-8s in as many of the models in your lineup as possible. But here we are with a faltering economy, unpredictable fuel prices, struggling automakers, and buyers with a ferociously tight grip on their wallets. Maybe not the best time to invest in SUV technology. Or is it?

The last time the Toyota Highlander had a four-cylinder engine was when it made its debut in 2001, with an anemic 155-hp, 2.4L I-4 and four-speed automatic. The take rate for the four-banger was so low that it was gone in two years, making the new 3.3L V-6 the only powertrain choice in 2003 until the Hybrid came along in late 2005. But times have changed. Toyota has gone back to the drawing board and built a new, more powerful four-cylinder engine, more suited to people who want to use their midsize SUV like a midsize SUV.

The new 2.7L I-4 uses the most sophisticated overhead-cam technology Toyota offers, where variable valve timing is computer controlled and able regulate both the intake and exhaust sides of the valvetrain, completely independent of one another. This results in more precise control of what goes on inside the combustion chamber to allow the most possible horsepower and torque in any given situation, with the smallest amount of tradeoff to fuel economy and emissions. Toyota tells us this new engine was specifically designed to handle the needs of a relatively heavier, bigger vehicle (that's why it's also going into the new Venza crossover). The engine has a long stroke at 4.15 in., to provide a strong amount of torque and horsepower.

It'll be difficult for anyone to find the typical "four-cylinder tradeoff" from the package. The engine is rated at 187 hp at 5800 rpm, with 186 lb-ft of torque at 4100 rpm and feels quite agile. Much of that responsiveness comes from the fact there's a new six-speed automatic transmission mated behind the new four-cylinder engine. The combination gives the Highlander enough zip off the line to spin the tires (our test unit was a base model 2WD, weighing just under 4000 lb) at stop signs if not careful. In fact, unless you're very careful about easing into the throttle from a dead stop, you're likely to get a good jump off the line from First gear. The six-speed auto has a "sport" setting (pull the shifter one click toward the driver) that effectively cuts out gears 5 and 6, unless you shift manually--forward for upshifts, back for downshifts.