One may have predicted 2008 to be an unlucky model year for the then-new, second-generation Toyota Highlander. Just a few months prior, Mazda's first-gen CX-9 debuted for the '07 model year, and shortly thereafter won a comparison test against the Acura MDX and GMC Acadia. Obviously, the Highlander had stiff competition before it even hit the street. Making matters worse for Toyota, the CX-9 got better for '08, thanks to a more powerful 3.7-liter V-6 that replaced the initial 3.5. In our 2008 Sport/Utility of the Year contest, both the Highlander and CX-9 competed -- more or less against each other, as each is a seven-passenger midsizer -- with the results heavily skewed toward the Mazda. (It was the unanimous winner of the Golden Calipers.) Unlucky Highlander? Not exactly.
Looking at sales numbers for 2008 and 2009 and through August 2010, the Toyota has outsold the Mazda nearly 4 to 1. Some of the discrepancy is attributable to the 4-cylinder and hybrid versions of the Highlander (combined, the two account for roughly 21 percent of the sales mix), for which the CX-9 doesn't have competitors. But that still leaves more than 203,000 V-6 Highlanders to more than 66,000 CX-9s. Chalk up the sales dominance to a variety of reasons, including the Highlander's established nameplate, Toyota's broader dealer network, and higher brand recognition. But let's not forget that the Highlander is a fine, capable, and well-built crossover in its own right. And for 2011 it just got better.
Mechanically, nothing has changed for the I-4 or V-6 Highlander. Only the hybrid, which receives a new 3.5-liter V-6 that supplants the old 3.3, boasts any hardware updates. Aesthetically, however, the V-6 Highlander receives significant upgrades. Our Limited 4WD tester wore fresh sheetmetal from the A-pillar forward and featured such new cues as projector beam headlamps, black rocker panels, and chrome accents for the beltline, rocker panels, and front fascia, all of which give the Toy a sleeker, trimmer look. The taillamps, too, are redesigned, as are the 19-inch wheels, which wear 245/55 Toyo A20 Open Country all-season tires.
The refresh continues inside, where our tester sported black carpet and floor mats (Toyota got complaints about light-hued carpets showing too much dirt); revised, high-gloss faux wood trim; perforated leather-trimmed seats; and a 50/50-split fold-flat third row that replaces the previous one-piece unit. Being a Limited, our pre-production sample also came with a 10-way power driver seat, 3-zone automatic climate control, pushbutton start, and leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob. Options included the top-tier JBL audio system, power moonroof, and navigation.