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.

Weighing a relatively light 4480 pounds (the last CX-9 Grand Touring AWD we tested tipped the scales at 4633), the Highlander Limited 4WD soldiers on with Toyota's ubiquitous 3.5-liter V-6. It's good for 270 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 248 pound-feet of torque at 4700, mated to a five-speed automatic. If you're wondering why no six-speed, well, so are we, especially since the 2.7-liter Highlander gets one. But the five-speed works, and works well. Acceleration -- 0 to 60 in 7.2 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.6 at 88.0 mph -- is brisk (the CX-9 needs 7.8 and 16.0 at 87.8); shifts are smooth and quick; and fuel economy, at 17 city/22 highway, is respectable for the class (the six-speed CX-9 AWD is rated at 16/22). Further, the Limited 4WD, with is 55-series rubber and strut suspension, puts down solid handlings numbers of 0.74 g lateral acceleration and 28.7 seconds in the figure eight (the CX-9 delivered 0.77 and 28.4).

While the Highlander performs well objectively, it falls a little short subjectively. The steering comes across too light and artificial, lacking the organic directness of the CX-9's. The suspension, tuned on the soft side for a Limited-fitting luxurious ride, nonetheless seems busier and slightly harsher than the Mazda's, which just happens to work in conjunction with larger 20-inch wheels. As you may have ascertained, we still prefer the CX-9 to the Highlander, but that's not to say we don't recognize the Toyota's virtues. Let's start with towing. While the CX-9 tops out at 3500 pounds, the Highlander can pull 5000. Off-roading? While neither is a rock crawler, the Highlander offers a smidge more ground clearance (8.1 inches versus 8.0) and better approach/departure angles, so venturing off the beaten path is less of a daunting task.

Now built exclusively at Toyota's Princeton, Indiana, factory (the hybrid still comes from Japan), the Highlander V-6 remains a very competent, capable, and well-executed three-row crossover. Perhaps to a fault. "Engaging" and "fun to drive" are really the only two Highlander boxes left unchecked. So if you're looking for a seven-passenger sport/ute with those boxes checked, then the Mazda dealer has your rig. If not, then you'll be extremely satisfied with the 2011 Highlander.


2011 Toyota Highlander Limited 4WD
Base price $37,155
Price as tested $41,000 (est)
Vehicle layout Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.5L/270-hp/248-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight (f/r dist) 4480 lb (55/45%)
Wheelbase 109.8 in
Length x width x height 188.4 x 75.2 x 00.0 in
0-60 mph 7.2 sec
Quarter mile 15.6 sec @ 88.0 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 128 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.74 g (avg)
MT Figure Eight 28.7 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 17/22 mpg
CO2 emissions 1.02 lb/mile
Average fuel econ 21.0 mpg
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