First Drive: 2001 Toyota Highlander
Take it with you, weather be damned
The sport/utility vehicle pond is a big one. Yet, into the water jumps another entry, the '01 Toyota Highlander. Built on a modified Camry floorpan, Toyota's newest SUV is a midsize rig that slips into its product lineup somewhere in between the RAV4 and 4Runner. While the truck-based 4Runner qualifies as a more serious off-roader, the new Highlander is positioned as an on-roader with light off-road and extra all-weather capabilities.
Two engines are available: an all new 2.4L DOHC inline-four and a 3.0L DOHC V-6. Both aluminum powerplants are typically Toyota-smooth, the four-banger making 155 hp at 5600 rpm and 163 lb-ft of torque at 4000. The even-firing V-6 puts out 220 hp at 5800 rpm and 222 lb-ft of twist at 4400 rpm. Both engines are quiet and unobtrusive, until you swing the tachometer into its upper range, resulting in a pleasing, muscular growl. The four is adequate for around-town duty, but we'd recommend the V-6 for better performance with a full load. Toyota expects that up to 90 percent of all Highlanders sold will be so equipped.
Available in either two-wheel drive or full-time all-wheel drive, the Highlander's only transmission offering is a four-speed automatic. As the intent of the Highlander is light off-roading, the AWD model comes with the V-6 only and with no low-range or transfer case. Toyota includes the same Vehicle Skid Control system employed on the Sequoia, but without the defeat button. While driving on snow-covered mountain roads above Santa Fe, the Highlander felt surefooted and balanced, with the electronics saving the day when adventurous driving met up with poor traction. The roomy interior benefits from a flat floor, and safety gear includes front and optional side airbags. At 38.5 cu ft, the Highlander's cargo capacity is within half a cubic foot of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Overall dimensions also are on par with the big Jeep, with the Highlander's wheelbase being just an inch longer. Sixteen-inch wheels and ABS are standard, and with the optional Towing Prep Package and V-6, 3500 lb can come along for the ride.
Quiet, smooth, well built, and reasonably commodious, the Highlander will be ideal for those who want a carlike sport/utility that can also tackle some mud and snow as part of its daily routine.