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2017 Toyota Highlander V-6 AWD

Like the 1986 film Highlander, the Toyota SUV that shares its name is a crowd-pleaser that fails to inspire fervor among critics. After more than 190,000 Highlanders rolled off dealer lots last year, Toyota’s mid-size crossover SUV entered 2017 with a host of changes aimed at satisfying the masses and pundits alike.

HIGHS
Loads of storage nooks, impressive fuel economy, cushy ride.
LOWS
As exciting as sitting through a time-share presentation, tight third-row seat, poorly placed infotainment system.

Notably, all Highlanders, from the base $31,590 LE to the top-of-the-line $48,840 Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum, now come standard with a pre-collision warning system with pedestrian detection and automated emergency braking, plus lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high-beams. Our all-wheel-drive $43,184 Highlander XLE test car also packed blind-spot monitoring, a feature unavailable on the lower-level Highlander LE and LE Plus.

Accompanying the 2017 Highlander’s numerous safety systems is the latest variant of Toyota’s 3.5-liter V-6 engine. The six-cylinder is standard on all but the base front-wheel-drive Highlander LE—which continues to use a wimpy 185-hp inline-four—and incorporates a host of modern technologies, including a direct and port fuel-injection system and an upgraded valvetrain that allows the engine to run on the more efficient Atkinson cycle. Rated at a healthy 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, the revised V-6 makes 25 more ponies and an additional 15 lb-ft compared with the previous unit. Fuel economy is up, too, with the front-wheel-drive 2017 Highlander V-6 earning an EPA-rated 23 mpg combined; all-wheel-drive models achieve 22 mpg. Both figures mark a 2-mpg improvement over last year’s Highlander and put the crossover within 1 mpg of the four-cylinder Mazda CX-9’s combined fuel-economy figures.

Toyota’s 2GR-FKS six is a gem of an engine that builds power almost all the way up to its 6800-rpm redline. At the track, this Highlander shaved 0.3 second off of its predecessor’s zero-to-60-mph and 30-to-50-mph times, hitting the marks in 7.0 and 3.8 seconds, respectively. Unfortunately, the 2017 Highlander’s 5.6-second 50-to-70-mph passing time was both slow for the class and nearly a second behind that of its forbear. Blame the new eight-speed automatic transmission’s hesitancy to downshift. Regardless, the revised Highlander’s V-6 offers plenty of grunt in most real-world driving situations. Thanks in part to our test car’s automatic stop-start system, we managed a reasonable 21 mpg during our time with the crossover, 2 mpg better than what we got from a Mazda CX-9.

 

The Element of Crossover

If the 2017 Highlander’s V-6 powertrain is the equivalent of Highlander’s charming Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez (played by Sean Connery), then the crossover’s revamped exterior design is akin to the film’s handsome but forgettable protagonist, Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert). New front and rear fascias, updated headlamps, and an attractive set of LED taillights give the Highlander a more cohesive, SUV-like appearance. But we still wouldn’t put it quite on the same level of attractiveness as the butch Dodge Durango or the shapely CX-9.

Unlike the exterior, the Highlander’s interior has been left largely untouched. Toyota did add four more USB ports, bringing the total to five—three in front and two in the rear. The cockpit features a number of handy storage nooks, including a shelf that spans the lower dashboard and a massive center-console bin that can accommodate nearly a cubic foot of miscellaneous items. Ergonomic faults include difficult-to-grip temperature knobs for the climate-control system and a touchscreen that’s too far away from the driver.

While base-level LE and LE Plus Highlanders come with a standard second-row bench seat, the XLE, SE, Limited, and Limited Platinum grades come with captain’s chairs in the middle. (The bench seat is a no-cost option on the XLE, Limited, and Limited Platinum.) Space is plentiful in the second row, but we found that our seven-passenger test car’s bucket seats were mounted too low for optimal comfort. Still, the Highlander’s sliding and reclining second-row chairs were like a pair of La-Z-Boy recliners compared with the thin and flimsy 60/40 split-folding third-row bench. Legroom in the wayback is just 27.7 inches, a full six inches fewer than what the Volkswagen Atlas’s rearmost row offers. If you regularly haul enough passengers to merit frequent use of the third row, consider the Atlas, a Honda Pilot, or a Ford Flex.

 

Shadow of an SUV

In spite of the Highlander’s carlike unibody construction and low step-in height, this mid-size crossover’s handling reminds us of an old-fashioned body-on-frame SUV, as its softly sprung suspension allows excessive body roll in turns. On the plus side, the suspension absorbs road irregularities with nary a shudder, and the electrically assisted steering is relatively quick and generally well weighted.

At 4560 pounds, our all-wheel-drive Highlander test car was no lightweight, and the excess mass made itself known when applying the brakes, as the Toyota needed 181 feet of tarmac to stop from 70 mph—11 feet more than a 161-pound-lighter all-wheel-drive GMC Acadia Denali.

With an as-tested price of $43,184, our Toasted Walnut Pearl Highlander XLE sported $3704 in options. Of that tally, all-wheel drive adds $1460 and also brings vestigial mud flaps, hill-descent control, and a display setting within the 4.2-inch gauge-cluster screen that shows torque distribution among the Highlander’s four wheels. An $1810 rear-seat entertainment system was the most expensive option, while $434 bought floor mats and body-side moldings. Standard items included navigation, a proximity key with push-button start, and a sunroof, as well as aforementioned features such as a blind-spot monitoring system and leather-trimmed first- and second-row seats (Toyota upholsters the third row in vinyl).

While the Highlander’s lifeless handling and cramped third row continue to curb our enthusiasm for the Indiana-built crossover, the updated 2017 Highlander’s long list of standard safety and convenience features, more powerful and fuel-efficient V-6 engine, and improved exterior styling will continue to attract hoards of shoppers looking for a comfortable and reasonably priced mid-size crossover SUV.