In what is the Highlander’s final model year in its current configuration (an all-new 2014 model is planned for a fall intro), the second-generation makes its final curtain call by offering additional value and more standard equipment, plus new option packages and revised audio systems. A touch-screen stereo display is now standard, and Toyota’s Entune multimedia system has been significantly enhanced. A new Highlander Plus trim grade replaces the former Tech Package and adds numerous popular features, including a rear back-up camera. The four-cylinder is now available only with the two base trim editions.
Because of a trademarked for the Hyundai Terracan trim line Toyota is unable to use the Highlander name in Japan and Australia so it’s known as the Toyota Kluger for those markets. That name is derived from the German word klüger, which means clever or wise.
It’s hard to imagine that Toyota’s popular Highlander has only been around since 2001. The first-generation helped pioneer the midsize crossover utility vehicle segment, ushering in passenger car-like performance, comfort and fuel efficiency with SUV-like roominess and versatility. The current Highlander, introduced for the 2008 model year, further amplifies those attributes.
Based on shared platform architecture with the popular Camry sedan the Highlander fits in the middle of Toyota's four-pronged midsize SUV lineup. That spectrum includes the more off-road capable FJ Cruiser and 4-Runner SUVs. Toyota’s other Camry-based mid-size crossover, the Venza, further separates the ‘sport’ away from the ‘utility’, making it more comparable to the Nissan Murano.
As more conventional body on frame SUVs, such as the Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder, gravitate to unibody construction the field is increasingly becoming more competitive. In fact the two battling for top spot are the Explorer and Highlander. That speaks volumes for a model whose current life cycle is quickly coming to a close.
To further validate that claim the Highlander has garnished more than its share of awards which include: IIHS Top Safety Pick Award; IntelliChoice - Best Overall Value of the Year Award; 2012 Lowest Operating Costs Award; and IntelliChoice Ownership Costs Award, 2012 Lowest Fuel Costs Award. The 2103 Highlander also received a crash rating of four out of five stars, by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with a four star rating for frontal collision and a perfect rating for side impact. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rates the 2013 Highlander with a highest possible score of ‘Good’.
It had been a few years since I’d spent significant time with the Highlander, so to my astonishment I came away with nothing but the highest of praise. During my week of putting it through its paces I reflected on how many times I’d recommended the first generation to various friends and family members, especially a cousin whose short list narrowed down to the Highlander and a Lincoln Aviator. Anyone remember that Explorer-based Navigator want-to-be?
The model featured for this review is the top of the line Highlander Limited, which was delivered in an attractive Classic Silver finish with ash leather interior. The interesting point is that this Highlander was void of options, yet not lacking for anything - a rarity for any vehicle, no matter how premium its pedigree. So with a base MSRP of $39,350, plus $845 for delivery processing and handling fee, the window sticker tallied a very respectable $40,095. You can easily push the sticker of a loaded Ford Edge to that price point, meaning a Ford Explorer can easily break that barrier and then some.
But if 40 large is a little too steep for the pocketbook, for about 10 grand less, you can opt for the base Highlander, or new for 2013, Highlander Plus. Those two come with the expected level of equipment (i.e. cloth in lieu of leather), in addition to a fuel efficient 2.7-liter inline four. The Highlander Plus offers easy-clean fabric for the first- and second-row seats. Meeting somewhere in the middle, the most popular Highlander model, the SE, adds amenities such as leather appointments in addition to a 3.5-liter V6 that’s shared with the Limited. Rather off the radar, as far as sales numbers, is the hybrid model which comes as the Highlander Hybrid and Highlander Hybrid Limited. Toyota’s signature Hybrid Synergy Drive system pairs the 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine with a high-torque electric drive motor-generator for total system output of 280 net horsepower.
The Limited’s (and SE) standard 2GR-FE 3.5-liter dual VVT-i V6, rated at 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, delivers effortless power and efficiency. It’s mated to an exclusive five-speed, electronically controlled automatic transmission (ECT) that offers selectable manual sequential shifting. Inline four models receive a 6-speed automatic.
The Highlander or Highlander Plus with the standard inline four is EPA rated at 20/22/25 mpg city/combo/hwy, whereas all Highlanders with FWD and the V6 are EPA-rated at 18/20/24 mpg city/combo/hwy. Our Highlander Limited, which comes standard with all-wheel drive, is rated slightly lower at 17/19/22 mpg city/combo/hwy.
The design nuances of the Highlander is clean, tasteful and to the point, and in some ways resembles that of Toyota’s larger land beast, the Land Cruiser. Looking more rugged SUV than crossover the Highlander’s design theme is accentuated by a side character line that leads into pronounced wheel arches, which is further enhanced by the Limited’s standard 19-inch alloy wheels.
The Highlander’s elevated ride height and upright seating position provide superb visibility to all four corners. Front seats are comfortable and supportive, head and leg room are especially generous in the first and second rows. Inside the cabin the Limited processes an upscale quality, where fit and finish is top notch and the design is clean and tastefully simplistic. The Highlander provides a versatile interior with seating for seven, or up to 95.4 cubic feet of total cargo capacity, which is more generous than all but a handful of competitors.
There are numerous storage compartments throughout the cabin, along with 10 cup holders, four bottle holders, two front and one cargo-area 12-volt auxiliary power outlets and cargo area tie-down hooks. Tethers and levers are provided in the cargo area to make folding and unfolding the seats a breeze. The Limited’s standard opening rear glass (within the tailgate) is a handy convenience. Load height is low, making it easier to load groceries and other cargo.
The second row seating provides 40/20/40 split seatbacks. It functions as either a three-person bench, or by removing the Center Stow™ seat, a pair of captain’s chairs complete with armrests. This creates a convenient walk-through area between the seats for easier access to the third row. A second-row Center Stow center console can also be placed between the seats to provide additional storage and added convenience for child seats. The second row also slides fore and aft as well as reclines.
The third-row provides standard 50/50 split seats with fold-down headrests and fold-flat-into-floor capability for passenger comfort and storage flexibility. Access to the third-row is made easier by placing the walk-in lever at an easy-to-reach position at the bottom of the passenger-side second-row seat. A standard one-touch lever located inside the cargo area allows the second-row seats to fold forward and flat. The third-row seats function in a similar manner, using a lever in the back of the seat.
Safety features on all models include dual front airbags, front side-impact airbags for thorax protection, head-protecting curtain side airbags that cover all three seating rows, a driver's knee airbag, active anti-whiplash front head restraints, tire-pressure monitor, antilock brakes, traction control, antiskid control, and hill-start assist. Downhill assist control is standard on AWD models. Additional safety features include a post-collision safety system, whiplash protection for driver and passenger in the front row, tire pressure monitoring, and the VIP RS3200 Plus Security System.
Again, commenting on the level of standard equipment, the Highlander Limited includes amenities and features such as: a power glass moonroof; power liftgate (with opening glass in the rear hatch); glass breakage sensors; heated leather seats; leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and display controls; 8-way power driver’s seat with power thigh and lumbar support; 4-way powered passenger seat; a Smart Key System with push-button start; fog lamps; Headlamps feature auto delay off, dusk sensors, and daytime running lights; tri-zone automatic climate control system; and a premium, nine-speaker, JBL sound system with navigation and Toyota’s exclusive Entune (The Limited also adds JBL audio, automatic climate control for the second row and available leather seats).
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Refinements to the 2013 Highlander are subtle but significant. The most important change is enhancements and availability to Toyota’s Entune™ multi-media system. Display Audio is now standard on Highlander, Highlander Plus and SE; and the Limited now features the Display Audio with Navigation and the Entune multimedia package. With these receives revised audio controls and upgraded navigation. The large knob previously for the volume now serves as the emergency hazard, and the knob for tuner is the now a passenger air bag override. That now means the audio knobs, which are now integrated into the unit itself, are much smaller and harder to use, especially while in motion. Making it a case of “if it ain’t broke…….”
The residual benefit is that with the revised unit smart phones can now be connected be integrated. However the downside is that iPhones must be connected through a USB port while Android devices can be synced.
Some features are operated by using the vehicle’s controls or, for some services, by voice recognition. Entune offers mobile apps for Bing™, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable®, and Pandora®. Entune data services include a fuel price guide, sports scores, stocks, traffic and weather.
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Toyota’s 36-month/36,000 mile basic new-vehicle warranty applies to all components other than normal wear and maintenance items. Additional 60-month warranties cover the powertrain for 60,000 miles and corrosion with no mileage limitation.
The Highlander also comes standard with Toyota Care, a complimentary plan covering normal factory-scheduled maintenance and 24-hour roadside assistance for two years or 25,000 miles, whichever comes first.
The Highlander is deceptively rewarding to drive. Most notable is its incredible agility both on the road or maneuvering into a parking space. The Highlander processes a steering feel that is delightfully light while still being responsive. Ride quality is another of the Highlander’s strengths, where it’s firm without being harsh.
While my eyes may gravitate towards newer models like the redesigned 2013 Nissan Pathfinder I prefer the overall ride and drive of the Highlander, which means I favor it over the Infiniti JX as well. Now that’s a strong statement. In a certain way the Highlander is an attractive alternative to the popular Lexus RX crossover, in price as well as cargo and passenger carrying capability. However the current Highlander lacks more advanced features such as blind-spot monitors and adaptive cruise control. Hopefully that will show up with the new redesigned.
So would I buy now or wait. A lot depends on sense of urgency.
2013 Toyota Highlander Limited AWD
On Sale: Now
Base MSRP: $39,250
Price as Tested: $40,095 (includes $845 Designation Charge)
Fukuoka, Japan, Princeton, Indiana
3.5-liter DOHC V-6 w/ dual VVT-I 270-bhp @ 6200 rpm, Torque (lb-ft): 248 @ 4700 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed automatic w/ manual mode
WHEELS AND TIRES: 19-inch aluminum wheels on P245/55R19
FUEL ECONOMY: 17/19/22 mpg (city/hwy/combined)
FUEL CAPACITY: 19.2-gallon
CURB WEIGHT: 4464 lb
Legroom (front/rear): 43.2/38.3 in
Headroom (front/rear): 39.7/40.1 in
Cargo: 13.3 cu. ft/
Maximum Towing Capacity: 5000 lbs
60mo/60,000miles on drivetrain
24mo/25,000miles roadside assistance
24mo/25,000miles free maintenance
- Nissan Pathfinder
- Ford Explorer
- Hyundai Santa Fe GLS/Limited
- Kia Sorento
- Mazda CX-9
- Honda Pilot