Most vehicles have fairly subtle updates year over year so that a 2013 and a 2014 model might be difficult to differentiate unless you’re a car expert. Over long periods of time there are big changes, but even then, they are often more subtle improvements in technology and engine than major design changes.
Which is why it’s always interesting as a car reviewer to have a chance to drive your own car, just a few years further down the developmental road. My personal vehicle with over 126,000 miles is a 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid and the test drive vehicle this week was a 2017 Highlander SE. No, not a hybrid, but essentially the same vehicle.
As the photo shows, the new Highlander is a solid SUV, at home at the farm (no, it’s not my barn) or in the city. Off road? Hey, most people never go off road in their SUVs anyway, right?
And it looks solid because this vehicle weighs over two tons. It is solid. In fact, it’s a very pleasant drive and shows much attention to detail, what you get when you have years and years to tune, test, and iterate. For example, here’s the entire front console and dashboard design:
Lots of improvements from my original 2008, but the basic layout of information and gauges remains the same. Notice in particular the location of the cup holders, something surprisingly poor in many vehicles.
There’s also something in the above photo that stumped us for a few days: a big open tray storage space below the environmental controls that included a weird plastic handle. What was it? I first thought it was related to a wireless charging system, but the answer was much easier once I pulled it out: a way to snake a charging cable from the USB connection behind the gear shift so your devices sit on the shelf. Here’s what it looks like up close:
Cool, eh? If the smartphone manufacturers can ever agree on a single wireless charging system, maybe that’ll happen some day too, but in the meantime that mystery hole turns out to be pretty slick indeed.
Speaking of the dashboard, here’s a closeup of what you’ll probably spend most of your time looking at (when you’re not completely focused on the road ahead, of course!)
Simple, straightforward and notice the CD slot at the top too. Nice to have one, particularly if you have lots of audio content, audiobooks or even just like to get CDs from the public library. Notice also the subtle design touch of the rounded 3-sided buttons adjacent to the nav screen echoed in the 3-sided edges on the desired temperature in the environmental control panel.
Of course, the Highlander still features a fold-down third row of seats and a big hatchback where you can pop open just the window, if desired, or lift up the entire back to gain access to the storage space:
It’s a smart, elegant SUV.
Back inside, let’s talk about one important issue: fuel efficiency. That wasn’t so great. With a mix of highway and city driving, I saw 23.1 mpg, as you can see with this close-up of the dash gauges:
Here’s the crazy thing, though. My hybrid Highlander doesn’t get much better mileage, delivering typically around 28 mpg or so with my typical driving mix. That’s one of the secret issues with hybrids: some of them don’t offer much improvement in fuel efficiency at all versus the thousands of dollars extra required to purchase one. Of course, if you buy a hybrid to get better emissions, that’s another story, but vehicles have evolved quite a bit in that regard too.
Anyway, back to the 2017 Highlander!
One of the changes that I didn’t like much was the change in the armrest compartment from being a “lift to access” hinged lid to this sliding compartment:
It seemed more clumsy and neither my daughter nor I liked it much. You might feel otherwise, but sometimes a simple design doesn’t need to be replaced by a more complicated one!
And finally, the rear seat legroom was great, and my kids are just nuts about having bucket seats in the back with a space between them, as you can see the Highlander also features:
The flip-up cup holder was really cool too, particularly given that the back of the center console (between the driver and front passenger seats) has various input jacks for the flip-down entertainment system.
Overall, I really liked the many upgrades and improvements to the 2017 Toyota Highlander. What was amazing was how much it still felt like my 2008 Highlander too; similar seat feel, similar height above the road, viewing angles, space, etc. It drove the same too, not sporty and peppy, but certainly with an engine that had sufficient power for a vehicle this heavy. As configured, the SE I drove had a 3.5-litre V6 with 8 speed automatic transmission. Not glamorous, not sexy, but solid, safe and reliable.
AS DRIVEN: 2017 Toyota Highlander SE – v6 FWD – in Salsa Red Pearl, with a 3.5L DOHC V6 engine with 5000 pound towing capacity, 19″ wheels and optional rear seat blu-ray DVD entertainment system. Price as driven: $42,440.00.
Disclosure: Toyota loaned me the Highlander to drive for a week in return for this review.