The Toyota Highlander: Ten Years Later

When I divorced all those years ago, I ended up with two of our cars: a Toyota Prius and a Volvo XC-90. The Prius proved to be too small for my three kids + gear, and the Volvo? I never really liked the vehicle and found it uncomfortable and clumsy. It was time to upgrade, so I purchased a Toyota Highlander Hybrid. This was back in 2008, and I drove the car until just a few months ago, putting over 150,000 miles on the vehicle. A rock-solid vehicle, it served our family very well on road trips, adventures up into the mountains and the daily commute. With just one child with me at this point, however, it was a lot of car and car tech had moved forward by leaps and bounds in the interim. A few months ago I downsized to a 2017 Mazda CX-5 and it’s a great little car.

But I miss the roominess of the Highlander, so a chance to drive the late 2017 Toyota Highlander SE was an opportunity not to pass up. And, boy, has it changed; the interior is unrecognizable with its updated dashboard design and features! The exterior is still recognizable as the Highlander, but even then, it’s less boxy, more streamlined:

2017 toyota highlander se fwd

It’s still a pleasingly aggressive design, leaning forward and ready to take on the toughest road challenges. Of course, this particular model was a front wheel drive, not all wheel drive, but what little off road I did it handled with aplomb, all the while letting me listen to the terrific sound system.

Looking in from the very back, you can see how much room the interior has:

2017 toyota highlander se - view from rear

You can’t quite see, but there’s an optional third row seat you can pull up that’s not big enough for adults, but works great with tweens and teens in your family. The third row in my older Highlander saw a lot of kids when we were driving to ball games, lacrosse or even just to the park for a picnic.

Also notice above the fold-up cup holders and that the second row are captain’s chairs, not a bench: My 2008 Highlander had a 60/40 bench which let you squish three people – even adults – into the second row, but Toyota has clearly moved away from that design here. This makes it a bit less big-family friendly if that’s an issue for you.

The rear passengers gain a lot of control in the 2017 Highlander, however, including full climate controls and, with the optional rear entertainment system, USB charging plugs, a full 120V plug and more:

2017 toyota highlander rear passenger controls

Really useful, and the ability to have a 120V plug is really quite helpful for charging gear en route too, whether you’ve got kids or not. Then again, the plug + video input options also means that your children could play on their XBox or Playstation on long drives too, if that’s something you are comfortable with. Our long drives tended to involve a lot of reading and singing, but we never had a video entertainment system built into the vehicle either!

The overall rear passenger setup is quite nice, as this also shows:

rear passenger leg room 2017 toyota highlander

A decent amount of legroom, plenty enough for adults to be comfortable in the back seat, though it’s not quite a limousine. Then again, it’s not the price or functionality of a limousine either; it’s far more useful!

Moving up to the front of the vehicle, the dashboard design was the biggest upgrade in the ten years between my old Highlander and this gleaming new SUV:

2017 toyota highlander se dashboard front

One thing I really appreciated was the additional storage and oodles of plugs available. The middle portion of the dash is a shelf too, and there’s even a hole so that you can plug a charger into one of the 12V plugs below (behind the gearshift knob in the photo above) and have the wire – and your devices – neatly tucked into the shelf. The center arm rest area was huge too, at least 2x what I had on my Highlander. I could have used the space, I say!

Looking more closely at the dash, you can see that the overall instrument and gauge layout actually hasn’t changed much, it’s a pretty traditional tach and speedometer layout:

2017 toyota highlander gauge layout

The center info screen shows one of the less thrilling aspects of the Highlander SE: That it doesn’t get great gas mileage. I averaged just under 22mpg across a week of driving and for a larger SUV that’s pretty good, but my reaction is always to wonder why it can’t be 10mpg better than it is. Particularly with Toyota, a company that has pioneered much in the hybrid industry. It’s funny how so much of the car is ultra-modern with radar, lidar, and plenty of onboard computing power, but the trip odometer is still a stem sticking out of the speedometer as if it were still the mid-70’s.

I have to be candid, driving the Highlander SE made me a bit wistful about the extra space I had when I was driving its older sibling. My Mazda is a great little car, but it’s definitely smaller and has considerably less room even for two or three passengers. This new 2017 Highlander is a comfortable and roomy ride, and we felt safe regardless of driving conditions, with room for four or five and plenty of gear.

AS DRIVEN: 2017 Toyota Highlander SE FWD in Salsa Red Pearl, powered by a 3.5L V6, 5000 pound towing capacity, 19″ wheels and stop & start engine system. Optional addition: Rear-Seat Blu-Ray DVD Entertainment System. As configured: $42,440.

Disclosure: Toyota loaned me the Highlander so I could review it here on my Web site.

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