Lately I’ve been exploring the notion of what’s cool in the automotive world. Can something be so patently uncool that it becomes cool over time? The minivan comes to mind, I predict that they are cool again one day. But what about the ubiquitous crossover? There are so many of them that I’m just not sure if that’s possible. A cool Toyota Highlander? Maybe not in our generation; but that doesn’t mean that its not good.
I got a chance to spend a week with this salsa red 2017 Highlander SE and can say that it’s definitely good at what it does. A car is built for a purpose, or purposes in the Highlander’s situation. Simply put its intended to “haul people and things to places”. That’s about it. It’s not intended to provide driving pleasure necessarily, but it can provide some overall satisfaction. Satisfaction that you don’t have to own something unattractive.
Toyota helped kick off the crossover craze with the first Highlander way back in the year 2000. Riding on the K Platform that has played host to just about every midsize Toyota and Lexus, the latest generation Highlander is easily an above-average looking SUV. Early iterations were sort of soft and rounded and each progressive generation has gotten a bit more handsome and a bit more aggressive. I’m not talking Ford Raptor aggressive, but if you compare the first and third generation Lando, you’ll see a big improvement.
As with human-beings, aggressiveness and handsomeness generally comes from the face. The Highlander’s headlights have been continually getting larger over the years, we can all relate right? If anything, the corporate face has worked its way into Toyota’s midsize SUV and the result is solid. If anything, I prefer the Toyota grill structure to that of corporate cousin Lexus. This SE strikes the right balance of black plastic and body colored bits, a hallmark of the SE which has typically been my favorite Toyota trim level on any Toyota.
Overall the Highlander visually got a bit longer with the debut of the 3rd generation five years ago. Even though wheelbase is an identical 109.8″, overall length is up roughly 3″ to 191″ long. That all contributes to the “tall wagon” look that the Highlander pioneered.
Similarly, on the inside it’s the same story. It’s all just “nice”‘; you won’t buy a Highlander and end up staring around the interior saying “meh”. It’s well equipped, as you would expect, right? The SE that we tested came standard with a ton of kit. In fact, everything you see on this Highlander SE, save for the floor mats was standard equipment.
My only continuing issue with Toyota touchscreens is the proximity of the volume knob to other buttons. Take a look above, in a panic volume change situation, Hanson’s MmmBop comes on maybe, and you’re likely to hit another button trying to lower the volume. Whether it is the audio source button or just preset #1, you’re going to do it. I did it. Many times. I know, I’m supposed to use the volume adjustment on the steering wheel. I know. I just don’t. In a panic radio/song adjustment, you want a knob every time. Although, maybe I should take another look at the steering-wheel mounted mute button.
I’m getting off topic here, I’m sorry. You buy a Highlander for its utility more than it’s volume knob though and it has lots of it. Utility that is; there is a trend in 3-row SUVs where the third row exists in name only. Sort of like the rear seats of a 911, it’s there to sell cars, not to actually store people. Not so in the Highlander, we used our loaner for a ski weekend up in the Pennsylvania mountains and it held 2 adults, 3 kids, some dogs, and all of our stuff. There wasn’t necessarily room to spare, but it did the job.
This is where I typically might talk about the driving dynamics. I don’t see the point in this case though, the Highlander is perfectly acceptable as a road going vehicle. You’re never going to use it in a dynamic driving situation, at least intentionally. It’s not slow, it’ll merge in front of the 18-wheeler with decent room to spare, it’s car-based so it’ll handle well. Ish. That’s really all you need to know, on to the competition.
Which it’s fierce, this is one of the most highly contested segments in the automotive world. Lucky for Toyota, the Highlander brought the heat when it comes to sales figures. According to Good Car Bad Car, Toyota sells around 215,000 per year. Not bad for a 5 year old model. Looking at the competition, that’s way more Highlanders leaving dealer lots for Toyota than Pilots for Honda; they sell around 127K Pilots. However, Jeep sells around 240K Grand Cherokees, and Ford sells around 270K Explorers so there is room for improvement on the sales front.
If you skipped to the end to see if you should buy one. Sure. It’s not particularly exciting, but it’s darn good.