When looking at the automobile market as a whole, it is very apparent the three row SUV market has become one of the most crowded segments. Crammed in there is the refreshed for 2019 Highlander, which Toyota just parked in my driveway. After a full week of living with it, here are my thoughts.
Starting in the front, the grill is actually quite conservative compared to many current Toyotas. While it is still large, the horizontal slants are not overly aggressive and give it a nice character. As with most new Toyota’s, the “badge” covers the radar sensors, a much cleaner look than the slab of black plastic many automakers use. The side and three quarter profiles are definitely not great to look at. The rear overhang seems rather massive and unpleasant, especially compared to the Atlas, Tiguan, and even the last generation Highlander. This is especially unfortunate for another reason I will explain later. As you move towards the rear of the vehicle, the same “too big” problem is ever present. Luckily the tail lamp design is clean but it fails to fight the other visual issues.
Getting into the Highlander the first time is a bit of a shock. For as clean as most Toyota and Lexus designs have been recently, this felt overwhelmingly busy. The first thing you see is a giant pocket under the dash. Then you see the blue accent “leather” mixed in with blacks and greys and all together it just becomes a lot. After some getting used to, the giant pocket was actually quite nice. Designed for a phone cord to go through, I found it to be great storage for electronics. Combined with Apple CarPlay, there is no need to ever have your phone in your hand.
Throughout the cabin, I found the materials to be quite nice. One gripe I had about the Volkswagens was the interior felt too cookie cutter, as if they were designed for every vehicle in VWs lineup and not just that vehicle. In the Toyota, the interior wraps around you as if they had actually tried to include the driver into the vehicle’s interior design.
As for the unfortunate rear end size, it somehow does not translate to the inside of the vehicle. The load floor is already high, and with the seats folded down there is not much more room to be found. I would probably have trouble getting my greyhounds to be comfortable in the confined space. If the space was somewhat better I would forgive the exterior, but as it stands, it is not a redeeming feature.
Third row legroom is mediocre, but can be somewhat fixed at the cost of adjusting the second row further forward. The cost is fairly low however, as the second row legroom is quite generous to start with.
If there was any surprise about the Highlander, it was definitely in how it drove. While steering feel and sprotiness were not quite that of the Volkswagens we tested, the Highlander is simply nice to drive, even being the three row SUV it is. With a 295hp V6, it addresses all the power concerns I had in the I4 Atlas and Tiguan, but it also does this while being way more refined. By comparison, the Volkswagens also tended to make noises when hitting potholes or expansion joints. In the Highlander everything felt more sturdy. The suspension is also nicely tuned and meant I never feared hitting any road obstacle (within reason) as I continued on down the road as comfortable as could be. When pushing the Highlander a little harder, it did just about everything I asked of it while never losing traction and never letting me doubt it. I wouldn’t call it fun, but it definitely was not disappointing.
If I were to have to choose a three row SUV right now, I would go with the Highlander. The Atlas looks better and provides quite a bit more room, but the daily user experience did not seem to be up to par with the seemingly-better-built Toyota. I would also have less future concerns with reliability as the 3.5L Toyota V6 has been a workhorse for many years and will be trouble free. On the other hand, if you are willing to wait, Toyota is due to release the all new 2020 Highlander. It will be built on the new global frame and will more than likely address the space issue I had.