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2017 Toyota Highlander: A family-ready SUV

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2017 Toyota Highlander (Sinclair Broadcast Group / Jill Ciminillo)

The 2017 Toyota Highlander is a large vehicle. There’s no getting around it. It looks large. It drives large. And if you have a regular sized garage, it will fill up the entire space.

But that’s good news for families. Highlander has a standard seating capacity for eight, and it can hold adult-sized passengers in all seating positions.

Design

For 2017, Highlander gets a small facelift, which is most obvious on the front fascia. The trapezoidal grille gets both bigger and bolder, falling in line with the polarizing family design we’ve started seeing on the cars.

These changes integrate nicely into the overall design, and the large trapezoidal grille works with the Highlander’s sheer largeness.


The interior gets an upgrade as well, and though the changes aren’t necessarily as obvious, the effect is something that’s just a bit more upscale. I would still say Highlander is more rugged than luxurious, but it just generally looks nicer.

Additionally, where Limited and Platinum trims were previously only available in a seven-passenger configuration, these trims now offer a middle bench row to up the passenger volume to eight.

Another huge upgrade: Toyota added four USB charge ports throughout the vehicle, which brings the USB total to five. Thank you.

Ride & Handling

The one thing I don’t love about the Toyota Highlander is that it’s a bit unwieldy. Yes, it is a large vehicle, but it doesn’t have to drive like one.

Case in point: During a subsequent test week, I had the extremely large Ford F-150 Raptor in my garage. And while it filled up the entire space and I did have to be mindful of how I was driving in tight spaces, it didn’t feel as big as it was. It had excellent visibility out all windows and once I was on the road, I nearly forgot I was driving a large pickup truck.


In comparison, the Highlander was sluggish and ungainly. I never forgot what I was driving.

The Highlander test vehicle was equipped with the 3.5-liter V-6 engine that delivers 295 horsepower and 263 pound feet of torque. This is an increase of 25 horsepower and 15 pound-feet of torque over the 2016 model.

I will say I’m a fairly aggressive driver, so for me, this was not enough power for a vehicle of this size. The engine always seemed like it was working a bit too hard, and it didn’t merge with traffic quite as quickly as I wanted.

There is also a 4-cylinder engine, which is only available on the LE trim. It delivers 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque.

Fuel economy

The upgraded engine does chalk one up in the win category, though, as the fuel economy gets a significant boost for 2017.

  • 4-cyl FWD (city/hwy/combined): 20/24/22 mpg
  • V-6 FWD (city/hwy/combined): 20/27/23 mpg
  • V-6 AWD (city/hwy/combined): 20/26/22 mpg


Tech & gadgets

In a world where everyone is “plugged in,” USB ports have now replaced cup holders in my must-have list. And new for 2017, Highlander now offers five ports – three up front and two in the rear. While I’d like to see two in the third row as well, I think 5 is a decent number for a seven- to eight-passenger vehicle.

For the kiddos, Highlander has an available rear-seat entertainment system that has a Blu-ray disc player and RCA jacks. It drops down from the ceiling with a 9-inch display screen and has a remote and two sets of wireless headphones.

Other nice available high-tech features on the Highlander include a bird’s-eye view camera, an Easy Speak feature that transmits the driver’s voice through the speakers to the rear-seat passengers, an 8-inch high-resolution touch screen display on the center stack and three-zone automatic climate control.

And before you ask: No, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are not available. Nor are there any plans to bring these systems to Toyota vehicles any time in the near (or distant) future.


Trims

For 2017 Highlander offers six trim levels in the gasoline model, with the addition of the new SE trim. Both LE and LE Plus are monospec and don’t come with any package options. However, with standard Toyota Safety Sense P (see more info in the safety section) on every trim, there isn’t much need for too many options.

LE ($31,590): This trim offers a base 4-cylinder engine, which accounts for the price difference between the LE and LE Plus, which only offers the V-6. The LE with the up-level engine starts at $32,680. Standard features include 18-inch alloy wheels, Entune Audio with a 6.1-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth phone and music streaming, backup camera, seating for eight with second- and third-row 60/40 split fold-flat seats and heated side mirrors with turn signal indicators.'

LE Plus ($37,480): This trim adds SofTex-trimmed seats, fog lights, height-adjustable power rear liftgate with flip-up rear hatch window, 8-way power driver seat with lumbar support, Entune Audio Plus with an 8-inch display monitor, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, HD Radio, three-zone automatic climate control and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.


XLE ($39,480): This trim adds standard comfort and convenience features, including: leather-trimmed seats, heated front seats, passive with push button start, power tilt-slide moonroof, second-row integrated sun shades, 4.2-inch color multi-information display and navigation.

SE ($40,650): This trim is the “sporty” trim, and adds features such dark paint treatment to front grill, headlamp housing and roof rails; 19-in. alloy wheels with black finish and black center caps, black leather–trimmed seats with silver stitching and pattern seat inserts, black front tray color with Matching dash/door technical pattern inserts and a sport-tuned front and rear suspension.

Limited ($44,100): This top-tier trim is all about the luxury and includes items such as blue LED ambient lighting around the dash and doors, perforated leather-trimmed seats, heated and cooled front seats, a 4-way power passenger seat, memory settings for the driver seat and side mirrors, rear parking assist sonar and premium JBL audio.

Limited Platinum ($47,220): This trim leaves nothing out, and adds in features such as the bird’s eye camera, a panoramic moonroof, heated steering wheel, heated second-row outboard seats, rain-sensing windshield wipers and puddle lamps that feature a Highlander Projection.


Safety

One of the best things Toyota ever did was make its Toyota Safety Sense standard across the entire lineup. That means you don’t have to compromise safety for convenience features as every model now includes at a minimum pre-collision braking and lane departure warning. The Highlander has the TSS-P system, which adds pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beans and adaptive cruise control. For free. On even the base LE trim.

What I have to say to that: Bravo!

Thus, it should be no surprise that Toyota Highlander is on the IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus list as well as receives an overall 5-Star safety rating from NHTSA.

Not sure what the safety ratings mean? We break it down for you here.


New for 2017

Highlander gets a mild refresh for 2017 with revised front and rear styling and upgraded interior. There is also a new SE trim, which falls in the middle of the lineup between the XLE and Limited trims. Also new for this model year, the advanced Toyota Safety Sense P driver assist technology is standard across the lineup.

A few of my favorite things

The third-row manually operating seats are really easy to manage – even for someone of a petite stature. I was able to pull and tug the seats easily into place as well as release them – all with one hand.

Another fave: Each row gives decent knee space to its passengers. That can’t be said for all three-row SUVs.

I’d also like to point out that Highlander is also available as a hybrid. And though we haven’t tested it, we imagine it’s pretty solid – just like every other hybrid Toyota builds. It gets bonus points for generating more power than the gasoline model while offering better fuel economy. It’s only offered as an all-wheel-drive model and has a base price of $37,230.


What I can leave

While size has its advantages for passenger and cargo, it also has disadvantages. It is not an easy vehicle to drive in urban situations.

I also didn’t love the engine power. Even though it’s an improvement over the 2016 model, the engine in the Highlander just feels like it has to work a tad too hard.

Lastly, my new pet peeve in all vehicles is the auto stop/start feature. This shuts down the engine when the vehicle comes to a complete stop, which in theory should add fuel savings. In reality, it creates a lag between when you take your foot off the brake and when you can actually move the vehicle.

The good news: This feature can be turned off in the Highlander. The bad news: You have to turn it off every time you turn the vehicle on.


The bottom line

There’s no doubt that Toyota makes a solid, reliable vehicle. And now that the TSS is standard across the lineup, it also makes some of the safest vehicles.

I liked but didn’t love the Highlander, mostly because I wanted more power.

But the passenger volume alone makes this a great option for families – especially since the base $32K includes all the safety goodies.

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