Perhaps unexpectedly, one of my most memorable drives ever was in a Toyota Highlander. Given that SUVs aren’t known for their driving dynamics, I was a bit surprised at the time, too. It was late afternoon, and we were on a skiing holiday in Queenstown. Without boring you unreasonably with detail, our slope time had been prematurely aborted following the serious mechanical breakdown of our rental vehicle. Hertz had come to the rescue with a then new Highlander, and we had decided to drive to Milford Sound.
To this day, I’m so glad for that breakdown. The drive from Te Anau to Milford and back was simply thrilling. The road was virtually empty and we were desperate to make the last tourist boat to avoid a complete write-off of the day. In the Highlander, we couldn’t have asked for more. It was spacious, responsive, comfortable and surprisingly quick. Dynamically, it set the bar for me then with all other large SUVs.
Which is why I was expecting big things from the new-for-2014 model. Appearance-wise, it’s pretty familiar territory, but sporting the new Toyota corporate livery and generally appearing contemporary. But for this, the third generation, it’s also longer and wider — which means a bigger boot and better interior space.
Under the bonnet is a 3.5‑litre V6 engine, a carry-over from the last model but no bad thing. It pumps out a healthy 201kW and 337Nm of torque, which will propel the nearly 2‑tonne vehicle to 100km/h in around eight seconds. That’s pretty impressive actually, and the enthusiasm of this motor, particularly its mid-range performance, is what helps set the Highlander apart.
On the road, it feels as stable and surefooted as I remember. The EPS (electronic power steering) system assists progress — particularly when pushing on — by applying subtle braking, keeping the whole experience tidy, while the steering feels suitably heavy and provides good feedback. There were no epic drives on this occasion unfortunately, but I was surprised how comfortable I felt behind the Highlander’s wheel in just a short time.
Equipment? There are three trim levels to choose from. I drove the middle-of-the-range GXL model, which retails for just under $66k. Most of the goodies you might expect come as standard, but there are Limited and Limited ZR models if you’re after more fruit. It’s the entry-level GX that gets my vote though, at a smidgen under $60k. It may not have all the luxuries, but it does have the important stuff, like impressive V6, 4WD and seven seats… and let’s be honest, the most compelling reason to own an SUV is because you have to transport people.
If you’re in the market for a big SUV, which everyone pretty much seems to be, then the Highlander makes a lot of sense. And if you’re lucky, then like me, you might just have some wonderful driving experiences to boot.
Conclusion: A large, no-nonsense SUV that delivers the goods with all the reliability Toyotas are renowned for. It’s a shame there’s no diesel option, but the V6 is a goodie.