My friend refers to his Toyota Highlander as a truck. He’s serious about it, so we make fun of him.
But my friend might be onto something, which surprises us all. The Highlander is as trucklike as it is minivanian. But is that a good thing?
It has durable latches and levers, a sort of old-school, almost stubborn use of knobs and buttons that feels more like old trucks than the more refined pickups of today. It has the ride height and towing capability customers want in rugged crossovers, yet has a smooth enough ride and refined enough materials to justify its premium $44,000 price tag.
The tester in Limited trim almost felt at odds with itself, pulled between the old reliable past and the newest technological conveniences.
The midcycle refresh of the popular three-row family hauler gets a taller, broader trapezoid grille, updated rear lighting and, on the highest Limited and Platinum trims, a chrome grille and big, chrome-accented rear bumper, giving it some trucklike chops.
But the significant change for 2017 is a more efficient powertrain. The V-6 engine boosts output to 295 horsepower, up from 270, while the new eight-speed automatic transmission with standard start-stop technology provides substantial fuel economy gains. Torque is up 15 to 263 pound-feet, good enough with the included tow package to lug 5,000 pounds, same as the outgoing V-6.
The new transmission is also more compact and lighter weight than the outgoing six-speed, and more gears mean more efficiency and responsiveness. At highway speeds, the higher gears keep rpm low, so the Highlander rides quieter. The shifts did not feel as direct as the Direct Shift name implies, however, with the transmission seeming to be unsure which gear to use. This is not uncommon in our experience with transmissions of eight gears or more, so maybe driver and transmission needed to spend more time together to make this courtship work.
The Highlander is powerful enough to make the necessary passing moves, but the quiet ride at highway speeds is more noteworthy. Start-stop, which shuts down the engine during extended stops such as stop lights, was gracefully unnoticeable.
The challenge with Toyota’s larger vehicles has been a matter of harmony. The tactile sense of old-school truck feel, with manual levers to move seats instead of pushing buttons, and a rotary dial for seat warmers, for instance, doesn’t match the touch-screen design or dings, zings, and buzzers of the advanced technology alerts.
The display screens in both the 6.1-inch touchscreen and 4.2-inch display in the instrument cluster are pixelated like an 8-bit game in a greenish blue, blinking-cursor type style. Nothing would be wrong with this on its own, but packaged in a pricey trim level, it should make consumers think twice. The comparatively small touch screen is flanked with soft-touch buttons for main menu options, but the fields on the screen itself are narrow to the touch. Navigation defaults to a split screen, and returns when there is an upcoming turn or change in direction or road identifier. It feels more distracting than directional.
The less-refined materials give a sense of ruggedness, safety, and dependability, which is backed by Toyota’s reputation. Yet the disharmony of an uncertain transmission, cabin materials that are nice from a distance but not so refined under inspection and advanced safety technology that is effective amid an oldish infotainment system causes a disconnect.
The Mazda CX-9, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia and Honda Pilot all seem fresher and more distinct, more whole. There’s an identity with those vehicles. Toyota might be coasting on the success of being the world’s largest automaker, known for reliability. And the company can’t be blamed for sticking with what works, because it has worked so well. But if a consumer were to test these four back-to-back, Toyota would feel like the old man out.
2017 Toyota Highlander Limited at a glance
Vehicle type: Three-row crossover
Base price: $43,140
As tested: $43,574 (excluding $940 delivery)
Mpg: 20 city, 26 highway
Engine: 3.5-liter V6
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Parting shot: Refresh still doesn’t feel as fresh as the competition.