The Toyota RAV4 is one of the biggest selling ‘road-friendly’ SUVs but, when it comes to something bigger, the Japanese brand has previously offered only its more rugged, more off-road pitched Land Cruiser. In Toyota’s US range, however, has long been a large family SUV, the Highlander.
The arrival of the Highlander has produced mixed reviews – our Expert Rating score of 62% (as of February 2022) is earned chiefly from plusses for the comfort, space and equipment, but less impressive views of the dated interior and the drive.
What’s new about the Toyota Highlander?
In terms of the UK model range, the Highlander is a completely new model. It’s now the brand’s largest SUV sold here, assuming the role of range flagship. It also allows Toyota to claim the largest SUV line-up in the market which, by the end of 2022, will stretch to some seven different models.
Intended to be a more road-pitched alternative to Toyota’s go-anywhere Land Cruiser, the Highlander fills a gap right at the top of the brand’s line-up, offering SUV choice to large families courtesy of its seven seats. Drop the third row and you have boot space that Toyota claims no other equivalent SUV can match.
How does it look?
At almost five metres long, 1.9 metres wide and 1.8 metres high the Highlander is big, very big for a UK model, but it does not look too massive when viewed from outside despite such features as the standard-fit 20-inch alloy wheels.
That said, despite a styling treatment that relates it to its smaller RAV4 sister it’s not one of the most stylish of SUVs out there, with its generous curves and its huge front grille. Few buyers in its target market are likely to be deterred, however, once they get inside it and realise just how much space it offers.
What’s the spec like?
As befits a flagship SUV Toyota has loaded its Highlander with equipment. Buyers have the choice of two trim levels, dubbed Excel and Excel Premium, and common to both are LED headlamps, triple-zone air conditioning, a panoramic sunroof, wireless phone charging, heated front seats and an 11-speaker sound system from premium brand JBL.
Also included are a power-operated tailgate, heated steering wheel and black leather upholstery, bolstering the car’s premium appeal.
Buy the Excel Premium, at an additional cost of £2,000, and the extras added include the ability to open the tailgate by waving one’s leg, a head-up display projected on to the windscreen and a digital rear-view mirror.
The safety specification is good, with Toyota’s ‘Safety Sense’ package of active safety aids fitted as standard. So all the usual elements are present, topped by autonomous braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection but also a feature that provide steering assistance should the driver swerve to avoid the obstacle.
Other highlights include lane departure warning, assistance at intersections and a clever adaptive cruise control that reduces speed when cornering. The Highlander has not been tested by Euro NCAP, so we don’t have independent verification of its safety credentials.
What’s the Toyota Highlander like inside?
This is a spacious SUV, mostly. Obviously there is the load-carrying flexibility offered by seven seats, though the third row should be reserved for the smallest members of the family as they are rather cosy – more so than say those in the Discovery. With them in place you get a 322-litre boot, which is more than in the Land Rover though 27 of these litres are under a panel in the floor.
Mind you most buyers won’t be using all seven most or even some of the time – fold the third row into the floor and then the load-carrying ability of the Highlander really scores – the standard boot is 865 litres, with a flat floor, and it jumps to a gargantuan 1909 litres if you fold the centre row of seats too.
Adding further flexibility is the ability to slide that centre seat row forward or backward by 18cm. This enables more space in what already feels a roomy SUV, further emphasised by the standard-fit panoramic roof producing a light and airy ambience.
The general fit and finish of the interior is up to Toyota’s expected high standards but it all feels a bit bland and dour compared to the quality wood veneers one finds in other contenders, especially the dash which really does not match up to rivals. But the controls are well placed within easy reach of the driver – if you value practicality over looks then you won’t be bothered.
The one significant disappointment is the multimedia – topping the centre console is an eight-inch display with the usual sat nav and smartphone integration but the graphics, with their gaudy colours, basic detail and hardly intuitive operation are a generation behind what one expects today and what are supplied by rivals. Toyota can do an up-to-date system, the brand’s new Smart Connect unit is in the Yaris Cross and the Highlander badly needs a similar upgrade.
What’s under the bonnet?
Engine choice for the Toyota Highlander is simple because there is just the one – it’s Toyota’s familiar full-hybrid unit, now in its fourth iteration. There appear to be no plans for any other Highlander powertrains and certainly not a plug-in hybrid, Toyota arguing that such large SUVs tend to be used for cruising long distances in which the self-charging hybrid offers much better credentials than its plug-in sibling.
So we have a 2.5-litre petrol engine driving the front wheels and matched to a pair of electric motors, one of them mounted on the rear axle to provide all-wheel-drive. Total power is 247hp with 239Nm of torque, which sees this big hunk of a vehicle through 62mph from rest in 8.3 seconds.
The driver has the choice of four modes, which set the powertrain as their names suggest. They are called Eco, Normal, Sport and Trail – while off-road is not the Highlander’s intended market it is not totally helpless when the tarmac runs out.
There is also a separate EV all-electric mode, which will use whatever battery power one has stored up and can be selected with any of the four main driving modes. But in such a big, heavy vehicle – the Highlander tips the scales at more than two tonnes – you won’t travel very far this way.
Toyota claims that in certain circumstances the Highlander can travel on electric power only for up to 80% of a journey, but it will be a short one before the battery runs out and the petrol engine insists on adding its presence.
Overall the Highlander’s official fuel economy and emissions figures do not at first glance appear earth-shattering with combined cycle fuel economy of just under 40mpg and CO2 emissions of 160g/km.
However these figures would be a whole lot worse if one was hauling this SUV around using the petrol engine only, and are close to what one would expect from such a model with a diesel engine. When one looks at the overall picture, compared to its direct rivals the Highlander is one of the better models for economy.
What’s the Toyota Highlander like to drive?
We have come a long way from the early days of hybrids when you could distinctly hear the change between electric and petrol propulsion and each journey was accompanied by odd and never repetitive comments from the powertrain. The unit in the Highlander is just about the smoothest and quietest hybrid this reviewer has yet experienced and this makes for a very relaxing drive.
Weirdly the steering column does include ‘gear’ paddles, introducing an artificial sense of control of the CVT drivetrain. But in use they are as superfluous as one would expect, and it’s better to leave the system to sort itself out.
On the road the Highlander is unruffled, offering all the power one needs without really emphasising that it is doing so – it is very easy to forget just how heavyweight an SUV one is at the wheel of, the dynamics comparable to its smaller sister the RAV4.
The car stays suitably poised when cornering, with a lack of body roll, but overall the on-the-road dynamics are highly competent without the driver actually feeling they are doing very much – it’s a bland, uninvolving drive.
It’s a very comfortable vehicle to travel in, however. The suspension tends to the soft side without being too soft and so it generally does a very good job of smothering the imperfections in a typical UK road surface, without becoming nauseous for occupants.
There is a lot to be impressed about regarding the Toyota Highlander. It ticks the right boxes for space, refinement, economy and equipment with the question marks reserved for more subjective areas such as the driving experience.
You will also know when buying a Highlander that you are getting dependable transport – Toyota’s warranty extends to five years or 100,000 miles and the brand has a high reputation for its reliability.
The one problem is all that equipment is reflected in the pricing – starting at plus £50,000 this is an expensive SUV when compared to highly-regarded rivals such as the Kia Sorento, and the amount you lay out to buy a Highlander brings it uncomfortably close to vehicles from the premium brands, such as Audi and Volvo, where the badge might become a tempting factor.
Overall the Highlander is a competent, large SUV – but in a crowded market, it sits amongst the crowd with no stand-out quality to make a name for itself.
Model tested: Toyota Highlander Excel 2.5 Hybrid AWD-i
Price (as tested): £51,620
Engine: 2.5-litre petrol-electric hybrid
Gearbox: CVT automatic
Power: 247 hp
Torque: 239 Nm
Top speed: 111 mph
0-62 mph: 8.3 seconds
Fuel economy (combined): 39.23-39.79 mpg
CO2 emissions: 160 – 163 g/km
Euro NCAP safety rating: Not tested yet
TCE Expert Rating: 62% (as of February 2022)