Highlander's grille is a simple two-bar affair with a chrome Toyota longhorn emblem, offset nicely by big, detailed multi projector headlights that wrap the front corners. The beltline rises gently toward the rear, a modest effect that keeps Highlander's profile from looking too boxy. A fairly prominent crease above the rear fender blends into the big rear taillight. The tailgate is simple, and relatively unadorned, with just a strip of chrome above the license plate depression. A fixed rear window is dressed with a single wiper and topped with a modest spoiler.
In the Driver's Seat
Highlander's dash is nicely arrayed, with simple, clear analog instrumentation and a very elegant layout. I have to cast a firm "no" vote against the "Burled Maple Wood-Grain style" interior trim. It's fake wood, no matter how you slice it. No more fake wood!
An SUV really earns its stripes with the "U," and Highlander has great "U." 60/40 split second row seats are comfortable and roomy enough for adults, and fold flat for cargo. The right side seat tumbles forward to give access to the third row of seats, useful for children or small adults only, and just for quick trips. If you do a lot of school carpooling, you'll be glad you have the third row -- but don't expect it to be a popular spot. Also, when the third row seat is in place, there's very little cargo space left, so soccer moms should take careful measure. For the most part, Highlander makes a great minivan alternative.
On the Road
Highlander is available with three engine choices: a 2.4 liter inline four-cylinder that pumps out 155 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque; a hybrid gas-electric with a 3.3 liter V6 gas engine/electric motor combo that nets 268 hp and 212 lb-ft of torque; or a 3.3 liter V6 that cranks out 215 hp and 222 lb-ft of torque. My test vehicle had the 3.3 liter V6 hooked up to a five-speed automatic transmission. Highlander's performance is good, not blood-pumping good, but good for a family hauler.
Toyota's own RAV4 encroaches on Highlander's territory in its latest edition, for thousands of dollars less. Honda's newly refreshed CR-V has also grown up, and is definitely worth a look. Hyundai's Santa Fe is very competitive and worth a look. Don't overlook the Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner/Mazda Tribute family, probably Highlander's closest competition. Highlander outdoes them on refinement, but the Ford/Mercury/Mazda can compete on price. If you want less SUV and more wagon in your crossover, take a look at the Ford Freestyle, Mercedes-Benz R-class and Chrysler Pacifica for a different approach to the people-moving equation.
If you're like me, and a big Toyota fan, give Highlander a try. You can save some money with lower levels of trim, by foregoing four-wheel drive, and by choosing the four-cylinder engine. Whichever Highlander you choose, you'll get a solid vehicle with a foot in two worlds -- doesn't that remind you of a Christopher Lambert film?