By KBB.com Editors
The first Highlander arrived in 2001 as Toyota's third car-based crossover SUV, following the compact RAV4 and the mid-size luxury Lexus RX 300. As the Toyota brand's more affordable version of the RX, it, like the RX, was built on the Camry sedan platform. And like its Lexus cousin, the Highlander has been very successful. Although its styling is far from distinctive, the Highlander offers its owners multiple benefits that include excellent ratings in the areas of safety, service and reliability, not to mention resale. For 2009, a new four-cylinder model is added, promising better fuel economy and a lower base price. There's also a hybrid model which is reviewed separately.You'll Like This Car If...
If a well-regarded mid-size crossover with an optional third row tops your wish list, you should take a good look at this one. It's feature-laden, neither too big nor too small and should prove reliable for many years.You May Not Like This Car If...
For buyers with more specialized needs or wants, the Highlander's well-rounded personality might not be as appealing as the sporty character of the Mazda CX-9 or Ford Flex. Similarly, the Highlander can't match the higher towing capacity of the Ford Explorer or Nissan Pathfinder.What's New for 2009
A new 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is added to the base two-wheel drive trim. Also, a number of stand alone options have been bundled into six new packages offering savings from $300 to $1,200, depending upon the model.Driving It Driving Impressions
We drove one of our test Highlander Limited 4x4s in intermittent rain on alternating wet and dry asphalt and found it confidence-inspiring all the while. Even if it isn't as fast as the V6 version of the RAV4, its little brother, the Highlander's 270-horsepower V6 is about as silky and powerful as you'll find in the category. Informal zero-to-60 miles-per-hour acceleration tests showed the Highlander to accelerate with sport sedan alacrity, while we noted fuel economy ranging between 16 and 20 miles per gallon. Except for its still difficult-to-access third row, the Highlander's seating was roomy and comfortable, and its ride, handling and braking excellent.Favorite Features
Center Stow Seat
This clever feature allows the second row of seats to be converted from three-across to two-across seating, opening a convenient pass-through area to access the third-row seats. The seat stows easily out of sight in the center console.
Hill-Start and Downhill Assist Control
If you live in rolling terrain, you'll appreciate these features that prevent the Highlander from rolling backward at a stop on steep up-grades and controls downhill speed (on non-hybrid four-wheel drive models) during slippery descents.
The new Highlander's spacious interior is at once conservative, functional and attractive. Nice touches include huge round knobs for the primary radio and climate controls – easy to find and operate even while wearing gloves – and plenty of convenient spots for things like drinks and cell phones. The steering wheel offers manual tilt and telescope adjustment and, on Limited models, easy-to-access audio and climate control buttons. The reclining second-row seats also slide 4.7 inches fore-aft and offer a lift-out middle seat cushion for pass-through into the rear row, while the bigger new third row can comfortably accommodate not only children but even limber adults, at least on shorter trips.Exterior
Styled in California, the 2009 Highlander design intentionally moves away from traditional SUV styling. Toyota says it makes a statement of strength instead of ruggedness, intelligence over toughness. We can tell you that it is an attractive vehicle that is designed more to blend into the automotive landscape than stand out from it. While it's definitely more curvaceous than the original Highlander, it offers a traditional SUV profile but is lower and more car-like, which makes sense based on its Camry roots. It is not as distinctive as the Hyundai Veracruz or the Buick Enclave crossovers, for instance, but it is handsome. Available 19-inch wheels help balance the more substantial look.Notable Standard Equipment
The base front-wheel-drive Highlander rolls on 17-inch alloy wheels and comes with halogen headlamps, AM/FM/CD MP3/WMA-capable six-speaker stereo, tilt/telescope steering wheel, interchangeable Center Stow seat and center console and an aerodynamic rear spoiler. The V6 trim adds a hideaway third-row seat. Standard safety features include seven airbags, stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution. The Sport trim adds 19-inch wheels/tires, a back-up camera, leather-wrapped steering wheel, a six-CD changer and a 3.5-inch multifunction display. The top-of-the line Limited coddles its owners with full leather and woodgrain trim, power front seats, dual-zone climate control and a "smart" keyless entry and ignition system.Notable Optional Equipment
Options available on the base V6 Highlander include a two-row seating package that eliminates the standard third-row seat, manual rear heating/air conditioning for the second and third rows, a cargo-area tonneau cover and a tow-prep package. Stepping up to a Sport or Limited brings a much broader spectrum of add-ons, most notably front dual-zone automatic climate control (standard on Limited), automatic rear air conditioning, multi-stage heated leather front seats, power moonroof, rear-seat entertainment system, power liftgate and a navigation system with premium audio, voice activation and Bluetooth phone connectivity. Four-wheel drive models are available in all V6 grades.Under the Hood
The 2009 Highlander gets a new 2.7-liter four cylinder engine available on the base trim only. The 2.7-liter is near the top of its class in the areas of fuel efficiency and power, with 187 horsepower on tap and upwards of 27 miles per gallon in highway driving. The Highlander V6 model packs a 270 horsepower 3.5-liter dual-variable-valve-timing V6 under its sculpted hood. The four-cylinder engine is mated to an all-new six-speed gearbox, while the V6 model makes due with an electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission with selectable manual shift control.
2.7-liter in-line 4
187 horsepower @ 5800 rpm
186 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4100 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 20/27
270 horsepower @ 6200 rpm
248 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4700 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 18/24 (FWD); 17/23 (4WD)
The 2009 Toyota Highlander starts at a Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of about $26,500 and will top $42,000 when fully loaded. We expect our Fair Purchase Prices to reflect real-world transaction prices at or near sticker price. As to its key competitors, there are a number to choose from. Some, like the Hyundai Veracruz, offer a lower price for a comparably equipped model but don't have the Highlander's strong resale value. The V6-powered Honda Pilot is about the closest competitor in the areas of price, resale and features.