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Multi-Award Winner Lives Up to the Hype

A mainstay of the midsize SUV realm since it rolled onto the scene for 2001, the Toyota Highlander has grown in stature and substance over time. Most recently redesigned for the 2014 model year, the third-generation Highlander bolsters LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited trim choices with the availability of 4-cylinder, V6 or Hybrid powertrains. The Highlander also boasts the ability to tow up to 5,000 pounds and carries a 5-star overall crash rating from NHTSA. Last but far from least, in a market rich with solid choices, the 2015 Toyota Highlander won our inaugural Kelley Blue Book Midsize SUV Best Buy Award and earned a spot on our 2015 Best Family Car roster.

Our tester for this 5-way faceoff was a well-appointed 2015 Highlander V6 XLE AWD that starts at $38,585, roughly $7,900 more than its entry-level 4-cylinder/front-drive LE sibling. At XLE level, the Highlander comes with 2/3/3 seating for eight, leather upholstery (SofTex on the innermost tier), a full array of power assists, Entune Premium infotainment with Navigation and an 8.0-inch touchscreen display, tri-zone climate control, three 12V powerpoints plus USB/AUX inputs, power moonroof and a power rear hatch with flip-up glass. Its sole option was a BluRay DVD rear-seat entertainment system with a single 9-inch drop-down screen, remote control and dual wireless headphones -- an $1,810 extra that brought its bottom line to $40,395.

2015 Toyota Highlander at a Glance

2015 Toyota Highlander Comparison Chart

Like its exterior, the Highlander's passenger compartment reflects clean but relatively conservative design themes, with the most obvious departure being an under-dash tray that staff proponents praise for its at-your-fingertips utility while critics viewed as more of a gimmick. No issue with the user-friendliness of this Toyota's best-of-the-group infotainment system that also offered super-easy Bluetooth connectivity along with a forward-positioned 12V powerpoint and AUX/USB inputs complemented by a large center stow bin accessible via two rollback covers. Beyond that, the Highlander offers impressive scale and ease of access to all three rows of seating as well as the biggest overall cargo area when configured to tote stuff instead of people.

Although far from a Porsche Cayenne SUV in character, the Highlander does display a respectable level of cornering capability and a laudable combination of comfort and control whether in full cruise mode or being hustled through the twisty bits with modest enthusiasm. Its 270-horsepower V6 provides more accelerative pep than one might expect from an AWD ute that weighs nearly 4,500 pounds while a 6-speed automatic transmission with Sport mode also does its part, providing smooth cog changes and rev-matching on downshifts.

Here's how the 2016 Toyota Highlander compares with the others.

Toyota Highlander vs. Honda Pilot

It's true the Pilot is newer, offers slightly more people space -- particularly in the third row -- better fuel economy and has a bit more engaging driving dynamics. However, the Highlander matches the Honda's 5,000-pound towing capacity, packs a more responsive V6 and holds a modest edge in total cargo space with its second- and third-row seats folded. Unlike its Honda rival, the Highlander retains conventional volume and tuning control knobs for its audio system, a heritage cue we found far preferable to the Pilot's touch-only alternative. More Honda Pilot

Toyota Highlander vs. Kia Sorento

For buyers who feel that bigger is better, the Highlander is the easy pick here. Although it's only about four inches longer and has a mere 0.4-inch greater wheelbase, the Toyota simply does a better job of dealing with passengers -- particularly those in the third row -- and provides considerably more cargo space regardless of configuration. Those who favor a trimmer alternative will find plenty to praise about the new Sorento, starting with its 2.3-foot tighter turning circle. This Kia also boasts a smartly turned out cabin and loads of upscale features, particularly on the top-line SX-Limited variant we drove. However, at $46,695, it also was $6,300 more than our Highlander and even with $2,500 of that in the optional Technology Package, we found the Kia's sticker a bit shocking. More Kia Sorento

Toyota Highlander vs. Hyundai Santa Fe

While the Santa Fe is marginally larger in size and has a slightly longer wheelbase than the Highlander, Hyundai's hauler does boast a 1.8-foot smaller turning circle which helps it slip in and out of closer quarters more adroitly. Beyond the expected second-row air conditioning controls, it also offers a similar full-on setup for the third tier when properly optioned, a nice touch not available on the Toyota. From there on, the Highlander just brings more to the party, from superior driving dynamics and more comfortable seating in all positions to a better overall infotainment system and greater cargo space. More Hyundai Santa Fe

Toyota Highlander vs. Nissan Pathfinder

The Pathfinder's overall design seems to be aging less gracefully than the Highlander's, particularly in the cabin and infotainment areas. However, the Nissan does hold an edge with respect to overall seat comfort and legroom in the two rear rows. Surprisingly, a 360-degree surround view camera system that's optional on the Pathfinder SL and standard on the top-line Platinum model is not available on the Highlander in any trim grade. But the primo Highlander variant does come with adaptive cruise control, a feature currently not offered on the Nissan. More Nissan Pathfinder

More Midsize SUVs

Build and price your own 2015 Toyota Highlander, read our full review or check out our Midsize SUV Buyer's Guide to see more options in the segment.

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