The Highlander is a solidly established family hauler, slotting in at the bigger end of Toyota’s growing SUV lineup with seats for seven or eight, lots of small object storage, lots of family-oriented features, lots of safety technology, the only hybrid option in its class, and attractive styling—at least by the utilitarian standards of this two-box vehicle class.

While this Toyota mainstay isn’t due for a major makeover until model year 2019—the current generation bowed in 2014—it gets some significant updates for 2017: freshened styling, more safety features, interior updates, and, tops on the list, a new V-6 powertrain.

The 3.5-liter displacement is familiar, but a new intake system, combining direct and port fuel injection, raises V-6 output from 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque to 295 and 263, respectively. Similarly, the new engine raises combined output of the hybrid model, which uses a milder version of the new V-6 with synchronous AC electric motors front and rear, from 280 to 305 horsepower. Another update for both versions of the V-6 is the addition of stop-start technology.

Front- or all-wheel drive

Standard V-6 Highlanders and hybrid versions send power to either the front or all four wheels via a new 8-speed automatic transmission, replacing the previous 6-speed. The 6-speed lives on in the basic LE trim mated to the familiar 2.7-liter 4-cylinder (185 hp, 184 lb-ft), which is offered only with front-wheel drive.

EPA fuel economy ratings make the revised V-6 option a real win-win, gaining 2 mpg—21 mpg city, 27 highway for front-drive models, one mpg less on the city cycle with all-wheel drive. Tangentially, it’s worth noting that the updated V-6 and 8-speed automatic will also propel the 2017 Sienna minivan.  

Styling updates are typical of a mid-cycle refresh—revised front and rear fascias, revised lighting, more use of LED lighting, new colors and new wheel designs. The most readily discernible styling distinction between 2016 and 2017 is the Highlander’s grille, which is distinctly bigger than the current version, and reminiscent of the so-called spindle grille of Toyota’s Lexus luxury division. The fascia trend—a bigger grille is better—extends to most Toyota redesigns and freshening.

Also: Class of 2017 - New Cars Ready to Roll

Infotainment options

Inside, the Highlander continues to provide owners with plenty of infotainment options advancing through the many trim levels (six for the regular Highlander, four for the Hybrid), as well as plenty of places to stash small stuff. There are two center dash touch screens—6.2 inches in lower trims, 8.0 in the fancier models. There’s also a 4.2-inch LCD multi-info display tucked in between the tach and speedometer on all models.

Available features can take the Highlander into the luxury realm, with leather, navigation, and several audio options baked into Toyota’s Entune system.

Of even greater interest, given the Highlander’s role as a family vehicle, Toyota’s Safety Sense system is standard across the entire range. The suite includes pre-collision with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking; lane departure warning and steering assist; and adaptive cruise control.

One of the interesting elements of lane departure system is Vehicle Sway Warning, which warns the driver, audibly and with a message on the LCD screen, that he or she may not be giving sufficient attention to operating the vehicle and suggest taking a break.

Quiet Comfort

The Highlander’s dynamic strong suits have always been quiet operation and creamy ride quality, two traits that carry forward unchanged into the 2017 model year. The down side of this is leisurely responses in situations where the driver might prefer quicker zigs or zags, accompanied by substantial body motions.

However, this is not uncommon among vehicles in this class—comfort is the priority—and like most of its competitors the Highlander is certainly competent, devoid of unpleasant dynamic surprises.

And of course there’s the bonus of increased power from the V-6. More power is always welcome in urban traffic and two-lane highway passing, and it’s also an under-appreciated safety asset, giving the driver an extra resource in emergency situations. The 8-speed automatic makes the most of the power increase, and is an exceptionally smooth operator, although it lacks a really tempting manual operating feature. Then again, this is not the sort of vehicle that drivers take out for exercise on a challenging back road.

Also: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2016

Tough Segment

Originally introduced in 2001 as a five-passenger SUV, the Highlander led the way in the trend to crossover sport-utilities based on front-drive passenger car architecture. In the decade and half and two generations that have come along since, it’s grown considerably, pitting it against some tough competition, notably the Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9, Dodge Durango, and Ford Explorer, to name just a few.

The updated V-6 and new 8-speed transmission options for 2017—along with a number of interior refinements and styling updates—give the Highlander more traction in its popular and intensely competitive market segment. Expanded trim levels may help as well. Pricing for the 2017 Toyota Highlander ranges from $31,570 for a front-drive 4-cylinder LE model to $47,200 for a Limited Platinum AWD V6. The Hybrid side of family has gotten more affordable thanks to two new entry level value variants, the Highlander Hybrid LE and XLE AWD models that start at $32,210 and $42,240, respectively. The existing Limited and Limited Platinum Hybrid AWD trims also see their stickers sliced with the former now opening at $45,700 and the latter kicking off at $48,820, figures that are 6.5 percent and 5.2 percent below their 2016 counterparts.


 

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