Toyota came out of the gate early in the great three-row crossover race.
It launched its Highlander in 2001, setting off a wave of seven- and eight-passenger CUVs.
In 2005, Toyota added a hybrid powerplant to the mix, making the Highlander the first electrified seven-passenger crossover.
In the face of fresh competition, Toyota has elevated Highlander’s refinement and deepened its tech offerings.
Inside, tastefully textured soft-touch surfaces have replaced the hard plastics of earlier years. A host of anti-noise measures — acoustical-glass windshield, thicker carpet, more body-cavity insulation — cut wind and road noise. Hydraulic engine mounts and a heavily sealed body structure reduce vibration.
Standard driver-assist suite
The Highlander received its latest round of updates in 2017. Its V-6 powerplant got a power bump and was paired with a new eight-speed transmission.
A sport-themed SE trim debuted and Toyota made its Safety Sense P System (TSSP) standard. TSSP includes forward collision warning, with automatic braking; lane departure warning; pedestrian warning; and adaptive cruise control.
Gas-powered Highlanders ($31,530) are available in LE, XLE, Limited and Limited Platinum grades. A hybrid ($42,230) is available in LE, XLE, Limited and Limited Platinum grades. Are all available in FWD or AWD configurations.
Besides TSSP, standard features on the base LE include heated mirrors, a windshield wiper deicer, rear privacy glass, a rearview camera, rear air conditioning, a sliding and reclining 60/40-split second-row seat, and a reclining 60/40-split third-row seat.
Highlander’s family orientation is on full display. Cupholders proliferate, a clever knick-knack shelf lines the lower dash and the center console/armrest conceals an oversized storage bin.
Infotainment system logical but limited
The available Driver Easy Speak feature lets front-seat occupants use their inside voices when addressing those in the rear, courtesy of a front-mounted microphone and the audio system’s rear speakers.
The base LE is equipped with a 6.1-inch audio-system touchscreen. All other trims include an infotainment system accessed via an 8-inch screen. The system’s menus are logical and its layout can be personalized.
The touchscreen and some audio system controls are a long reach away and some on-screen icons are too crowded to be easily activated.
The optional navigation system uses touch-sensitive capacitive buttons that are a touch <ital>too</ital> sensitive; I spent more time than I’d like to admit undoing actions I’d inadvertently taken.
Highlander’s audio system includes a CD player, five standard USB ports (four of which are charge-only) and an AUX port.
The system doesn’t include Android Auto nor Apple CarPlay phone integration. Native navigation is available on upper trims. On lower trims, the Scout GPS smartphone app provides navigation via the touchscreen.
As the Highlander has grown over the years, so has its wheelbase, yielding big gains in ride quality. Compliant suspension settings smooth out rough road surfaces and the Highlander settles into an easy groove at highway speeds.
Steering feel is light and a bit vague at lower speeds but firms up as speeds grow. The Highlander tracks well in its lane and handles well for its size.
A large turning circle makes Highlander a handful in parking lots but, thanks to 8 inches of ground clearance and above-average angles of approach and departure. AWD versions include hill-descent control and a lockable differential.
Powerplants include a 185-horsepower, 2.7-liter four that powers the base, FWD-only LE trim. The available V-6 makes 295 hp and is mated with the eight-speed automatic.
The 306-hp Hybrid is the family’s most powerful — and efficient — model. It comes only with AWD and with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that rarely lapsed into the familiar CVT drone.
The hybrid yields 25 mpg overall (29 city/27 highway), besting all other midsized crossovers.
The eight-speed transmission found in other models is calibrated for economy, as well. Shifts can be slow in coming and are occasionally choppy.
Four-cylinder Highlanders are rated to tow 1,500 pounds. Non-hybrid six-cylinder models get a 5,000-pound rating. The hybrids can tow 3,500 pounds.
The three-row crossover has become America’s favorite fam-mobile. Toyota took an early lead in the category and isn’t going to let it go without a fight.
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2019 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited-Platinum
Vehicle base price: $31,530
Trim level base price: $48,630
As tested: $49,939 (includes destination and handling)
Options: carpeted floor mats and cargo mats
Tow rating: up to 5,000 lb.
EPA rating: 28 combined/29 city/28 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified