The redesigned 2008 Toyota Highlander Limited has more Lexus in its DNA than it has Toyota. With its smart key, leather seats, as-standard back-up camera, available voice-activated GPS navigation system, and Bluetooth hands-free calling, the Highlander borders on being a luxury SUV. On the road, the Highlander's smooth V-6 provides adequate power for a seven-seater, while delivering a refined, comfortable ride.
Test the tech: Highlander quest
The 2008 Toyota Highlander comes with a very slick-looking optional GPS system, which features one of the biggest in-dash LCD screens we have ever seen. In addition to its monster screen, the nav system has some very sophisticated programming options, including one that lets a driver set multiple stops on a single journey before setting out. We resolved to test this feature on a mission worthy of the Highlander's name. Plugging "Highlander" into Google Maps, we found a surprising number of Highlander-related businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area. Armed with the addresses for four such locations (Highlander Apartments in Sunnyvale, Highlander Hair Studio in Castro Valley, the Highlander Motel in Oakland, and the Highlander Laundry Center in Albany), we used the car's touch-screen LCD display to enter them into the navigation system. After entering each address, the system gave us an option to replace the destination or add to the current itinerary at a point in the journey of our choosing.
With all four destinations entered, we set out on the 40-mile first leg toward Sunnyvale: if all went according to plan, we would not have to touch the navigation system again until we returned to our office in San Francisco. When under route guidance, drivers are given turn-by-turn voice commands in combination with a bright, user-friendly map. The Highlander shows the suggested route in blue, and reverts to a split screen when approaching an intersection to show drivers a detailed close-up of where to go. While there is no text-to-voice capability for calling out the names of minor roads, the system does name major freeways. On the couple of occasions we veered off course (intentionally, of course), the DVD-based nav system took a reasonable five to ten seconds to recalibrate and suggest an alternate route.
We reached the tree-lined driveway of Highlander Apartments without incident, and after jumping out to get a snapshot, we turned our sights on Castro Valley. However, as we left the parking lot in the direction of the suggested blue route on the map, it was clear that voice guidance had been temporarily suspended: having driven a minute or so along the route, voice guidance resumed and we were shepherded to Castro Valley. When approaching the destination, the Highlander's nav system made its second blunder in telling us that we had arrived at our destination some 200 feet before we got there. This is not such a problem for commercial addresses with clear signage (it turned out that the Highlander Hair Center had now changed its name), but for residential destinations on poorly lit streets, this premature completion of route guidance might prove to be problematic.
Upon arriving at our second location, we shut down the Highlander's engine completely and left the car. To our pleasant surprise, when we got back in, the navigation system restarted with our route memorized and directions to our third location displayed. We found our way to our last two stops and back to the office without having to touch the navigation system once. We did notice a couple of niggles on the way: other than the system's tendency to wrap up its guidance prematurely and its radio silence between destinations, it was unable to tell us which side of the road our destination was on. Nevertheless, the Highlander succeeded in its mission, and got us through our journey without any serious problems.
In the cabin
The first thing that strikes front seat occupants of the 2008 Toyota Highlander is its small LCD screen set high at the top of the central stack. This display comes standard on four of the five 2008 Highlander models (including the two hybrid trim levels), with or without the optional navigation package, and serves primarily as a screen for the as-standard back-up camera. When the car is going forward, it also acts as a very useful multifunction display, providing information on everything from trip details and fuel economy to the current A/C temperature and door-open warnings. With our car's optional navigation system, we were faced with the unique prospect of two in-dash LCD screens, one for maps, and the other for general information, which we found extremely easy to use.
The cabin of the 2008 Toyota Highlander is a combination of tasteful materials--supple leather for the seats, clean, bright plastic trim for the steering wheel and dash--together with some awfully cheap-looking fake wood (Toyota calls it "wood grain styled interior trim"), which is slapped onto the central console and doors. One of the most prominent cabin design cues is the shape of the HVAC controllers, which look like cupcakes that have been smushed onto the central stack.
Front- and second-row passengers get a surprising amount of head- and legroom that belie the car's modest external dimensions. The 2008 Highlander comes with third-row seating as standard, and features a design that enables the second-row center console to be removed to create a walkthrough to the back seats. For those who want to use the third-row seating space for cargo, the Highlander comes with Toyota's "Center Stow" seat, which is stored under the two front seats, and can be used to turn the second-row seating into a bench, giving the car room for five plus cargo space.