Like many features of the new Highlander, the nine-speaker JBL audio system is very good, but doesn't really stand out. It offers decent reproduction of audio tracks, but doesn't bring forth vocals or detail with any sort of spirit. Bass doesn't overwhelm and the highs are less than glistening. This is not an audiophile system, but will do for most people.
The Highlander's engine is about the same vintage as the navigation system. This variable-valve-timed 3.5-liter V-6 produces 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, not huge numbers, but it manages to give the Highlander satisfying acceleration. Ford got 290 horsepower out of a similar engine in the new Explorer, but the Highlander has more responsive acceleration. Some of that difference comes down to tuning, and the Explorer's heavier weight.
Although the EPA gives the Highlander ratings of 17 mpg city and 22 mpg highway, in our testing the car struggled to reach its city number, ending up with an average for freeway and city of 16.5 mpg. In city driving, the trip computer generally showed about 14 mpg.
The five-speed automatic transmission might be partly to blame, as the engine won't necessarily find an optimum gear for the Highlander's speed. Six gears would offer more flexibility. The transmission offers sport and manual modes, useful on hills.
But don't think a sport mode for the transmission means the Highlander is any kind of canyon carver. It drives like a typical light SUV, easy to maneuver with its electric power steering. The suspension has enough antisway equipment that it does not feel dangerous when going around a corner, but it clearly has limits. This suspension is rigid enough to keep the car from bouncing around, but pliant enough to reasonably absorb bumps.
The Highlander Limited's standard four-wheel drive is good for some slippery conditions, but won't handle hard-core off-roading. Toyota programs in descent control and snow modes, but keep clear of boulders, as the clearance is only moderate.
The 2011 Toyota Highlander Limited lacks any cutting-edge cabin tech, instead relying on the tried and true. The navigation system works reasonably well, and shows traffic information. The audio system offers a good number of sources, and the Bluetooth phone system does its job. There isn't much in the way of driver assistance, except for the rearview camera, and that is featureless. The availability of a rear-seat entertainment system helps out the Highlander's cabin tech score.
For performance, the engine, transmission, and suspension are all basically good, but Toyota does not exploit newer technology that could lead to better mileage. The electric power steering is one advanced feature, and the Highlander gets extra credit for its four-wheel-drive system.
The Highlander isn't much for looks, just a basic SUV shape that doesn't really shout out the Toyota brand. But it earns points for practicality, with easy access to seating and good cargo space. Where it stumbles a bit is the design of the cabin tech interface, mostly for the lack of integration between the navigation unit and the car.
|Model||2011 Toyota Highlander|
|Power train||3.5-liter V-6, 5-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city/22 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||16.5 mpg|
|Navigation||DVD-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible four-CD changer|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||JBL 9-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$40,410|