Like a reliable friend, the 2011 Toyota Highlander goes where you want to go, joining in without complaint or hassle. Its tech may not be cutting-edge, but its many useful features come in handy when exploring new ground or grinding out long road-trip miles.
Toyota made a few changes for 2011, updating the styling and adding the option of a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine. The new Highlander has a wide, beefy grille and prominent wheel arches. The headlights get squashed by a higher bumper molding. This styling might presage a new Toyota design language, but probably not--Toyota's cars, SUVs, and trucks don't share a common look.
In top Limited trim, the options for the Highlander are few. This trim sticks with the 3.5-liter V-6, not lowering itself to the new four-cylinder. Four-wheel drive comes standard, and while Toyota lists a navigation system or navigation with rear-seat entertainment as options, you have to choose one or the other. The Limited-trim Highlander cannot be chosen without navigation, according to the Toyota Web site.
That top trim also means leather seats and faux wood trim in the cabin. All trims of the Highlander get a small LCD at the top of the console, which shows trip and temperature information. The navigation system option adds a touch screen below that, with Toyota's familiar cabin tech interface.
In some ways, the navigation system feel shoehorned into the Highlander, and not well integrated with the other controls. For example, it can be a little baffling trying to view audio information on the main LCD. Push one of the audio mode buttons on the center stack, for radio, disc, or iPod, and a thin ribbon of audio information appears at the top of the screen over the map.
You have to push in the tuning knob, to the right of the screen, to switch the entire view to audio selection. Likewise, when route guidance is issuing vocal prompts for upcoming turns, the system mutes the music from one speaker by the driver, which is inadequate when the volume is up.
The navigation system itself is DVD-based, older technology that Toyota has been using for years. Maps are strictly 2D, but the response time for the system is good. It can take a little time to make corrections when the Highlander gets off route. Highlights of this system are traffic data with dynamic routing, and text-to-speech, which lets it read out the names of streets.
The map DVD is in a slot behind the screen, which motors open to also reveal the slot for the four-CD changer. Motorized screens are not particularly convenient for loading CDs, and the changer takes a long time to cycle through discs. But there's no need to rely on it, as the Highlander comes with a number of other audio sources, including iPod integration and Bluetooth audio streaming.
In other Toyota and Lexus vehicles, browsing an iPod library through the car's LCD has been distractingly slow, but Toyota seems to have worked on this problem in the new Highlander. This model smoothly scrolled through lists of artists, albums, and tracks. The only time it slowed was when we hit the Songs tab on the iPod screen, and it had to list every song in the library.