Provided you don't plan to go off-roading and place priorities on comfort and frugality, the 2016 Toyota Highlander is one of the better three-row crossover utility vehicles on the market.
The Highlander may look a little more rugged than it has in the past; yet it's still more closely related to Toyota's cars than to its rugged trucks like the 4Runner. The Highlander stands as a more civil, family-friendly alternative to the 4Runner or a more spacious alternative to the RAV4.
There's a Highlander Hybrid, which continues to tease some very attractive fuel economy ratings; yet base inline-4 and mainstream V-6 models cost less, and they'll fit most family needs just as well, if not better.
In its latest generation, the Highlander lineup has become a little more truck-influenced from the outside, with the maw-like grille and exaggerated wheel wells and sills offering more than a faint hint of rugged cues. Inside, the cabin is all car, although there are a few fine details borrowed from Toyota's trucks, some Teutonic-themed dash action, and a pleasing jumble of lines and textures.
Most models will come with the 3.5-liter V-6, with 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque; it's also teamed up with a 6-speed automatic, but can be paired with either with front- or all-wheel drive. Even here, it's not the quickest choice in the class—you'll find a turbocharged Ford Flex or Dodge Durango V-8 is far quicker—but it's smooth, relatively strong, and surprisingly fuel-efficient. And this year all V-6 models include the towing package, for a 5,000-pound capability. The 2.7-liter inline-4 in base models is the same engine found in the smaller RAV4; it's adequate with a light load, but definitely taxed if you load the whole family in. V-6 models offer a choice between front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive.
Hybrid models mate the V-6 with an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (eCVT) and through-the-road all-wheel drive for a net 280 hp that feels only adequate, thanks to an additional 350 pounds of curb weight. Additionally, its ratings of 27 mpg city, 28 highway, 28 combined are only a tease from our experience.
In the Highlander's current generation, it drives much better, handles a little more athletically, and rides quite a bit more quietly than in previous iterations. The front-strut and independent-rear suspension are tuned for less lean and more ride firmness that doesn't lapse into Euro caricature. Electric power steering is now standard, and the all-wheel-drive system can ship around torque from front to rear when the vehicle's yaw sensors detect a more engaged driver.
At 191.1 inches long, on a 109.8-inch wheelbase, the Highlander's stretched by 3 inches over the prior version, but none of it comes between the wheels. There's a half-inch more width, in what was already a fairly large vehicle—though one that's still noticeably smaller than competitors like the new Nissan Pathfinder. And a very useful tray now dominates the dashboard, allowing storage of small items like phones or purses—there's even a cord pass-through to connect electronics to the audio and power ports below.
Depending on options, the Highlander can seat up to eight passengers, just like a minivan. The front row on all models features bucket seats separated by a large tambour-covered console. In row two you'll find either a three-person split-bench seat with a recline feature, or a pair of captain's chairs. The second-row bench seat does slide to improve access to the reclining third-row seat, which has 4.3 inches more width for better comfort but a dearth of head room. The third-row bench is handy to have, but it remains very small in all respects.
There's a total of eight airbags in the 2016 Highlander, as well as a standard rearview camera. The IIHS calls it a Top Safety Pick+, and it's earned a five-star overall score in federal testing (albeit not with five stars in all categories). Among the safety options are blind-spot monitors, a lane-departure warning system, and parking sensors. Visibility is better than in the previous generation, thanks to repositioned pillars and bigger rear-quarter windows.
The 2016 Toyota Highlander is offered in a very wide range of models, although there's a solid push to make the V-6 engine the bulk of the model line. If you want the four-cylinder engine, it's only in a most basic, price-leading model, while the Highlander Hybrid is only offered in top Limited or Limited Platinum AWD models. Limited Highlanders are equipped with 19-inch wheels; rear parking sensors, a blind-spot monitoring system; second-row captain's chairs; heated and ventilated front seats; a power front passenger seat; and premium audio.
Above that, you can add the Platinum Package. As such, the Highlander Limited Platinum includes the Driver Technology Package (Safety Connect, pre-collision with adaptive cruise control, and lane-departure alerts with automatic high beams); a heated steering wheel, a panoramic sunroof, heated captain's chairs, and (added for 2016) rain-sensing wipers.
The least expensive Highlander, the 4-cylinder model with front-wheel drive, doesn't fare much better than a Ford Flex with a V-6, though, because the slightly underpowered engine has to work hard to move the Highlander's significant mass. The base Highlander is rated at 20/25/22 mpg.
Highlander V-6 models are the best bet, practically speaking, as they come with either front- or all-wheel drive and while they only manage 19/25/21 mpg in front-wheel drive form or 18/24/20 mpg with all-wheel drive.