The Toyota Highlander gets a stronger, more responsive powertrain for 2017, but the main strengths are the ride quality, the cabin refinement, and the space for eight.
A somewhat more aggressive look, more power, an improved set of safety features, and a new sportier SE model highlight the changes Toyota is ushering in for its spacious crossover utility vehicle, the 2017 Highlander. The SE joins LE, LE Plus, XLE, Limited, and Limited Platinum models. The Highlander Hybrid is now also available in LE and XLE trims, in addition to the carry-over Limited and Limited Platinum.
It earns a 7.0 overall on our ratings system thanks to its spacious design and newfound safety tech. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
Styling and Performance
The current generation of the Toyota Highlander, which made its debut for 2014, continues this model’s reign as a family mainstay. It goes for a true middle-of-the-road position among three-row utility vehicles—as a model that looks a little more rugged and truck-influenced than many of its peers on the outside, yet stands as an entirely carlike, family-friendly minivan alternative when you look at it from the inside out.
In front, the 2017 Highlander and Highlander Hybrid get a new grille design (upper and lower), plus different grille finishes and headlight housing designs depending on grade. Top Limited and Limited Platinum models come with painted-chrome details, while others get a silver-painted look. And Limited and Platinum models get a chrome trim garnish in back.
Most 2017 Highlander models will be powered by a revised, direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6, which produces 295 horsepower, up 25 horses this year. These models also get a new 8-speed automatic transmission that has an expanded torque-converter lockup range and what Toyota describes as a more direct driving feel. This new powertrain improves both pep and fuel economy. The V-6 tops out at 21 mpg city, 27 highway, 23 combined.
The base Highlander LE model comes only with front-wheel drive and is driven by a 185-horsepower 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine and 6-speed automatic transmission—a combination that is unlikely to return much better real-world mileage than the V-6 as it’s harder pressed. It is rated at 20/24/22 mpg.
Meanwhile, all V-6 models come with engine stop-start, letting the engine be shut off during traffic-light idling and automatically restarted with a lift off the brake pedal.
Hybrid models also get direct injection and an Atkinson-cycle version of the V-6. The hybrid system uses two electric motors, one up front and one in the back that provides all-wheel-drive propulsion, to net 306 hp (up 26 horses). The Hybrid delivers 30/28/29 mpg.
Across the board, current versions of the Highlander tend to handle more responsively than their truck-influenced styling might suggest. Ride quality can get a bit firm with the 19-inch wheels. The new Highlander SE model has the 19s plus a sportier suspension tune, but it still isn't too harsh.
Interior, Safety, and Features
The Highlander continues to offer two different layouts. Most models offer second-row bench seats that allow up to eight people in all; or in top Limited and Limited Platinum grades you can also choose second-row captain’s chairs and seating for seven. The latter may prove the preferred layout for empty nesters who want to road-trip with other couples, or for those who want to allow easier access to the third row. The second-row bench seat does slide to improve access to the reclining third-row seat. The third-row bench is handy to have, but it remains very small in all respects. For 2017, the Highlander now gets four more USB ports, for a total of five.
The base LE model comes with such features as 18-inch alloy wheels, Toyota’s Entune AM/FM/CD audio system with a 6.1-inch touchscreen, and Bluetooth phone connectivity and music streaming.
The sporty-themed Highlander SE gets a special dark-painted treatment for the grille, headlight housings, and roof rails. Inside, the Highlander SE has black leather upholstery with silver stitching and patterned inserts, matching dash and door inserts, and a black front tray.
At the top of the lineup, the Limited Platinum comes with such features as leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, driver’s seat memory, a 12-speaker JBL audio system, a surround-view camera system, a heated steering wheel, heated second-row seats, and a panoramic sunroof.
Safety features and options are reconfigured for the better in the 2017 Highlander. A new Toyota Safety Sense P is now standard and includes a pre-collision system with forward collision and automatic emergency braking, plus lane departure alert, a pedestrian pre-collision system, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams. At the XLE level, the Highlander steps up to blind-spot monitors as well, while the Limited Platinum gets a surround-view camera system.