Toyota Highlander: Update an unfinished business

It’s only just arrived and already the refreshed Toyota Highlander has been earmarked for an important improvement.


INTENTION to expeditiously provide all versions of the just-released updated Highlander with a safety suite presently only meted the flagship is not spurred by a cheaper, popular rival already having those aids.

This assertion is from Toyota New Zealand, speaking in respect to the refreshed Highlander it has just released.

Relatively lightly revised exterior styling undersells the extent of change wrought a seven-seater that, despite being the second-best selling Toyota SUV (behind the RAV4), is still the dominant performer in its category.

In addition to changing to a swish direct-injected 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine, previously restricted to Lexus cars and offering performance and economy improvement, the model departs a six-speed automatic for an eight-speeder, and gains additional equipment, with prices increasing by $2000 to $3500.

However only the flagship $81,490 Limited steps up to a full gambit of latest active safety assists, including the automated emergency braking (AEB) considered crucial for a maximum score in the only crash tests given official recognition in New Zealand.

TNZ has been gradually introducing its Toyota Safety Sense package across its model line – the next generation Camry is expected to have it in every specification – but even though it affords as standard to Highlanders sold where ours are built, in America, the export derivatives below flagship level are not so lucky.

 New product spokesman Spencer Morris says there is intention for it to also be made available “as soon as possible” to the mid-spec GXL Highlander, which in addition to landing in $70,490 form with the all-wheel-drive that is standard to other grades also arrives in a $66,490 front-drive format, and the entry $63,490 GX.

When that happens, and whether it will alter pricing, is not yet clear.

Morris says media comment out of Australia, which has the same models and is in the same situation, about TSS being absent to constrain cost is incorrect.

The factory in Indiana simply cannot equip right-hand-drive production with the suite at present. He cannot say when that will change, but insists NZ will update the GX and GLX as soon as it can.

“We are trying to equip Toyota Safety Sense into as many vehicles as possible,” Morris told MotoringNetwork at the Highlander media preview.

“That’s our objective … the issue, I think, with TSS is that … there have been some production constraints. We have not always been able to get it on all that we want, as quickly as we want. But it is ramping up and we getting what we want eventually.

“In Australia it was reported that it was left out for price. That is not our position.”

In current configuration, the GLX and GX still come with seven airbags and provide the usual assists and ABS and stability control, while the upgrade also introduces an emergency stop signal and trailer sway control.

In addition to AEB, TSS provides high speed dynamic radar cruise control, automatic high beam and lane departure alert with steering assist.

Morris doesn’t think Highlander will be left looking wanting, as only one rival in the category has AEB.

However, that happens to be the new CX-9, which has sold strongly right from its release late last year.

The Mazda is in a much lower price bracket with the dearest edition, also called the Limited, costing $495 less than the cheapest Highlander.

Yet Mazda makes blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, autonomous city braking, rear parking sensors and LED headlights standard to all three CX-9 editions. The Limited adds in a radar cruise control, smart brake support at open-road speeds, lane-keeping alert with steering assistance, driver attention alert. 

Comparison seems inevitable given the cars are like-sized and configured, both being spacious seven-seaters, even though the engine approaches are different.

Mazda’s car has dropped a V6 in favour of a 2.5-litre four cylinder and power from that turbocharged direct injection petrol unit is less sensational, at 170kW against the Toyota’s 218kW, from 201kW previously.

Mazda’s SkyActiv unit remarkably trumps on torque however, with 420Nn against Highlander’s 350Nm. The latter is up 13Nm on the previous engine’s optimum but still 30Nm below the maximum muscle it provides in a Lexus.

Being made in America might seem to also be why the Highlander goes without a feature that is now deemed necessary on some Toyotas out of Japan, its UK-made cars and, ironically given the engine’s background, almost all Lexus product - automatic stop start.

However, the fuel-saving and emissions-friendly device is actually available Stateside – once again, it has just missed the boat to our country.

The device would seem a given for a petrol V6, even one that is now determined to be 9.1 (in front drive) and 9.5 litres per 100km, making it 10-11 percent more economical than the previous version, however Morris says customers aren’t keen.

“I think a lot of people don’t know how to use it properly … they wonder if the car will be slow to restart when they go to move off … there has been negative feedback from some people.”

Just a couple of hours’ overall driving in four different cars, none for more than 30kms’ distance, made it challenging to achieve an accurate picture of the real world economy. While the trip computer averages from those stints in the cars I experienced were in the 11-12L/100km zone, the mill was unsurprisingly drinking less when experiencing Auckland’s southern motorway at a relaxed 100kmh than when taking on tighter secondary roads in the Clevedon area.

The new powertrain is going to be welcomed. The old engine was certainly smooth and punchy, but the replacement just does a better job of presenting as the category’s most refined choice. It is impressively hushed at cruise and, even though there is some roar under heavy acceleration, it’s not enough by any means to cause occupants to shout to make themselves heard. Interestingly, Toyota says all its engine output and economy claims are based on it being fed the lowest quality petrol available here, 91 octane. It anticipates the engine might be better still when fed a better brew, though it has no specific data to support this.

The eight-speed automatic is also an improvement, being quick to nip down to a lower gear when needed. Acceleration from standstill can still be a little slow, but its change points are hard to pick.

The quiet and comfortable ride qualities of the previous Highlander carry through to the new. It soaks up bumps and ruts well.

But in sorting the suspension tune to put comfort first, Toyota has created a car that, when hustled quickly, loses dynamic composure. The tyres’ grip – and the car’s weight – thankfully keep it on track when the lateral and longitudinal body movement become extreme. It’s not a car that imparts a lot of driver feel either. The steering is accurate but the steering wheel feel is really light and, on centre, a bit dozy. It’s the American way, I guess.

There’s more to show that Highlander puts its Stateside audience first. The seat design is another aspect that adds strength to that theory. I’m a big bloke but the flat and wide front chairs are clearly shaped for even larger and wider body types.

The continuation of a foot-operated parking brake seems another Americanism that should have been redressed but still hasn’t.

The biggest weirdness crops up when you start searching for the ‘power’ function that sharpens up the transmission. It is not an orthodox button nor is it located anywhere near the gear selector. Rather, this function is actioned through calling up a sub-menu on the electronic display between the tachometer and speedometer. That’s a new one on me and seems an utterly needless complexity.

As a large family-minded rig, the Highlander keeps doing a good job. The sliding mid-row seat and careful thought given to how the third row is developed, not just with reasonable (if primarily kid-sized) space but also provision of air vents and bottle holders, is typical of Toyota thoroughness.

Build quality excellence reminds that, in Toyota’s world, a plant’s geographic location has no bearing on quality.

The GX model didn’t get a look in on launch, so we swapped between the GXL and Limited. The first is comfortably appointed, with highlights including satellite navigation and a powered tailgate with an independently opening glass hatch, however the Limited is clearly the one that will be preferred by private purchasers seek a plush environment.

As before, the range's standard features list already includes air conditioning (three-zone climate control in GXL and Limited), cruise control, electric power steering, six-speaker display audio – no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, unfortunately, but with Toyota Link connected mobility - front foglamps, privacy glass, and power-adjustable exterior mirrors.

In addition to the standard fare of keyless entry and ignition, roof rails, a 12-way power adjustable driver's seat, it adds extra finery in the form of ventilated heated and cooled front seats, an opening sunroof, a nine-inch rear entertainment display with a Bluray player, heated exterior mirrors with memory function and puddle lamps, electrochromatic interior mirror, second-row retractable sunshades and a reversing guide monitor for the rear-view camera.

The Limited also stocks up on front parking sensors and rear cross-traffic alert, along with a new "panoramic view" monitor that uses front, rear and side mirror-mounted cameras (making four in total) to create a top-down bird's-eye view.

The lane departure alert is now also joined by steering assistance and sway warning that comes into play if the system – using the external cameras and data from steering inputs or a lack thereof – detects potential driver drowsiness or inattention.

Highlander continues to present a bold front; new new headlights with newly integrated LED daytime lights span the range, along with a bold new dual-grille design. The rear lights are now LEDs.

The GX and GXL get a silver finish to their new grille, while the Grande goes shiny with a painted chrome grille and a chrome garnish at the rear.

As expected, it takes new wheel designs, with the GX and GXL on 18 inch rims and the Limited stepping up to 19s.

In the cabin, there's new silver metallic highlights for the GX and GXL models, while the Limited gets woodgrain-look garnishes and ambient blue LED lighting to the dash and doors.

The SUV sector has recently ascended to absolute favouritism in NZ but Toyota here reckons the consumer swing toward these models hasn’t stopped.

Noting that national SUV sales have increased an incredible 238 percent over the past decade, it is picking that these models will be the primary driver for pushing up new vehicles sales to an unprecedented 157,000 units this year.

Highlander has been doing its bit and, though official Government collated data suggests 1049 of last year’s 1989 total registrations were to car rental companies, the distributor insists the updates are mainly expected to keep private buyers sweet.