Same popular dish now with a touch more zest.
If the automobile market were a neighborhood potluck, Toyota would always be invited. It may not always serve the spiciest or most interesting dishes, but what Toyota brings to the party usually satisfies the masses. And the refreshed 2017 Highlander and Highlander hybrid are the baked chicken and mashed potatoes of the automotive world. For 2017, however, Toyota has added a bit more spice to the recipe in the form of more powerful and efficient V-6 and hybrid powertrains, while also updating the popular SUV’s styling. It even cooked up a new variation in the form of the Highlander SE.
The Highlander’s newfound style starts with a redesigned front end, with rearranged headlamp innards (including curved LED accents on SE, Limited, and Limited Platinum models) and perhaps the widest grille outside of a Peterbilt. All Highlanders use new LED taillamps, while Limited and Platinum models add chrome-ringed reflectors to their bumpers. The SE model looks more sinister (well, as sinister as a Highlander can look), with darkened body accents for the grille, headlamp surrounds, and roof rails, along with 19-inch wheels.
Interior changes are less obvious. All models now have a 4.2-inch color display between the gauges as well as a slew of USB ports—three in front and two in back, enough to satiate numerous smartphones and tablets. Top-shelf Limited Platinum models sport new faux-wood trim, while SE models instead use accents with a dark “technical pattern.” All models except for the SE now can be ordered with eight-passenger seating (meaning a second-row bench); the SE must make do with seven seats, its leather-covered captain’s chairs adorned with a striped “ribbon” in the cushions.
At least as appealing to the Highlander’s family-totin’ clientele, we suspect, will be the standard fitment of the Toyota Safety Sense driver-assistance features on all versions. This includes adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection and automated emergency braking, lane-departure alert, lane-keeping assist, and automatic high-beams. Blind-spot monitoring comes on all but the base LE.
The other news for the 2017 Highlander involves its engine, Toyota’s port-and-direct-injected V-6—known by engine-code geeks as 2GR-FKS. It brings an extra helping of horsepower and improved fuel economy to both V-6 and hybrid models. The V-6, now common to hybrid and nonhybrid models, is capable of running the Atkinson cycle, although the hybrid uses the more efficient engine cycle more frequently. All produce the same 295 horsepower at 6600 rpm and 263 lb-ft of torque at 4700 rpm, increases of 25 horsepower and 15 lb-ft of torque over the previous V-6. The hybrid’s front and rear electric motors bring its total system output to 306 horsepower, versus the previous 280; the availability of the hybrid also is expanded to the LE and XLE in addition to the pricier Limited and Limited Platinum trims.
Fuel-economy ratings increase just as significantly. Thanks to a new eight-speed automatic, the nonhybrid’s EPA city ratings increase from 18 (AWD) and 19 mpg (FWD) to 19 and 21, and highway numbers increase by 2 mpg, to 26 and 27 for 2017. Hybrids, which continue to use electronically controlled variable drive ratios, now are rated at 30 mpg city and 28 highway for LE models and 29/27 mpg for XLE trim levels and above.
The base 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine with 185 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque carries over unchanged with front-wheel drive only and a six-speed automatic transmission. Only 7 percent of Highlanders are sold with the four-banger, according to a Toyota spokesman, and that take rate is bound to drop further with the introduction of the improved V-6, especially given the four-banger’s disappointing fuel economy of 20 mpg city and 24 highway.
Since this was merely a first drive and not an instrumented test, we’ll have to wait to see how much the new V-6’s added muscle improves acceleration times. We can say, however, that powering the 2017 Highlander away from a stoplight or overtaking a Winnebago on a country two-lane isn’t much more exciting than before. Acceleration is robust if not blistering, appropriately quick for an eight-passenger SUV. The cathedral-grade quietness that envelops the cabin when cruising yields to a somewhat coarse, baritone rumble under full acceleration, as with the previous V-6. In the hybrid, the engine seemed much quieter during our brief drive, and the stop/start system that is now standard on all Highlanders is virtually undetectable.
As before, winding roads will have the Highlander listing from side to side, although less so in the SE model with its stiffer springs and retuned dampers. Brakes on the nonhybrid models inspire confidence, but the hybrid exhibited the same nonlinearity that we’ve noted in this model previously, as the energy-recuperation system transitions to mechanical braking. It also had a disconcerting torque-steer issue. Toyota engineers attributed this to calibration of the electrically assisted power-steering system in the preproduction example we drove; its anti-torque-steer logic had not yet been finalized, they said. It should be fixed before the hybrid reaches showrooms.
The 2017 Highlander goes on sale in November, with final pricing to be announced soon. Given the price sensitivity of many Highlander customers, we don’t expect 2017 prices to rise much from 2016 levels. The 2016 Highlander starts at $31,430 for the base LE four-cylinder and rises to $44,470 for the Limited Platinum V-6; hybrid models currently cost about $7000 more than their V-6 counterparts. With the hybrid powertrain being made available on the lower trims, however, the price of entry into a Highlander hybrid will be much lower than before. We’ll see whether that entices more families to try that greener dish, or whether they stick with the (new and improved) mainstream recipe.