The three-row crossover wagons class is another growing segment in the domestic auto industry with seven primary rivals fighting for customers moving away from minivans and truck-like SUVs, but still want space, utility and (usually) AWD traction benefits.
Four of these rivals are within fractions of each other in size, profile and interior arrangements: Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Pathfinder and this week’s Toyota Highlander — the sales leader among this group with a substantial edge over the Santa Fe. The Pilot — the oldest model in this group — has seen a big sales drop this year, as has the Pathfinder. At 191 inches long on a 110-inch wheelbase and weighing roughly 4,500 pounds, the Highlander is the template for this pack. All four of these use similarly sized V-6-engines too; 3.3-to-3.5-liter motors making 250 to 290 hp.
On the domestic front, the Detroit Three offer up slightly larger wagons that usually carry more weight, length and even some larger engines. This group is led by Ford’s Explorer — now the top-selling three-row wagon — followed by the GM trio, Chevy Traverse/GMC Acadia/Buick Enclave, with the Dodge Durango gaining. These wagons are 8 to 10 inches longer, add about 400-500 pounds more weight but remain in the same starting price range as the Asian wagons — $29,500 to $31,000.
In some ways, these wagons have become major alternatives to minivans. Interior space is ample, often with second row bucket seats exuding a certain spaciousness that complements family life, while third row seating remains a snug bastion for three row seat belts that seem workable for children more than adults. Unending cupholders, folding consoles and trays, power liftgates, multiple-zone climate systems, even rear DVD entertainment options further support the minivan-alternative assumption.
Toyota’s Highlander has risen to the top of this segment with recent updates that enhance this utilitarian vehicle’s mass appeal. The more aggressive face apparently resonates with consumers while the overall styling of the Highlander masks its exterior proportions; doors are long and aid access, yet don’t appear cumbersome. Inside, Toyota has equipped the cabin with a fluid design that includes large buttons and dials for the audio and climate functions (the dials need some kind of knurled surface, they are slippery to twirl), a comfortable leather-clad steering wheel, as well as ample space for traveling paraphernalia. The dash-long shelf draws praise for holding articles that have no permanent home, while the simplicity of the Toyota’s audio system also will be preferred over repetitive finger strokes on a moving target.
The venerable 3.5-liter Toyota V-6, with 270 hp here, provides ample get-up-and-go, funneled through a six-speed automatic. In mid-level XLE trim, with heated leather seating, sunroof, power liftgate, navigation, center-row buckets and more ($38,983), the AWD system adds downhill descent control, a snow-mode control, plus a locking button to keep the rear differential engaged at low speeds to help get the vehicle moving. With six of the eight days of the Toyota’s visit displaying winter precipitation, the AWD was most welcome. The Michelin Latitude tires sampled, a comfort, wear, handling-oriented M&S rated tire, were adequate for light snow and produced low cabin noise levels, but buyers who would normally experience heavy snow driving on a regular basis would do well to consider a true winter tire and wheel package to take full advantage of the Toyota’s engineered abilities. You don’t wear your Tevas in the winter, why ask your car to “get by” on compromise do-it-all tires?
Highlander ‘likes’ include the spacious cabin and overall versatility, the wagon’s placid ride and responsive handling, the freshened styling, plus the functionality of the split liftgate — the upper panel opens separate of the whole door.
Dislikes: some of the interior plastics are hard and lack the finish and visual appeal evident in several rivals, the truck’s fuel economy was at the low end of the scale, 21.3 mpg on an EPA rating of 18/24/20 mpg, while the doors close with an unflattering tinkle that belies the Highlander’s stellar quality record. For buyers who don’t need the power and tow rating of the V-6, 5,000 pounds — comparable to the rest of the pack, there is a Highlander with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine as well as a hybrid model that offers more power and more fuel efficiency — for more money, of course.
In this group, the Toyota offering has eclipsed the aging Pilot for appeal, while the Santa Fe is coming on strong. Drivers needing more than a compact class crossover wagon are wise to put the midsize Highlander on their shopping list.