The redesigned 2008 Toyota Highlander Limited has more Lexus in its DNA than it has Toyota. With its smart key, leather seats, as-standard back-up camera, available voice-activated GPS navigation system, and Bluetooth hands-free calling, the Highlander borders on being a luxury SUV. On the road, the Highlander's smooth V-6 provides adequate power for a seven-seater, while delivering a refined, comfortable ride.
Test the tech: Highlander quest
The 2008 Toyota Highlander comes with a very slick-looking optional GPS system, which features one of the biggest in-dash LCD screens we have ever seen. In addition to its monster screen, the nav system has some very sophisticated programming options, including one that lets a driver set multiple stops on a single journey before setting out. We resolved to test this feature on a mission worthy of the Highlander's name. Plugging "Highlander" into Google Maps, we found a surprising number of Highlander-related businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area. Armed with the addresses for four such locations (Highlander Apartments in Sunnyvale, Highlander Hair Studio in Castro Valley, the Highlander Motel in Oakland, and the Highlander Laundry Center in Albany), we used the car's touch-screen LCD display to enter them into the navigation system. After entering each address, the system gave us an option to replace the destination or add to the current itinerary at a point in the journey of our choosing.
With all four destinations entered, we set out on the 40-mile first leg toward Sunnyvale: if all went according to plan, we would not have to touch the navigation system again until we returned to our office in San Francisco. When under route guidance, drivers are given turn-by-turn voice commands in combination with a bright, user-friendly map. The Highlander shows the suggested route in blue, and reverts to a split screen when approaching an intersection to show drivers a detailed close-up of where to go. While there is no text-to-voice capability for calling out the names of minor roads, the system does name major freeways. On the couple of occasions we veered off course (intentionally, of course), the DVD-based nav system took a reasonable five to ten seconds to recalibrate and suggest an alternate route.
We reached the tree-lined driveway of Highlander Apartments without incident, and after jumping out to get a snapshot, we turned our sights on Castro Valley. However, as we left the parking lot in the direction of the suggested blue route on the map, it was clear that voice guidance had been temporarily suspended: having driven a minute or so along the route, voice guidance resumed and we were shepherded to Castro Valley. When approaching the destination, the Highlander's nav system made its second blunder in telling us that we had arrived at our destination some 200 feet before we got there. This is not such a problem for commercial addresses with clear signage (it turned out that the Highlander Hair Center had now changed its name), but for residential destinations on poorly lit streets, this premature completion of route guidance might prove to be problematic.
Upon arriving at our second location, we shut down the Highlander's engine completely and left the car. To our pleasant surprise, when we got back in, the navigation system restarted with our route memorized and directions to our third location displayed. We found our way to our last two stops and back to the office without having to touch the navigation system once. We did notice a couple of niggles on the way: other than the system's tendency to wrap up its guidance prematurely and its radio silence between destinations, it was unable to tell us which side of the road our destination was on. Nevertheless, the Highlander succeeded in its mission, and got us through our journey without any serious problems.
In the cabin
The first thing that strikes front seat occupants of the 2008 Toyota Highlander is its small LCD screen set high at the top of the central stack. This display comes standard on four of the five 2008 Highlander models (including the two hybrid trim levels), with or without the optional navigation package, and serves primarily as a screen for the as-standard back-up camera. When the car is going forward, it also acts as a very useful multifunction display, providing information on everything from trip details and fuel economy to the current A/C temperature and door-open warnings. With our car's optional navigation system, we were faced with the unique prospect of two in-dash LCD screens, one for maps, and the other for general information, which we found extremely easy to use.
The cabin of the 2008 Toyota Highlander is a combination of tasteful materials--supple leather for the seats, clean, bright plastic trim for the steering wheel and dash--together with some awfully cheap-looking fake wood (Toyota calls it "wood grain styled interior trim"), which is slapped onto the central console and doors. One of the most prominent cabin design cues is the shape of the HVAC controllers, which look like cupcakes that have been smushed onto the central stack.
Front- and second-row passengers get a surprising amount of head- and legroom that belie the car's modest external dimensions. The 2008 Highlander comes with third-row seating as standard, and features a design that enables the second-row center console to be removed to create a walkthrough to the back seats. For those who want to use the third-row seating space for cargo, the Highlander comes with Toyota's "Center Stow" seat, which is stored under the two front seats, and can be used to turn the second-row seating into a bench, giving the car room for five plus cargo space.
The Highlander Limited comes with an impressive lineup of available cabin tech, which rivals that of SUVs from luxury brands like Acura and Infiniti. As part of the $2,505 navigation package, our car came with a voice-command feature, operated by a talk button on the steering wheel. In practice, we found the process of using this system to enter destinations to be far more trouble than it was worth, requiring us not only to learn a set of very specific commands, but to wait for ages each time we pushed the talk button for the nice Toyota lady to stop talking. Adding to the frustration was the fact that the system insists on confirming every single step of the destination entry process in a long-winded repetition of entered information and options to correct misheard directions.
Entertainment options in the 2008 Highlander are plentiful: the car comes with an in-dash CD/MP3/WMA single-disc player as standard, which is hooked up to a six-speaker audio system and includes an auxiliary-input jack for playing music from portable media players. Those wanting to upgrade the stereo have two options: a six-disc in-dash changer with satellite radio prewiring hooked up to the same six speakers; or a JBL-branded system with the same six-disc in-dash changer and satellite radio capability with the addition of three speakers (including a subwoofer) and Bluetooth hands-free calling.
Those who option up the navigation system get two fewer disc spaces in the in-dash changer, but the same JBL sound system and Bluetooth. In our experience, the Highlander's JBL audio system delivered a clear, bright output with plenty of bass and good acoustic range. We especially liked the system's ability to display full ID3-tag information for MP3- and WMA-encoded discs, and its folder- and file-list option, which gives users a preview of six folders or tracks at a time.
Under the hood
When it comes to exterior styling, the new Highlander is an odd assembly of influences: from the front, it has the same trapezoidal snout as Toyota's brawny Tundra pickup truck while two creases in the hood give the impression of a couple of quizzically raised eyebrows; from the side, its long roofline gives it a station wagonesque profile while its 19-inch alloy wheels are very Lexus RX; and from the back, its bulky rear fenders seem to have been inspired by the Porsche Cayenne.
All nonhybrid 2008 Toyota Highlanders share the same 3.5-liter V-6 engine that impressed us in the 2007 Lexus RX-350. The 270-horsepower plant gives the Highlander decent pickup and some respectable midrange acceleration for a seven-seater. It may not be as responsive as the 2008 Subaru Tribeca we had in recently, but the Highlander matches the 2007 Mazda CX-9 when it comes to "zoom zoom" in the crossover category. A sport-shift mode provides drivers with some control over their ride, but holding any of the five gears past 4,000rpm results in an ugly bleating sound without much in the way of a performance premium.
Around town, the Highlander displays refined road manners thanks to its four-wheel independent suspension, while on the freeway, road and wind noise are minimal--perhaps due to the new, flowing wheel-arch design on the exterior. In our 200 miles of (mainly freeway) driving, the Highlander managed an average fuel economy of 21.2mpg, directly in line with the 2008 EPA estimates of 18mpg city and 24mpg highway.
Our top-of-range 2008 Highlander Limited came with a host of standard equipment as well as most of the items from the options sheet including: the navigation system with JBL premium audio system ($2,505); power rear door ($400); auto rear air-conditioning system ($585); XM satellite radio ($449); running boards ($649) color-coded rear spoiler ($200); cargo mat for third-row seats ($275); a glass-breaker sensor ($247), and a cargo net ($49). With all these line items added to the Highlander's base sticker of $32,700, the bottom line for our fully loaded tester was $39,144, including delivery. For that price, prospective seven-seat crossover buyers might also consider the 2008 Subaru Tribeca, the 2008 Mazda CX-9, and the 2008 Buick Enclave CXL. The 2008 Highlander holds its own against the sub-$40,000 crossover competition, with a refined power train and some beautifully integrated cabin tech. Now, if only there was an option to get rid of the fake wood trim.