Like a reliable friend, the 2011 Toyota Highlander goes where you want to go, joining in without complaint or hassle. Its tech may not be cutting-edge, but its many useful features come in handy when exploring new ground or grinding out long road-trip miles.
Toyota made a few changes for 2011, updating the styling and adding the option of a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine. The new Highlander has a wide, beefy grille and prominent wheel arches. The headlights get squashed by a higher bumper molding. This styling might presage a new Toyota design language, but probably not--Toyota's cars, SUVs, and trucks don't share a common look.
In top Limited trim, the options for the Highlander are few. This trim sticks with the 3.5-liter V-6, not lowering itself to the new four-cylinder. Four-wheel drive comes standard, and while Toyota lists a navigation system or navigation with rear-seat entertainment as options, you have to choose one or the other. The Limited-trim Highlander cannot be chosen without navigation, according to the Toyota Web site.
This LCD is standard in the Highlander, whether it comes with the navigation system or not.
That top trim also means leather seats and faux wood trim in the cabin. All trims of the Highlander get a small LCD at the top of the console, which shows trip and temperature information. The navigation system option adds a touch screen below that, with Toyota's familiar cabin tech interface.
In some ways, the navigation system feel shoehorned into the Highlander, and not well integrated with the other controls. For example, it can be a little baffling trying to view audio information on the main LCD. Push one of the audio mode buttons on the center stack, for radio, disc, or iPod, and a thin ribbon of audio information appears at the top of the screen over the map.
You have to push in the tuning knob, to the right of the screen, to switch the entire view to audio selection. Likewise, when route guidance is issuing vocal prompts for upcoming turns, the system mutes the music from one speaker by the driver, which is inadequate when the volume is up.
The maps in the nav system show traffic, but do not have a 3D mode.
The navigation system itself is DVD-based, older technology that Toyota has been using for years. Maps are strictly 2D, but the response time for the system is good. It can take a little time to make corrections when the Highlander gets off route. Highlights of this system are traffic data with dynamic routing, and text-to-speech, which lets it read out the names of streets.
The map DVD is in a slot behind the screen, which motors open to also reveal the slot for the four-CD changer. Motorized screens are not particularly convenient for loading CDs, and the changer takes a long time to cycle through discs. But there's no need to rely on it, as the Highlander comes with a number of other audio sources, including iPod integration and Bluetooth audio streaming.
In other Toyota and Lexus vehicles, browsing an iPod library through the car's LCD has been distractingly slow, but Toyota seems to have worked on this problem in the new Highlander. This model smoothly scrolled through lists of artists, albums, and tracks. The only time it slowed was when we hit the Songs tab on the iPod screen, and it had to list every song in the library.
Slots for the 4-CD changer and map DVD sit behind the main LCD.
Like many features of the new Highlander, the nine-speaker JBL audio system is very good, but doesn't really stand out. It offers decent reproduction of audio tracks, but doesn't bring forth vocals or detail with any sort of spirit. Bass doesn't overwhelm and the highs are less than glistening. This is not an audiophile system, but will do for most people.
The Highlander's engine is about the same vintage as the navigation system. This variable-valve-timed 3.5-liter V-6 produces 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, not huge numbers, but it manages to give the Highlander satisfying acceleration. Ford got 290 horsepower out of a similar engine in the new Explorer, but the Highlander has more responsive acceleration. Some of that difference comes down to tuning, and the Explorer's heavier weight.
The 5-speed automatic includes sport and manual modes.
Although the EPA gives the Highlander ratings of 17 mpg city and 22 mpg highway, in our testing the car struggled to reach its city number, ending up with an average for freeway and city of 16.5 mpg. In city driving, the trip computer generally showed about 14 mpg.
The five-speed automatic transmission might be partly to blame, as the engine won't necessarily find an optimum gear for the Highlander's speed. Six gears would offer more flexibility. The transmission offers sport and manual modes, useful on hills.
But don't think a sport mode for the transmission means the Highlander is any kind of canyon carver. It drives like a typical light SUV, easy to maneuver with its electric power steering. The suspension has enough antisway equipment that it does not feel dangerous when going around a corner, but it clearly has limits. This suspension is rigid enough to keep the car from bouncing around, but pliant enough to reasonably absorb bumps.
The Highlander can handle light off-road work.
The Highlander Limited's standard four-wheel drive is good for some slippery conditions, but won't handle hard-core off-roading. Toyota programs in descent control and snow modes, but keep clear of boulders, as the clearance is only moderate.
The 2011 Toyota Highlander Limited lacks any cutting-edge cabin tech, instead relying on the tried and true. The navigation system works reasonably well, and shows traffic information. The audio system offers a good number of sources, and the Bluetooth phone system does its job. There isn't much in the way of driver assistance, except for the rearview camera, and that is featureless. The availability of a rear-seat entertainment system helps out the Highlander's cabin tech score.
For performance, the engine, transmission, and suspension are all basically good, but Toyota does not exploit newer technology that could lead to better mileage. The electric power steering is one advanced feature, and the Highlander gets extra credit for its four-wheel-drive system.
The Highlander isn't much for looks, just a basic SUV shape that doesn't really shout out the Toyota brand. But it earns points for practicality, with easy access to seating and good cargo space. Where it stumbles a bit is the design of the cabin tech interface, mostly for the lack of integration between the navigation unit and the car.
|Model||2011 Toyota Highlander|
|Power train||3.5-liter V-6, 5-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city/22 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||16.5 mpg|
|Navigation||DVD-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible four-CD changer|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||JBL 9-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$40,410|