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I have not cheered the recent development of safety technology such as forward collision warning in cars. My thought has always been that those nannies are for people who don't pay attention. I don't need a baby sitter behind the wheel. However, one of those electronic nannies in the 2017 Toyota Highlander helped me see the light.
Last week I fired up the Highlander, Toyota's three-row crossover, placed my trusty Super Big Gulp in the cup holder and started along my merry way. After taking a sip of my soda, I aimed my SBG (as I lovingly call it) at the cup holder, except it got caught on the little lever that allows for multiple sized cups. I looked down as I accelerated, just as the car ahead stopped suddenly.
The forward collision warning light and alarm went off and the Highlander precharged the brakes. I looked up, yelled a string of NSFW expletives and felt the ABS pulsing as I slammed on the brakes, bringing me to a stop millimeters from the lead car's bumper.
Adrenaline coursed through my veins and I silently thanked Toyota for including its suite of collision prevention technologies in all of its vehicles. That boardroom decision saved me from an embarrassing phone call to my boss.
The Highlander slots in between the two-row RAV4 crossover and the more off-road worthy 4Runner. Depending on your trim choice there is technically room for seven or eight passengers in the Highlander, but that third row is made more for small kids in car seats than any kind of average-sized adult. The Highlander got a pretty heavy refresh for 2017. A sharper front and redesigned LED taillights now grace this midsize crossover, and Toyota added the SE trim with some easy-to-miss sporty elements like 19-inch black finish wheels and dark painted front grille and roof rails.
For 2017, Toyota made its Safety Sense P (TSS-P) package standard across all trim lines of the Highlander, offering what are now becoming must-haves for many consumers: lane-keeping assist to keep the car from drifting out of lane and dynamic radar cruise control, which maintains a set distance from a lead car. Lane-keeping assist works just fine, but the dynamic radar cruise control doesn't work at speeds below 30 miles per hour, making it useless in stop-and-go traffic. Still, these features plus the career-saving forward collision warning I experienced give Toyota an edge.
Toyota's Entune infotainment system is adequate, but not my favorite. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are not available, and Toyota hasn't said if it will add the technology. Instead, Toyota uses its own App Suite to bring third-party apps to the Highlander. Simply install the Entune app on your Android or iOS phone, connect it to Entune, and you have access to real-time traffic and weather as well as apps like Pandora, Slacker and Yelp. The integrated navigation was pretty easy to use, but lower trim lines require Scout GPS via the Entune app. The optional 8-inch touchscreen offers quick inputs and the system booted up quickly upon starting the car.
My test model came with an optional rear-seat DVD system with a 9-inch screen, wireless headphones and a remote. It adds $1,810 to the bottom line, and with many kids having their own iPads these days, it's a tough sell. Five USB ports are now standard in the Highlander; three in the front and two in the second row for the kiddos that need their juice.
My time in the Highlander was spent in the sporty-ish SE trim one mile high in Denver, Colorado. At an altitude of just over 5,000 feet, many cars feel slower due to the thinner air, but the Highlander's new available 3.5-liter V6 engine offered plenty of acceleration. The 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque motivated the Highlander up and over some twisty mountain roads without any fuss.
The SE, with its retuned suspension, is aimed at those who want to tackle back roads with a bit of abandon. It's no Mazda CX-9, my benchmark for a sporty three-row family hauler, but it's better than most. The eight-speed automatic transmission is baby bear middle of the road, neither holding the revs too long nor upshifting at the first hint of acceleration. The ride is pretty firm but still comfortable. I wish my tester had come with the optional all-wheel drive, but hey... you can't win the press car lottery every time.
Toyota claims an EPA fuel rating of 21 miles per gallon in the city, 27 miles per gallon on the highway and 23 miles per gallon combined. For once I was spot on in the combined rating: 23.0 on the dot.
The base Highlander comes standard with a 2.7-liter engine with 185 horsepower. While I didn't get a chance to drive it, that horsepower is the going rate for many two-row crossovers. I would expect the larger three-row Highlander to feel underwhelming with the smaller engine. Adding insult to injury, it gets a fuel economy rating of 20 miles per gallon in the city, 24 miles per gallon on the highway, worse than the larger 3.5-liter engine.
You can also go green with a Highlander hybrid. The 3.5-liter V6 is paired with two electric motors for a total power output of 306 horsepower. This combination gives the hybrid an EPA fuel rating of 29 miles per gallon in the city, nine more than the V6 in front-wheel drive, but the same 27 miles per gallon on the highway.
The Highlander has a standard tow rating of 5,000 pounds, besting the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer and Mazda CX-9. It doesn't fare so well with cargo space, as it's the least expansive of the four behind the third row of seats. Once all rear seats are folded down, however, it turns darn near cavernous with 83.7 cubic feet of space, enough for almost 350 12-packs of Diet Dr. Pepper.
I would spec the 2017 Toyota Highlander in the XLE trim, as it's the least expensive model that offers heated seats and I'm a sucker for a warm butt. I'd leave the rear-seat entertainment option on the table and while I'd really like the 360-degree Bird's Eye View Camera, I'm not willing to go up to the top Limited trim with the Platinum Package. I'll just use my mirrors, thanks.
The Highlander starts at $30,630 but my SE trim ups that to $40,685 with destination. There is plenty of competition in the segment from the likes of Chevrolet, Kia and Hyundai as well as the new Atlas from Volkswagen. Although the 2017 Highlander doesn't offer anything too flashy, it's still a fine competitor and stacks up well in terms of performance and fuel efficiency. It's the inclusion of Toyota Safety Sense that pushes the Highlander toward the top of the list. Just remember to get the smaller Big Gulp. It fits into the cup holder easier.