Mild facelift hides a major drive train upgrade, writes Damien O’Carroll.
The Toyota highlander has been a firm favourite with fleets – particularly rental fleets – since it first appeared in New Zealand.
And it is understandable, after all a large SUV based on the same platform as the Camry and packing a smooth, powerful petrol V6 is a very appealing idea, even in this day of high fuel costs and drastic improvements in diesel.
Big, comfortable and a Toyota, the Highlander ticked a lot of boxes for Kiwis and, of course, foreign tourists who hire them by the boatload.
For 2017 Toyota has given the Highlander a mild facelift that adds a new grille and some interior trim tweaks that don’t seem like a lot on the surface, but look a little deeper and it quickly becomes apparent that the “mild facelift” hides a major drivetrain upgrade.
That’s right, despite the minor visual changes, the Highlander now gets a 3.5-litre engine and eight-speed automatic transmission straight from Lexus.
The V6 pumps out 218kW of power and 350Nm of torque and is a wonderfully smooth and refined unit, as you would naturally expect.
While not overly powerful for a big petrol six, it has more than enough grunt for any circumstances and is even surprisingly good on gas (we saw 12.2L/100km for predominantly urban motoring) for a large petrol SUV.
Like the engine, the Lexus eight-speed automatic transmission is superb – fast, smooth and well programmed.
Despite being AWD, our mid-spec GXL model still struggled to get the power down cleanly, with the front wheels scrabbling for traction under heavy acceleration, particularly in the wet.
The one thing the Highlander has always done well is being generally very comfortable and effortless, and the new version is no different. It lopes along nicely at open road speeds, but always has plenty in reserve for passing or hills.
It is, however, somewhat floppy and very American through corners, but then it is a big American SUV. Something quite un-American, however, is the ride’s tendency to get fussy and brittle over broken surfaces. It’s never terrible, just seems out of character for a large, soft, comfortable SUV.
On the outside the Highlander’s new nose is more sculpted and handsome than previously and it is generally a very handsome and subtle machine, again in the very American way of the long, low style of SUV/crossover.
On the inside the GXL is beautifully comfortable and predominantly nice quality soft-touch materials have been used in its creation. Being American, the Highlander boasts lots of clever and handy shelves, cubby and storage scattered around cabin and, of course, brilliantly comfortable seats.
that said, among the nice soft touch stuff is some horribly hard and cheap plastics, oh, and the gear knob on our test car was loose…
While the Highlander has had minimal visual changes, the new V6 and 8-speed auto have only improved what was a decent package to begin with.
It is never going to inspire any great excitement with its American dynamics and floppy chassis, but it is comfortable and nicely equipped. It is, however, very expensive when compared to the opposition.
While this mid-spec GXL costs $60,490 (the top spec Limited is a horrifying $81,490!) a top spec Mazda CX-9 AWD Limited comes in at $55,495, which does bring into question the Highlander’s value for money.
Body type SUV
Engine type V6 petrol
Engine capacity 3.5-litres
Max power 218kW @ 6600rpm
Max torque 350Nm @ 4700rpm
l/100km (Combined) 9.5
C02 emissions 221g/km
Boot capacity 813-litres (269 with 3rd row up)
Spare tyre Full size steel
ANCAP rating 5 stars