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2016 Toyota Highlander: Competent and smooth, and dull

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On: Sat, May 28, 2016 at 8:52AM | By: Jon Summers

2016 Toyota Highlander: Competent and smooth, and dull

Toyota is not just a car company, it is a place too. The city of Toyota was renamed by the Japanese government in 1959, to recognize the work rebuilding the nation carried out by Mr. Toyoda’s company in the difficult decades after WW2. These noble intentions go a long way to explaining the qualities still associated with Toyota—very high build quality and excellent reliability, but design often so conservative as to be dull.

Thoroughly competent, completely inoffensive, and utterly forgettable sums up my test notes after a few days with a 2016 Highlander. As a new dad spending a few days with the in-laws, I felt it a prudent time to examine SUVs. Selection of the Highlander size came after careful consideration since RAV4/X3/GLKs are barely any larger than the long suffering ’04 BMW 325i, deemed too small for us all to fit, while anything larger than a Tahoe won’t fit into the small urban parking spaces found around Santa Monica and Marina del Rey where we were staying.

Taking this space criterion first, the Highlander scored well here. It is significantly wider than cars/RAV4-sized SUVs, meaning that in the back seat two above-average-sized adults can fit comfortably alongside a child seat. The trunk too was large enough to swallow luggage for five people for a week easily, without recourse to suitcase Tetris. Comparing SUVs with minivans, it is easy to see why SUVs tend to be the preferred option, since the raised ride height not only makes one feel regal, looking down upon mere car drivers, it also makes loading children into car seats significantly easier. Until you become a parent, you don’t appreciate what a big deal it is to be able to stand up straight, rather than having to bend over while wrestling your offspring into their seat.

Our diamond white example showed 26,000 miles, and wore them well; despite interior stains and damaged plastic trim outside, the driving experience was rattle free, completely as you would expect it to have been at 26 miles, with the underhood area absolutely pristine, the oil still looking like honey.

The motor was civilized and quiet until asked to exert itself, when it became rather strained and vocal. It is fine in the normal run of traffic, but there is no scope for any enthusiasm on the driver’s part. Around town it returned 19mpg, delivering a reminder of just what a big, inefficient barge of a vehicle this really is.

Our test example was noticeably in poverty specification: painted steel wheels, black plastic inserts in the valance where the spotlights fit on higher-priced models, yet a back-up camera was present. This is something your unprogressive tester hadn’t actually used before, and, I have to say I found it useful, even as it totally removed the challenge of reverse parking.

Overall then, this Highlander is smooth in all urban circumstances. Despite not being an SUV person, this tester loved the SUV qualities of space and height. The traditional Toyota virtues of superlative build quality and reliability are attractive. Yet the Highlander is so dull, the design so insipid, it fails to radiate any charisma whatsoever; committing to one would be a decision taken not with the heart but purely with the head. This tester would take an old Range Rover first, since even if it was only breakdowns, at least there would be something memorable about it.

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