2015 Toyota Highlander

Rating

70/100

Background

With so many people haulers out there, how do you know which one is right for you? Well, let’s start with your list of needs. Do you need room for up to eight people? A cozy and quiet ride? Good performance and fuel economy? How about the option of rear seat DVD entertainment or even occasionally towing up to 5,000 pounds? If this reads just like your short list, then Toyota would like you to take a look at the versatile Highlander crossover SUV. It’s back after a thorough redesign last year and better than ever.
The 2015 Toyota Highlander, now in its third generation, is a top contender in this family-friendly crossover SUV segment. Tossing out minivans and V8-powered toy box-hauling behemoths, the Highlander is likely the sweet spot for most. Offered in front- or all-wheel drive with a choice of 4-cylinder or V6 engines, there are five distinct trim levels from which to choose, each offering increasing amounts of content with few factory options. This strategy makes the process of finding the right Highlander pretty easy.
No matter which one you’re considering, know that you’ll get a cozy cabin with plenty of room for your family and their things. The Highlander’s second row can be either a three-across bench or a double captain’s chair affair with a side table. The Highlander is also pleasant and easy to drive, and with its refined V6 and smooth 6-speed automatic, it’s also one of the quickest SUVs out there (even among V8s). If tech is your thing, there’s enough available high-end gear on the upper trim levels to keep you and your co-pilot "infotained" for days on end.
In light of all these qualities, we awarded a top "A" rating to the 2015 Toyota Highlander. Of course, that’s not to say that Toyota’s crossover is the best at absolutely everything. If you want a truly adult-friendly third row with easier access, for example, the Ford Flex would be a better bet. Another perennial favorite of ours is the Mazda CX-9, which is more fun to drive and offers more cargo space as well. There’s also the handsome-looking V8-powered Dodge Durango or the three-row Hyundai Santa Fe, which stacks up nicely against the Highlander across the board. But the Highlander has history and the Toyota nameplate on its side, and it’s one of our top picks for 2015.

Drive

Most 2015 Toyota Highlander buyers end up with the tried-and-true V6 engine, and it’s easy to see why: You get almost the same fuel economy as with the base four-cylinder, along with an extra 85 hp and some of the smoothest acceleration in any crossover at this price. The 6-speed automatic transmission works well and provides quick downshifts.
The meaty three-spoke steering wheel is precise, and if you drive quickly around a tight turn, the Highlander remains secure, with a decent amount of grip. As long as you’re not looking for handling as athletic as the Mazda CX-9’s, you’ll likely find the Highlander sharp enough. Of course, the Highlander’s bread and butter is ferrying passengers around in comfort, and here it excels. The cabin remains hushed at speed, and road impacts are generally shrugged off by the compliant suspension, though the Limited’s 19-inch wheels don’t do the drive any favors.

Exterior

The 2015 Toyota Highlander is a three-row midsize crossover offered in LE, LE Plus, XLE, Limited and Limited Platinum trim levels. Eight-passenger seating is standard on the LE, LE Plus and XLE, while seven-passenger seating (featuring second-row captain’s chairs instead of a three-person bench) is optional on the XLE and standard on the Limited and Limited Platinum. Note that the related Highlander Hybrid is reviewed separately.
The base LE gets things started with 18-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, heated exterior mirrors, privacy glass, a rear spoiler, cruise control, a rearview camera, fabric seating, manually adjustable front seats (six-way driver, four-way passenger), a sliding and reclining 60/40-split second-row seat, a 60/40-split third-row seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth phone and sound connectivity, a 6.1-inch central touchscreen and a six-speaker sound system with voice control, a CD player, an auxiliary sound jack and an iPod/USB interface.
Picking the LE Plus adds foglights, a flip-up rear hatch window, an adjustable-height power liftgate, tri-zone automatic climate control, upgraded upholstery with synthetic leather (SofTex) accents, an eight-way power driver seat (with power lumbar), a leather-wrapped steering wheel, satellite radio and HD radio.
The XLE further adds a sunroof, roof rails, keyless entry and ignition, leather upholstery for the first and second rows (SofTex for the third), an upgraded driver information display, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a 110-volt power outlet in the second row, retractable second-row sunshades, driver voice amplification for communicating with rear passengers (Driver Easy Speak), an 8-inch central touchscreen, a navigation system and smartphone app integration (Entune App Suite).
Nearing the top, the Limited comes with 19-inch wheels, LED running lights, LED ambient interior lighting, second-row captain’s chairs, heated and ventilated front seats, driver memory functions, a four-way power passenger seat, a blind-spot monitoring system, rear cross-traffic alerts, rear parking sensors and a 12-speaker JBL sound system.
There are no factory options available for the LE or LE Plus trim levels. The XLE can be outfitted with the second-row captain’s chairs. An optional rear seat entertainment package for the XLE and Limited includes a Blu-ray player with 9-inch display, RCA jacks and wireless headphones.
On just the Limited you can also select the Driver Technology package, which fits the Highlander with automatic high-beam control headlights, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, frontal collision warning, a frontal impact crash mitigation system (with automatic braking) and Toyota’s Safety Connect telematics (emergency assistance, stolen car location and automatic collision notification).
Finally, the top-shelf Highlander Limited Platinum reaps all of the above as standard and further includes a panoramic sunroof, a heated steering wheel and heated second-row seats.

Interior

Hard plastics that were once the bane of the Highlander have since been supplanted by supple surfaces with fancy stitching at the seams. The gauge cluster has a contemporary look thanks in part to the multifunction information display that sits in the middle (especially the XLE and Limited’s larger color version). Although the base 6.1-inch central touchscreen is, well, a bit basic in both form and function, the available 8-inch unit is more satisfying with its improved graphics and functionality.
Toyota has baked a number of handy storage features into the 2015 Highlander’s interior. There’s a unique built-in shelf on the dashboard, for instance, that can serve as a resting place for phones and other small personal effects. The shelf’s short height, however, can make it hard to fit your hand in there to place or retrieve those items. Vastly more spacious is the storage box under the console armrest that’s big enough for a large purse.
If you’re expecting big-time space in the way back, we should warn you that adults will still find it cramped relative to some rivals. Kids will be fine, though, and the three-across seating bolsters the Highlander’s credentials as a minivan substitute. On the cargo-carrying front, the available height-adjustable power liftgate with memory height settings is a boon in garages with low ceilings. Maximum hauling capacity tops out at 83.7 cubic feet, which is an average figure for this class of vehicle.

Safety

The 2015 Toyota Highlander comes standard with traction and stability control, antilock disc brakes, front seat side airbags, a driver knee airbag, a front passenger seat-cushion airbag and full-length side curtain airbags. A rearview camera is also standard.
The Limited trim gets a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert, and its optional Driver Technology package (standard on Limited Platinum) adds a frontal collision warning and mitigation system (with automatic braking), lane-departure warning and Toyota’s Safety Connect telematics (emergency assistance, stolen-vehicle location and automatic collision notification). Unfortunately, these items are unavailable on lesser Highlander trims.
In a simulated panic stop from 60 miles per hour conducted at the SUVS test facility, a Highlander XLE AWD managed a braking distance of 116 feet, a very good distance for this class.
In government crash testing, the Highlander received a five-star overall rating (out of a possible five), with four stars for total frontal impact protection and five stars for total side impact protection. During testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Highlander received the highest possible rating of "Good" in the moderate-overlap frontal-offset, side-impact and roof-strength tests. In the small-overlap frontal-offset impact test, the Highlander received the second-highest rating of "Acceptable." Its seat and head restraint design was rated "Good" for whiplash protection in rear impacts.

Specs

The base Highlander LE starts with front-wheel drive and a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine rated at 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The transmission is a 6-speed automatic. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 22 miles per gallon combined (20 city/25 highway), but that’s barely better than the ratings for the stronger V6 engine.
That 3.5-liter V6 is optional on the LE and standard on all other trims. It’s rated at 270 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is again a 6-speed automatic that may be mated to either front- or all-wheel drive (Limited Platinum comes with standard AWD). The front-wheel-drive V6 configuration achieves an EPA-estimated 21 miles per gallon combined (19 city/25 highway), while the AWD V6 drops a tick to 20 miles per gallon combined (18 city/24 highway). We easily met these estimates when we recorded a real-world 23 miles per gallon on SUVS’ 120-mile mixed-driving evaluation loop in an XLE AWD.
At the SUVS test facility, we recorded a 7.3-second 0-60-mph time in that same XLE AWD, which is about a second faster than the average for this segment. A Limited with front-wheel drive still outpaced most competitors with a run to 60 miles per hour in 7.6 seconds.
The 4-cylinder Highlander LE is rated to haul up to 1,500 pounds. An LE or LE Plus V6 is rated up to 2,000 pounds. A properly equipped Highlander XLE or Limited (with standard heavy-duty radiator, alternator and supplemental oil cooler) can haul up to 5,000 pounds.

Value

Refined interior appointments; quiet, compliant ride; smooth and strong V6 engine; seating for up to eight; fresh technology offerings.

Verdict

After last year’s thorough redesign, the 2015 Toyota Highlander stays true to its no-nonsense roots. It remains a top choice in the three-row family crossover class.

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