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Thread: 2009 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder

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    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    2009 Toyota Highlander four-cylinder

    Virtually every mid-large SUV or crossover comes with at least a V-6 engine as its standard powerplant - with V-8s often optional. Which is why standard gas mileage is typically in the mid-high teens, with highway mileage not much higher.

    Which is why acres upon acres of unsold new V-6 and V-8 powered SUVs and crossovers are piling up in storage lots all around the country.

    Which is why Toyota now offers a four-cylinder version of the mid-sized Highlander crossover SUV. Its mileage is solidly in the 20s - and it's also about $2,000 less expensive than an otherwise identical V-6 equipped Highlander.

    The question is: Is it too little too late?

    WHAT IT IS

    The Highlander is a mid-sized crossover SUV with standard three row seating and room for seven. Base models are front-wheel-drive (FWD), with a light-duty all-wheel-drive (AWD) system optional. Four and six-cylinder engines are available. Prices start at $25,705 for the base FWD version with four-cylinder engine and run to $34,520 for a loaded Limited with V-6 and AWD.

    WHAT'S NEW

    A four-cylinder engine is now available - put into the lineup to address buyer concerns about SUV fuel efficiency and cost.

    WHAT'S GOOD

    The four's improved fuel economy is a help - but even better is the two grand price cut (relative to the base V-6 Highlander) which should cover fill-ups for nearly a year. The four also puts out close to 190 hp - tremendous output for its size. And, you get a slick-shifting six-speed automatic with this engine while the larger (and more expensive) V-6 comes with a five-speed automatic.

    WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD

    Despite the four's very respectable power output, Toyota decided to offer this engine only in FWD models. If you want want an AWD Highlander, you have to buy the more expensive V-6. The four-cylinder Highlander also doesn't offer much towing ability - 3,500 lbs., which is about what most mid-size cars can do.

    ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

    The new-for-'09 four-cylinder engine displaces 2.7 liters and generates 187 hp. It is teamed with an also-new six-speed automatic transmission that's only offered with the 2.7 liter engine.

    Front-wheel-drive is also the only way this combo is served.

    The optional engine is the same 3.5 lier V-6 as before, rated at 270 hp. It is available with either FWD or AWD and comes with a standard five-speed automatic.

    Manual transmissions are not offered - with either engine.

    EPA rates the four-cylinder, FWD Highlander at 20 MPGs in city driving, 27 MPGs on the highway - compared with 17/23 for a V-6/AWD-equipped Highlander. (V-6 Highlanders with the V-6 and FWD get about 1 MPG better in each category.)

    RIDE & HANDLING/DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

    Given a nearly 3,900 lb. curb weight without driver (or passengers) on board, it'd be reasonable to wonder about the wisdom of tasking a less-than-three-liters four-cylinder engine with moving all that mass. In years past, it would have been a mess for sure. But for some perspective, the 2.7 liter four's 187 hp output is comparable to what 5-liter V-8s were producing in the mid-late '80s and more importantly, enough keep the Highlander from being crippled by a bad case of The Slows.

    It can reach 60 mph in just over 9 seconds - which translates into forward thrust sufficient to comfortably keep up with traffic, merge with traffic and pass slower-moving traffic. The six-speed automatic's tighter gear spacing enhances the feeling of acceleration as well as improves mileage potential.

    You can truck along comfortably at 80-something MPH all day (assuming a good radar detector) with reserves still on tap, if need be.

    Most people don't get the opportunity to drive new cars all the time, so they may not appreciate how much has changed between the last time they went shopping - which may have been seven or eight years back - and now. Circa late '90s, you would not have wanted to even think about a four-cylinder engine in a mid-large vehicle with a two-ton curb weight.

    Today, you definitely should consider it.

    At least, if you don't need AWD - and in truth, that's a lot of us. The car companies have sold the buying public on AWD (and 4WD) because it's a money-maker for them. But the fact of the matter is a FWD vehicle with good all-season tires and decent ground clearance makes a fine poor weather vehicle on the handful of days when you need it. The rest of the time, it costs less to buy - and to operate (because it's lighter and uses less fuel, etc.).

    As far as road manners: The Highlander delivers a nice mix of sturdy, SUV-like feel (including up-high seating position and commanding view of the road) with wagon-like handling and ride quality. Despite the weight, it doesn't feel like a big load. It may be one of the best manifestations of the "crossover" concept out there - perhaps because Highlander was one of the very first crossovers to market. Toyota has been refining the concept for nearly a decade now - and it shows.

    STYING & UTILITY

    The bodyshell is a five-door wagon with subtle fender bulges pressed into the sheetmetal as well as just the hint of running boards along the lower rocker panels - along with large, truck-style headlights up front and high beltline/low-cut roof that adds a sporty counterpoint to the whole package.

    The rear tailgate cuts several inches down into the rear bumper, in order to both open really wide and also to make getting stuff (especially heavy stuff) in there easier. With the third row down, the Highlander offers almost 100 cubic feet of cargo-carrying capacity and its overall length makes it feasible to cart home eight-foot boards if you need to. With the third row in place, there's still 42.3 cubic feet of cargo room in the back end - which is easily twice the space you'd find in a current full-sized passenger sedan. (This is one of the many reasons why SUVs and crossovers have become so popular.)

    Inside, one of the Highander's standout features is fist-sized rotary knobs for the stereo and AC - and oversized push-buttons for many other functions. These are wonderfully tactile - unlike the hunt-till-you-find-'em, Chiclet-sized controls you find in so many new vehicles.

    The second row is easy to get into and has plenty of room all-around. The third row (which you can skip if you like and get a credit) is kid usable - and serviceable for younger teens, courtesy of a smart-design "Center Stow" feature that creates a pass-through in the second row by dropping/stowing the center section.

    Adults, not so much. The headroom is minimal; legs and knees will have to be tucked in for most over about five feet tall.

    But in this respect the Highlander is typical. Virtually no mid-sized crossovers or SUVs offer honestly adult-friendly third row seating. If you need to frequently carry adult passengers in the third row, you'll probably need to step up to something full-sized. But if you just need a kid-acceptable third row or the extra room you get with the third row dropped, something like the Highlander could work.

    QUALITY & SAFETY

    Toyotas in general continue to benefit from the overall high esteem in which the company and its products have been held by consumers for the past 20-plus years now. What that means is depreciation curves are softer - and resale values higher - even though Toyota has had some heretofore unheard-of hiccups with quality control during the past couple of years.

    Still, if you care about trade-in/resale values, the Highlander's about the best you'll do among vehicles of its type. The two-grand price cut ($25,705 base four-cylinder vs. $27,600 base V-6) also has to factor into the equation, maybe even more than the 20-ish vs. teens gas mileage. Bear in mind the base $25k Highlander comes with 17-inch rims, AC, power windows and locks and standard third-row seats - the same basic package as on the base V-6 (with either FDW or AWD).

    You can move up to the Sport - which adds 19-inch rims, back-up camera with LCD monitor in the center stack, a more powerful stereo, etc. - but this (and the top-of-the-line Limited) are only offered in tandem with the V-6.

    You can get AWD without buying the more expensive Sport or even more expensive Limited - but the price of entry is still high at $29,050.

    Safety-wise, all Highlanders - including the new four-cylinder "value leader" - come standard with Hill Start Assist, side-impact and curtain air bags, plus a driver's knee bag. Ditto ABS and traction/stability control. It wants for nothing in this category - and scores at the top of its class in both government and insurance industry crash testing.

    THE BOTTOM LINE

    Adding a decently powerful and not-too-piggy four-cylinder engine to the Highlander's roster (along with a lower and more appealing entry price) may just keep the Highlander on its feet even as other SUVs are laid low by the fallout of $4 gas, an imploding stock market and a sudden revival of frugality-minded buyers.
    Last edited by Eric; 05-11-2009 at 08:46 AM.

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