ROAD TEST: Toyota Highlander 2WD

I have a bit of a soft-spot for the Toyota Highlander. I always though it handled quite well for such a comfortable big SUV, the engine had a nice snarl to it and always had a decent amount of grunt where ever you needed it, it was comfortable, well-built and handsome. Oh, and there was always the opportunity to break out obscure quotes from the awesome 1986 movie of the same name… there can be only one…

Actually, make that “had” a soft spot for the Highlander, because I just can’t bring myself to like the recently face-lifted model. Especially in front-wheel drive guise.

While the actual facelift simply doesn’t hold appeal – the funny squinty, sticky-outy headlights look odd, there is far too much matt silvery plastic on offer and it just looks funny on little wheels – but it is mainly the vehicles dynamics that now leave me cold as well.

The FWD Highlander, which apparently accounts for 30 percent of sales, features a ride that could only be charitably called “unsettled”. Over low speeds on suburban roads it throw you around like a kitten in a tumble drier, provoking not so much feelings of pride in your new car, as much as sea sickness.

Then there’s the torque steer. Oh Dear Lord, the torque steer. Anything more than a light throttle application sees the Highlander lurching in a direction you wouldn’t have been expecting the first time you do it. After that it becomes slightly funny. Following that, tiresome…

On the open road things calm down a bit, but then the wallowing and understeer set in. Push it into a corner and it wallows and understeers, followed closely by a panic reaction from the stability electronics, which kills all power and leaves you wallowing to a halt mid-corner.

I still do want to like the Highlander – a lingering leftover from my affection for the pre-facelift model – and the interior is typical Toyota quality. A bit plasticky, but solidly well built and pleasant. A good stereo (still fiddly and with too many buttons…) adds iPod connection and a screen for the backing camera which is actually far too small to be any real use.

The seats are great, controls are well laid out, there’s heaps of room, its remarkably comfortable and it’s got a great engine (albeit a thirsty one…). In fact I could sit in the driveway in a FWD Highlander for hours on end. I just don’t want to drive it.
Like the movie says “There can be only one” and the FWD Highlander isn’t it. I’m not saying that 30 percent of Highlander buyers are wrong… well, yes, I am actually. Spending the extra $4,500 or so to get the 4WD won’t improve the looks, but it will make the driving experience more bearable.

This article first appeared in New Zealand Company Vehicle magazine.

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