What It Is
A full-sized car with nearly the utility of a minivan.
Drives and maneuvers like a tall car
Interior looks dated at price point and against the competition's offerings.
The 2012 Toyota Highlander still continues to stay in the pack of highly competent SUVs but doesn't stand out.
The need for speed is as long gone as your teenage waistline, replaced instead with a growing (or grown) family, and rush hour traffic filled with view-blocking eighteen wheelers and SUVs. Yet the idea of switching to a minivan fills you with dread; the so-called "soccer mom" syndrome for women, or the uneasy laugh-off of a "man-van."
So you join the crossover SUV crowd and select the 2012 Toyota Highlander. Good start. SUV means "sports utility vehicle" and the Toyota Highlander is a Swiss army knife, with its configurable second and third row seats, plentiful storage units, and enough cup and bottle holders so everyone can meet their daily minimum water requirements. Toyota also realizes American driving habits: our top-of-the-line 2012 Toyota Highlander Limited not only equipped with a potent V-6 that generates 270 horsepower, but more importantly, it handles like a full-sized sedan (albeit a tall one) instead of a truck with a permanent shell.
The 2012 Toyota Highlander's competitors include the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, and perennial rival Honda Pilot. We put the Toyota Highlander through its paces for a week to see how it held up to the competition, especially since some, like the Traverse and the Explorer, are newer entries in this highly competitive segment.
What We DroveThe 2012 Toyota Highlander base model starts at $28,200 which includes an $810 delivery, processing, and handling fee. Our Toyota Highlander Limited started at $37,155 which includes the V-6 engine, four-wheel drive, and a slew of features like leather seats and powered liftgate. Optional features like the rear-seat DVD entertainment system and navigation added an additional $2,000 for a total of $41,785, a considerable jump in price, although $40,000 isn't unusual in this segment.
Like all recent Toyota vehicles, the 2012 Toyota Highlander Limited is equipped with the automaker's Star safety system which includes standard features like anti-lock brakes and traction control, plus brake assist, which actively adds extra braking force in an emergency. The Highlander is also equipped with Downhill Assist Control (DAC) to assist when driving down a hill or mountain road especially when they're slippery. The 2012 Toyota Highlander received a Good rating in front, side, and roof impact tests, while it received four stars out of five from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The CommuteToyota made sure that, except for stepping up into the 2012 Highlander, the driving experience is as trauma-free as possible. The Highlander's suspension absorbs most road imperfections like bumps, cracks, and road pits without the vehicle undulating like the cars of old. Think of the Camry writ large, with a commanding view of the road, and that's the 2012 Highlander. Road, wind, and engine noise is well-controlled in the Toyota SUV, whether you're crawling in traffic, or cruising at speed. Getting to that cruising speed was easy; our top-of-the-line 2012 Toyota Highlander Limited came equipped with the top-of-the-line V-6 engine, and we never felt want of power even when fully loaded with adult passengers. However, the two adults contorted in the third row seats glared daggers at the rest of us; like many SUVs in this segment, the Toyota Highlander's back row works best for baby seats and very small children.
Even the most tone-deaf of us noticed the superior sound quality of the JBL premium entertainment system. Speaking of systems, we like the Toyota Highlander's center stack controls with the most common functions (e.g., climate controls, radio, etc.), nine-inch display, and (optional) navigation system neatly separated from the secondary and tertiary functions located right below them. New Toyota Highlander owners, or previous Toyota sedan owners moving into the Highlander, won't have to crack open the owners' manual just to turn this vehicle on.
Being stuck in traffic did give us an opportunity to glance around the interior, and while it's certainly comfortable, there are drawbacks. For example, we noticed a preponderance of cheap-looking materials in the Highlander, especially compared to vehicles like the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot. Hard plastics on the dash and doors, and especially the cheap-feeling headliner, looked like they belonged in a vehicle half the price.
The Grocery RunPower steering makes it easy to navigate tight, SUV-filled parking lots with confidence, and the People purchase big wagons like this primarily for their utility, and the 2012 Toyota Highlander has that in spades. The secret, we discovered, is the highly configurable second and third rows. The second row's thin middle seat can fold down to allow storage of long items like a surfboard or 2x4s, or you can swap it out for the cargo tray stowed in its space under the front center console and snap it between the Highlander's second row seats.
Smaller kids may have a harder time climbing into the high-riding Highlander, but once there there's ample room in the second row for two LATCH-equipped boosters. If your kids have graduated to the simpler belts-only booster seats, you can even squeeze three across in the second row. However, the third row is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, the lack of head and leg room would make it ideal for a child seat. However, there are no LATCH points, meaning you have to use a belts-only booster, and even second graders will probably complain about the space. We found the 2012 Toyota Highlander works best when using the first and second rows for people, and folding the third row down for cargo from suitcases to baby carriages to even unassembled bookcases. Besides, cargo room behind the third row is terrible, with barely enough space for a few bags of groceries.
Regardless of how many kids you're carrying, you and your front passenger can keep an eye on both rear rows via the conversation mirror integrated into the overhead sunglasses holder. Other storage units scattered throughout the Toyota Highlander include the in-dash coin holder on the driver side; the lockable glove compartment; and the storage unit deep enough for a purse or iPad. We thought our 2012 Highlander's optional powered liftegate was slow in opening/closing, but more than one consumer has us they liked the feature.
The Weekend FunThe 2012 Toyota Highlander shines best on the road so we took it on a two hundred mile round trip from Los Angeles to San Diego and back. You felt you were driving a tall car thanks to the steering and suspension, and the almost trademarked Toyota-quiet interior kept conversation at normal tones even when revving up the engine to pass the occasional commercial truck or motorcycle convoy. We found the powered ten-way driver's seat comfortable even after several hours of driving. The 2012 Toyota Highlander's side rearview mirrors are also quite large and we found the (optional) backup camera more useful than we original thought. Second row passengers enjoyed having their own climate controls, and although we didn't need it, the optional rear DVD system is a great last resort for keeping antsy kids quiet on a long haul. We were even pleasantly surprised by fuel economy: our 2012 Highlander averaged nearly 25 mpg in primarily highway driving thanks to cruise control.
SummaryWe did a quick price and feature comparison of the 2012 Toyota Highlander against the Honda Pilot and the all-new Ford Explorer, which we deemed to be Highlander's major competitors. The Toyota Highlander Limited fared in the middle of pack: the Explorer had higher fuel economy thanks to its EcoBoost engine option; the Pilot can hold up to eight people, and even has a modicum of off-road ability. We still recommend the 2012 Toyota Highlander for its overall capabilities but the competition is one of the closest we've ever reviewed.
Spec BoxPrice-as-tested: $41,785
EPA City: 17 mpg
EPA Highway: 22 mpg
EPA Combined: 19 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 365 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Excellent
Notebook Quotes"If you treat the Highlander as a "five-plus-two" crossover, then its two LATCH positions and generous cargo space are just what the doctor ordered." - Keith Buglewicz, News Director
"Really comfy suspension. Engine is not very torquey, but also quiet." - Blake Rong, Assistant Editor
"Third row is useless, for emergency situations, can fit one uncomfortable adult, two whining children, a number of gerbils." - Matthew Askari, Assistant Editor
"The transmission was incrediby smooth. I really, really liked it." - Jacob Brown, Assistant Editor