By Derek Price
Toyota has a knack for engineering magic tricks.
It’s latest hocus-pocus? The 2017 Highlander simultaneously squeezes better performance and fuel economy out of its six-cylinder engine.
A revamped V6 makes more power than before — 295 horses — while also bumping up its gas mileage thanks to a new eight-speed automatic transmission.
The new powertrain results in fuel economy ratings of 21 city/27 highway, compared to 18/24 in the outgoing 2016 V6 Highlander.
Even more impressive is the Highlander’s snappier feel. It responds faster when you step on the gas pedal and provides more kick for passing or merging, which is an important safety feature in my book.
Even if you don’t buy into my “power equals safety” theory, Toyota offers more standard safety gadgets this year, too — a critical consideration for many people shopping for a family car.
The 2017 Highlander joins a long list of models making Toyota Safety Sense standard equipment. The Highlander’s version of the active safety package includes Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection; Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist; radar cruise control and automatic high beams.
It’s all part of Toyota’s promise to make automatic emergency braking standard across its lineup by the end of this year, four years ahead of the government mandate.
I spent a week driving the new V6-powered Highlander, and for the most part it went just as expected. A quiet, solid-feeling cabin with lots of storage compartments and a roomy cargo area in back — even with the third-row seats in place — made it predictably practical for family adventures.
I thought two things could be improved, though.
One, the engine didn’t sound as buttery smooth as I’ve come to expect from Toyota. After the changes, the revamped V6 sounds rougher and more truck-like, which was unusual because Toyota tends to make even its biggest, brawniest SUVs sound like a Rolls-Royce.
My other complaint is about the big, open shelf that runs along the length of the dash. It makes sense from a storage perspective, adding some usable real estate in an area that usually goes to waste, but it also invites ugly messes with open arms. I wish there was a way to cover it with doors to keep the whole world from seeing the bits of paper and junk that are likely to accumulate there.
The center console fixes this problem perfectly with a rolling lid, almost reminiscent of an antique roll-top desk. It keeps messes out of sight and out of mind. The big dash shelf, in contrast, is more like putting your messes on display in a lighted glass curio cabinet.
While its new powertrain is the big news this year, the Highlander gets a few other changes, including a new SE grade that looks a bit sportier than other trims. Dark paint on the roof rails and front grille combine with 19-inch wheels and a suspension tuned to be more firm and agile to give it a more aggressive feel overall.
My tester was an SE, and while I personally prefer the softer feel of other grades, I can see the appeal to people who want more of a responsive driving feel in their family hauler.
All trim levels get changes to the front and rear styling this year, helping to keep the Highlander looking sharp in a red-hot market for crossovers. Still, I wish Toyota would take the styling in an even bolder direction, more like it’s taking its sedans.
Pricing starts at $30,630 for the base LE trim and tops out at $46,260 for the Limited Platinum.
At A Glance
What was tested?
2017 Toyota Highlander SE V6 FWD ($39,690). Options: Rear seat entertainment system ($1,810). Price as tested (including $940 destination charge): $42,440
Wheelbase: 109.8 in.
Length: 192.5 in.
Width: 75.8 in.
Height: 70.1 in.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (295 hp, 263 lbs-ft)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 21 city, 27 highway
Why buy it?
A new V6 powertrain makes it more efficient and powerful than the 2016 model. It’s very well-thought-out for families and comes with Toyota’s reputation for longevity.