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Bigger and bolder Highlander

 

Clearly, there’s a revolution going on at Toyota.

The relentlessly nice characters at head office have been joined by an alpha male marketing manager with the crushing handshake of someone trying to make a forceful impression – not a friendly one.

The “real people, real Kiwis” ads of the past have been joined by the weird helicopter spotlighting effort. An overseas freebie, or signal of a new marketing direction? Who knows.

Toyota still heads the New Zealand sales charts, but this will be year 20. Perhaps a new rapacious flavour is needed to keep the T-brand at the top.

Let’s hope not. Toyota has struck a chord with Kiwis not just for the reliability of its cars, but because its corporate flavour – the image it projects – has been solidly Kiwi, friendly and reliable.

That’s one reason Toyota leads car companies in a recent local survey of brands we trust; why it’s 12th overall in the same survey; why it’s in the top 10 for corporate brand values world-wide.

So despite the harder flavour of New Zealand’s corporate team, the good news is the two most recent Toyotas to hit our shores are more of the same. Inoffensive to look at, incrementally bigger and better than before, dull but very good at their job.

The main event was the new Highlander.

Forget Toyota’s efforts to scrape the greenie barrel – this is a clean SUV compared to most, but it’s still a big car with a big footprint.

Kiwis don’t seem to care. Though the SUV market is dropping in most western markets, it’s now 17 per cent of our new sales, and most are still fuelled by petrol, not the more frugal diesel.

Many aren’t used as SUVs – they’re glorified wagons, their drivers liking their roominess and the impregnable feel of a large car.

That’s why the soft-roader breed succeeds and why Ford’s Territory, with a slightly cheaper two-wheel drive in the mix, has done so well, holding 22 per cent of the segment.

It’s the Territory that Toyota has squarely in its sights with this new Highlander – though Holden’s Captiva is making inroads, Hyundai’s Santa Fe is a classy offering and Subaru’s new and softer Forester is due early next year.

Slightly less bland on the outside, this all-new Highlander was penned in California and based on the Avalon platform.

All variants get a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine mated to a five-speed auto; and seven seats.

But one’s a two-wheel drive, and the four-paw version comes in standard or luxury trim.

That standard offering is pretty good – with a reversing camera, seven airbags and stability control, the latter especially important in SUVs, with their top-heavy tendency.

The upmarket 4WD Limited adds 19-inch alloy wheels, a six-disc CD stacker, Bluetooth, heated leather seats and climate air-conditioning.

More to the point, this thing is appreciably larger than before. Its 95mm longer, 85 wider and 17 taller with a wider track and more ground clearance.

All that makes for a roomier cabin with spacious seats. At least, four are spacious – the second-row centre is deliberately an afterthought.

Toyota assured us it would carry an adult, and we tried it with three abreast. Our admittedly generously-proportioned centre-mounted guinea-pig was sitting on the seatbelt clasps and it took some fairly intimate grappling to get strapped in and unstrapped.

That said, two of our three rear passengers were fairly large, and a child might be perfectly happy there. More likely, you’ll have two kids and use the narrow centre as an armrest; remove it, slot it into its storage cubby and fit the centre table instead; or you’ll toss them both in the garage and use the gap to access row three, which folds easily under the floor when not in use.

Nice idea, but I suspect once in the garage that centre-seat-and-table will be gone for good, especially given its storage cubby under the front armrest console but accessed from the back seats, will soon be appropriated by the kids for their toys.

As for you up front – and paying the bills – this engine’s the same basic unit as that which powers the Aurion and V6 Previa, with dual variable valve timing taking the output to 201kW and 337Nm.

Thirst – an important figure for a brand which prides itself on its green values – is claimed at 11 litres/100km for the 2WD and 11.6 for the four, measured on 91-octane. That’s a six per cent improvement on the previous model, and around a litre less than the Territory for every 100km travelled.

Our very limited launch drive didn’t allow a comparison with the dynamically talented Territory, though the Highlander seemed assured enough for most drivers.
The Toyota has more power, if less torque from its smaller engine, with a five-speed auto fitted to all versions where Ford’s entry-level two-wheel drive has only a four-speed, though other versions get six.

The Ford has 1153 litres of boot behind the second-row seats to the Toyota’s 1200, and will tow 1600kg standard to the Toyota’s 2000kg – though the Ford’s heavy-duty towing pack will top that.

Given both vehicles start at the same $49,990 price, with 4WD entering at three grand lower for the Toyota, we suspect which one you choose may come down to rear, front or four-wheel drive, careful perusal of the spec sheets, and your personal tastes.

As for the Corolla wagon also launched, it’s dropped over $6000 to $25,990 for a smaller-engined car that’s quietly handsome, slightly more spacious and, with two front airbags and a centre rear lap belt, slightly more targeted at business, rather than private markets.


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