Toyota is aiming directly at stealing sales from Ford’s high-flying Territory with its new second generation Highlander, reports Richard Bosselman
August 31, 2007, 1.30pm. No-one needs reminding how popular soft-roaders of all shapes and sizes have become. The evidence is all around in the everyday traffic stream.
In the past decade the sports utility wagon segment had increased from eight percent of the market - or 5000 vehicles a year - to more than 16,000 sales.
That constitutes 17 percent of the 2007 market. So much for the supposed public concern about the environment and the cost of fuel.
Toyota has been a dominant player overall, with 22 percent share, but with mixed fortunes.
The big boys (Prado and Land Cruiser) have clearly done better than the softer-tuned RAV4 and Highlander models which have felt the full force of a strong competitor challenge. The Highlander, in particular, has struggled.
But changing times - and a much-changed Highlander - might swing the balance.
Or so says Toyota New Zealand’s chief operating officer Alistair Davis.
Speaking at the media launch of the generation two Highlander, he voiced the belief that change is occurring within the category, with lower sales for the traditional heavy duty rugged vehicles and increased volume for the medium soft crossovers and luxury SUVs.
And that’s where this Highlander comes in. New from the tyres up, it’s a much-changed car.
A powerful quad-cam 3.5-litre V6 engine driving through a five-speed automatic enhances performance and it takes an upsized body, with greater road presence. Better dynamics also feature.
Toyota believes the revision is enough to put the mid-sized seven-seater on the comeback trail.
More than that, it’s also convinced it now has a car good enough to face off Ford’s Territory, currently the sector’s top gun by a comfortable margin.
Certainly, you could say Toyota has learned a thing or two from the big Aussie.
Specifically, there’s the first-time availability of two-wheel drive as an alternative to an all-wheel drive configuration.
The version sending drive through the front wheels only is going directly against the rear-drive Territory TX, which has struck a chord with families seeking the passenger and cargo versatility of a four-wheel drive but preferring to bypass the extra weight and fuel impost.
Priced, like the TX, at $49,990, the front-drive Highlander is expected to claim up to a third of the new car’s 600 anticipated annual registrations.
The sales estimate is double the tally the old Highlander achieved last year but still well short of the Territory, which is expected to achieve 1500 registrations this year, down from 1906 in 2006.
The pair of all-wheel drive Highlanders cost $53,990 in standard trim – that’s $2500 beneath the cheapest all-paw Territory - and $61,990 in lavish Limited spec.
The flagship is $1000 cheaper than the Territory TS and $2000 under the Ghia.
Toyota’s 60-degree all-alloy dual valve-timed V6 is the same unit found in the Aurion and Previa and makes 201kW/337Nm in this application.
Power is well up over the previous Highlander, and looks good against the Territory’s 190kW, but Ford still rules for torque - 383Nm versus 337Nm.
The V6 will win friends. Spirited and honey-smooth, it displays no sign of being upset about having to propel at least 200 kilograms more than the Aurion and combines well with the auto, whose pseudo-manual mode that’ll hold selected gears to the rev limiter is useful.
Notwithstanding, the Highlander’s braked towing capacity of 2000kg is up to 300kg short of the Ford, but Toyota argues that it’s strong enough for most daily duties and points out gains in lusty refinement and frugality.
With a claimed overall return of 10 litres per 100km achieved under Australian Design Rules testing, the two-wheel drive is 10 percent more frugal than the rear-drive Ford (and the previous Highlander). The all-wheel drive car is said to get 10.1 litres/100km.
The Highlander takes a good list of standard passive and active safety features including seven airbags, stability control with steering assist, traction control, active front headrests, anti-skid, brake assist and a reversing camera.
The Limited steps up from 17-inch to 19-inch alloys and gets full leather, climate air and a six-disc CD with Bluetooth.
Electronic hill start and downhill assist controls are employed by the soft-road pair. Sat nav is among cost-extras.
The front-drive car looks much like a four-wheel drive version, save for the lack of the AWD badge on the tailgate.
In the overall scheme of things, TNZ seemed to be underplaying its hopes for the Highlander.
It’ll do well, though perhaps not just as the first decent foil to the Territory.
This car possibly also blows the $70,000 Previa V6 out of the water, too, and you’d surely have to really, really want a top-spec RAV4 to pick it over the entry model Highlander, which also has strong fleet potential.
Highlander’s American genes
This Highlander has an interesting upbringing. Designed in Toyota’s California clinic, it’s a US-aimed product (hence the high cupholder count - there are 10, including four for the front-seat occupants).
It goes heavy on American-made components, including the basic structure (shared with the US-market Avalon), but final assembly is in Japan, though Toyota has no plans to sell it there.
In fact, Australia and New Zealand are the only right-hand drive markets.
That means we miss out on the upcoming hybrid and there’s no diesel planned to counter the impending Territory oiler, though a Lexus RS is in the wind.
Switching to the new platform (the old Highlander was Camry-based) means thinking big.
Wheelbase increases by 75mm to 2790mm, front and rear tracks stretch by 55mm (to 1630mm) and 90mm (to 1645mm) respectively.
Perhaps it’s really more of a six-seater if all occupants are adults, as the middle seat of the second row is barely half the width of the others.
It can be pulled out and stowed in a compartment accessed in the back of the centre console.
A 'mini console' storage tray clips into the vacant middle spot, effectively turning the outer second-row seats into individual 'captain's chairs'.
On the Road
A limited driving opportunity on a short course that was strongly urban-oriented allowed little chance to get a good feel for the new car.
Ride quality isn’t bad, and the Toyota Australia-tuned suspension provides good control for a car so large, though it’s a pity daring dancing is simply not countenanced by the electronic driving aids.
New Corolla wagon
Another company hack in the making is the latest Corolla wagon, which at $25,990 is $6300 cheaper than the preceding model but is better-specced (full electrics, climate air).
Being a Japanese domestic market car, the model does differ from the export Corolla hatch and wagon, partly in trim and safety spec.
Whereas the hatch has seven airbags, the wagon comes with two frontal devices, with side impact devices available as a factory-fit $700 extra.
TNZ said it decided to do this because it imagines may operators will fit cargo screens, which would impede the side devices’ activation.
There’s also change in the engine room, where a 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol making 81kW/140Nm stands in for the other models’ 100kW/175Nm 1.8.
Aware that Nissan is finding a lot of support for its CVT-equipped Wingroad, TNZ is testing a 1.5-litre CVT Corolla wagon and says there’s also a 1.8-litre CVT available, though with a mid-$30,000 price tag, it might be too rich for NZ businesses.
– Stories by Richard Bosselman.