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Quality impressive in new Highlander

High, wide but not always handsome, SUVs continue to buck the trend in New Zealand.

Though the world has been backlashing against so-called “soft-roaders and 4WDs” in a questionable search for a cleaner, more friendly environment, Kiwi buyers continue to snap them up.

The class has been bolstered by large numbers of 4WD Japanese used imports, which have brought them within financial reach of more buyers.

At the same time, demand for new SUVs remains strong, with customers undeterred by size, fuel consumption and emissions.

Ten years ago, SUVs were eight per cent of the new car market; that’s now 18 per cent and there’s no sign of decline.

New car sales rose 2.3 per cent last year, but demand for new SUVs was up 17.3 per cent – more growth than any other class of vehicle.

That flies in the face of concerns about rising fuel prices and emissions. Though motor vehicles aren’t the only environmental offenders, the composition and age of the New Zealand vehicle fleet is an issue while we have the ninth worst ecological footprint per capita in the world.

With new SUV sales topping 18,000 in 2007 and used imports more than twice that, soft-roaders aren’t about to go away.

The trend has been for an increase in medium soft crossover and luxury SUV models and a fall in demand for full house, heavy duty four-wheel drives. North Americans have long been passionate about SUVs, and are side-stepping ecological issues by chasing hybrid versions.

Whether you think a big, beefy SUV hybrid is going to save much fuel, or do anything to save the environment, is a moot point.

Yet the hybrid version of the Toyota Highlander and a petrol/electric hybrid Ford Escape have both been in the top 20 best-sellers in recent weeks.

The Highlander has been outselling the Ford Focus and Toyota Prius hybrid, as North American consumers believe a large hybrid vehicle makes more sense than a small one. New Zealand is unlikely to see a hybrid Highlander, and no diesel variant is in the pipeline.

At least one in five new SUVs sold locally are Toyotas. Among them is the latest Highlander, sandwiched between the RAV4 and Prado. The 2008 Highlander is a styling evolution of the bland looking original launched in 2001.

Looking from some quarters like a RAV4 on steroids, it’s more interesting than the first generation version, though still somewhat anonymous.

The front end is punchy and from all other angles the shape is neat and tidy. The design fails to break new ground, but nor does it offend.

Indeed, the look reflects the build quality. The car feels as though it has been carved from stone and you’ll search in vain for blemishes in quality.

Based on the Camry/Avalon platform and using the 3.5-litre V6 Avalon engine, the Highlander is a large soft-roader almost 4.8 metres long and an ideal size for many growing families.

In what is seemingly impossible, Toyota says the vehicle uses less fuel than its predecessor, while being 95mm longer, 17mm higher and 85mm wider, as well as heavier and more powerful. It’s all a case of more for less, especially when the $53,990 4WD and $61,990 4WD Limited are less expensive than the first generation Highlander.

The versatility is extended by offering a $49,990 two-wheel drive model. It will do the trick for many buyers, even if it doesn’t have the surefooted agility and traction of its all-wheel drive siblings.

The difference is noticeable when road surfaces are slippery or during brisk off the line starts, even though traction control is standard on all three versions. Expect a somewhat frenetic response when gingering the DOHV V6 engine into kick-down response. During normal driving, the Highlander’s mechanicals are remarkably quiet and relaxed, yet under load the variable valve timing power plant revs vigorously and tells you so.

Performance is brisk and responsive, with a healthy 337Nm of torque at 4700rpm and 201kW of power. Yet our overall average of 14.8 litres/100km (19mpg) on the 4WD version falls well short of the claimed 11.6 litres/100km. Still, five fuel settings can be programmed into the on-board computer, enabling the driver to really get a hold on things.

Best forget that this two tonne machine produces CO² emissions of 271 grams/km. There’s no six-speed auto, but the standard five-speed with sequential manual mode is nicely adaptive and downshifts conveniently when descending hills, so you don’t need to punish the brakes to restrain your speed in such situations.

Downhill assist control (DAC) and the hill-start assist control (HAC) are part of the 4WD package. Suspension is conventional, with MacPherson struts front and rear, and a dual link arrangement at the back. Buy the luxury Limited, and the 7.5J wide alloy wheels increase from 17-inch diameter and 245/65 section tyres to 18-inch and 245/55.

Most owners will be happy enough on the higher profile, smaller diameter rims but, to the vehicle’s credit, ride comfort is little impaired on the larger wheels.

Electric power steering has minimal feel and is less than involving, but the soft ride will suit most owners. Front seat support and shaping are fair, but the two seats in the second row are flat and formless. The headrests in the third row fold down for better visibility and a reversing camera is standard on all Highlanders.

Bonus points for the two-piece opening rear door – glass only, or the full top-hinged tailgate – but the heavy bonnet is a struggle to lift and needs some sort of counter-balancing or automatic holding strut.

Leather upholstery and a more sophisticated climate control air conditioner are the Limited’s biggest carrots. Other justifications for the $8000 Limited price penalty over the regular 4WD are the leather look door trim, power seat adjustment and lumbar support, front fog/driving lights and rear personal lights.

Our pick of the trio is the standard 4WD – impressively equipped and the best value for money.

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