Toyota’s mid-size SUV, the Highlander, may not share the monster dimensions of the larger Land Cruiser options, but as Steve Vermeulen discovers, it’s still an impressive tow wagon and size isn’t everything.
About a year ago I tested one of New Zealand’s favourite tow wagons, the Toyota Landcruiser Prado, which is pretty hard to lick when it comes to the out and out act of lugging a load behind it, but try getting around in it day to day. On one hand the bulk delivers the tenacity to haul the QE II without breaking a sweat, on the other it’s a decidedly awkward thing to navigate through winding roads, tight spots and park. And then there’s the price, which if you’re buying for one purpose only (towing), makes it start to look a bit steep.
What’s needed is a compromise, something with that same near bullet-proof reliability record, a genuinely respectable tow rating, practical luggage carrying capabilities and a potent engine yet one that’s more adept at the dainty, around town running. The Highlander fits that bill to a tee.
Taking it in, you’d be excused for thinking this is a bit of a mammoth SUV itself; the recently-face lifted styling has a distinct taste of Americana about it and the perceived dimensions that go along with it. Climb on board too, and you feel like you’re in a very large vehicle and, sure, it’s no Thumbelina, this drives as easy as a corolla hatchback. Well, sort of.
It is still an SUV after all, and a Toyota one. Not usually the two key ingredients to handling perfection, but it is curiously simple at negotiating side streets and parallel parks. You can see the front corners easily enough and, important for towing of course, the standard wing mirrors are a generous size.
Inside it’s a bit uninspired, but utterly comfortable and functional. The seats are large, cosy and are at perfect height for less mobile to climb into, for both front and rear occupants you’re afforded plenty of leg room, so you can settle into even long hauls and exit the other side fresh and relaxed. Top-spec, Limited version also includes rear heater controls and durable leather upholstery.
There’s even a third row of pretty spacious seating, for the holiday away however they fold away to reveal 1200 litres of luggage area, flip down the second row of seating and you have 2700 litres. Enough to allow room for the dogs, BBQ’s, chilly bins, anything and everything, really.
Standard equipment impresses with a standard reversing camera, this is as much as a safety device when reversing as it is a convenience feature, it points almost directly to the towball, so lining up the towing hitch will inch-perfect accuracy is simple. There are two front 12volt accessory power points and another handily in the luggage compartment for an additional fridge etc if required. CD player, Bluetooth handsfree, usb connectivity, and wireless audio streaming from your phone is also standard equipment across the range as well as the vita safety feature such as front, side and curtain airbags, a driver’s knee airbag, hill-start assistance and stability control.
This test vehicle was the 4WD variant and already having driven the entry front wheel drive version, I can confirm the 4WD is the one you want. With a 3.5 litre V6 delivering 201kW of power and 337 Nm of torque you need the traction of four wheel drive to reign it in and eliminate torque steer. I suspect a base front drive model wouldn’t have copped with the AS Caravan’s quite as confidently.
The engine is deceivingly potent, without realising, I was exceeding the legal 90km/h tow limit whilst climbing the steepest section of the Bombay hills, testament to the Highlander’s well-planted feel, cabin refinement and grunt under the bonnet. It’s not nearly as thrifty as I had expected, Toyota engines are usually highly economical, but without the caravan, I could only manage fuel economy of 13.8 on my mostly motorway commute.
It is however an extremely good workhorse and thankfully one you can happily tool around in everyday without the fuss of oversized SUV’s like its big brother the Prado. Two buying tips though: Toyota are renowned for discounting, so make sure you never pay retail pricing and if you’re putting the vehicle under regular towing stress it’s worth upgrading to Toyota’s five year, 150,000km warranty.
See the Toyota Highlander for sale.
Towbar price: $1030 fitted
Towing capacity: 700kg (unbraked) / 2000kg (unbraked
Power: 201kW @ 3400 rpm
Torque: 337Nm @ 4700 rpm
Transmission: Five-speed automatic (4WD)
Fuel economy (claimed): 11.6L/100km
Seating capacity: 7
Luggage capacity: 1200 litres (2nd row seating upright) / 2700 seats (rear seats folded)