2012 Toyota Highlander: Boring, and Proud of it

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Is this not today’s station wagon? The 2012 Toyota Highlander.

HERE’S AN INTERESTING experiment: Gather up a BMW sport ute, a Toyota Highlander and a Lincoln Navigator.

Put a hundred miles on each, over a couple of days, in that order, and then go directly into the next one.

The initial half-hour behind the wheel is almost shocking, and there is no clearer lesson in the effect of a vehicle’s chassis, steering and suspension.

At first, the BMW is almost too much work to drive. But afterward, the Toyota feels like it’s had over-ripe bananas somehow mooshed into its steering box, springs and shock absorbers.

And then in the Navigator (ironic name) you wonder how anyone can stay between the white lines. But we learn to compensate, and before long each vehicle feels “normal.”

We humans are infinitely adaptable, sure. More to the point, most of us are too busy telephoning, texting, checking our email, drinking coffee, shaving, applying makeup or yelling at the kids to think about the actual act of driving. Handling? Response? Control?

Nah, we care about how our car makes us look, how convenient its features might be, and how long we can put off any maintenance. When it comes to consciously guiding a vehicle across broken pavement or ice, through puddles and snow, or down the interstate at speed in a crosswind, we just want a big thing around us that sits up high on the road. Preferably with all-wheel drive. Then we feel safe.

By now you can probably tell that the Toyota Highlander is a boring vehicle and I’m strapped for something clever or enthusiastic to say about it. In truth, the Highlander—roomy, comfortable, reasonably priced, built in Indiana—sells exceedingly well. It is the reincarnation of the family station wagon of the 1960s and ‘70s, and exactly the sort of useful and reliable, yet bland automotive appliance that has lofted Toyota to a podium position in global car making. Unlike the station wagons of yore, however, it has all-wheel drive and all sorts of passive safety features, and it does sit up high(er). Furthermore, some Highlanders are armed with a 270-horsepower V-6 that is light-years more efficient than the lazy, smog-spewing V-8s of the Plymouth Gran Fury and Oldsmobile 88 wagons of my youth. (Note that both brands are now extinct.) And despite my snide crack about bananas in the suspension and steering, it also handles far better than those dinosaurs did, thanks to a world of improvement that includes suspending all four wheels independently and adding stabilizer bars fore and aft, not to mention modern shock absorbers and tires and anti-spin technology and more. As a sedan-based, unit-body “crossover” sport-ute, the Highlander is also far more solid than its creaky body-on-frame wagon ancestors. Given routine care, it will last far longer than we can stand to look at it.

For a modern-day vehicle, however, some Highlanders lag behind the state of the art. Our $36,000 SE model has only five speeds in its automatic transmission, and to achieve ignition one must insert a metal key into a slot on the dash and then twist it. There’s no pocket transmitter that activates a start button. It is remarkable how “vintage” and inconvenient this feels. The electrically operated lift gate with a separate glass hatch makes up for it, I suppose—but then what’s with this postage-stamp-size rearview screen? To be fair, 6-speed and even continuously variable transmissions are available in more upscale Highlanders. Toyota even offers two gas-electric hybrid Highlanders; the top-of-the-range Limited starts at about $48,000, and is equipped with all mod cons.

Buried in the fine print on the Toyota web site I came across this line, which could be put on a T-shirt as the company’s mission statement: “Toyota strives to build vehicles to match customer interest.” Most consumers want road-going appliances; most consumers like Toyotas.


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