- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

MODEL: Toyota Highlander
MILEAGE: 18 city, 22 highway

Attention sport utility buyers: If you've pined for a new Lexus SUV but found the prices too high for your budget, don't miss the new Toyota Highlander.
Built on the same platform as the top-selling Lexus RX 300 and using the same V-6 and the same basic interior look, the 2001 Highlander can, in many ways, be thought of as a less-expensive RX 300.
The same man, Tsuneo Uchimoto, served as chief engineer for both vehicles. And he conceded that while developing the upscale RX 300, he was keenly aware that a similar vehicle "with a bit less luxury for a lot less money" could have wide appeal.
Toyota dealers, who had been asking for an RX-like vehicle for years, began receiving Highlander shipments in January. This midsize SUV joins Toyota's other midsize sport utility the long-running 4Runner marking the first time Toyota has two midsize offerings.
But where the 4Runner is truckish in its ride with some bounce and vibration, the Highlander is more carlike. I find it much easier to get inside the Highlander no running boards necessary for this vehicle and its interior is surprisingly quiet.
The 3-liter, dual-overhead-cam V-6 with variable-valve timing produces the same 220 horsepower and 222 foot-pounds of torque as in the RX 300, and it easily moves the Highlander along in city and highway traffic with no lags.
The only transmission is a four-speed automatic with gear shifter positioned at the bottom of the middle of the dashboard, like the shifter in the RX 300.
Fuel economy is decent. Even the top-of-the-line Highlander V-6 with four-wheel drive is rated at 18 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway.
For budget-minded buyers, there's a base four-cylinder engine. It's a larger-displacement variant of the engine that's in Toyota's compact SUV, the RAV4, and it was developed for the Highlander.
The 2.4-liter, dual-overhead-cam four with variable-valve timing generates 155 horsepower and 163 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.
But Toyota officials expect nearly 90 percent of early production Highlanders will be fitted with the more powerful V-6.
The Highlander ride has a firmer feel than in the luxury-oriented RX 300, but it's definitely not truckish. There's some body lean when driving through corners.
While the overall suspension independent front and rear MacPherson strut is the same as in the RX 300, the Highlander uses stiffer springs and shock absorbers and thicker stabilizer bar. Both vehicles ride on 16-inch tires.
Frankly, I prefer the straightforward dashboard design in the Highlander to the dash in the RX 300, which has strange, podlike protrusions here and there.
Otherwise, the interiors of both vehicles are airy. The Highlander actually has a bit more headroom; it stands 4.1 inches taller than the RX 300.
The Highlander is 0.4 inch wider and has a bit more shoulder and hip room, too. I could see the Highlander hood from the driver seat, thanks to the low cowl.
Because the wheelbase and overall length are stretched a few inches from the RX 300, the Highlander's cargo area is bigger. There's 81.4 cubic feet of cargo space in the Highlander and 75 cubic feet in the RX 300. This also is bigger than the 79.8 cubic feet in the 4Runner.
It's worth noting that the Highlander's front seatbacks fully recline. And if you remove the front passenger seat head restraint and lay the seatback down fully, you can load 8-foot-long items inside.
For all the similarities between the Highlander and RX 300, when they were parked next to each other, it wasn't apparent that the two were such close siblings. This is because the Highlander wears new body panels that, truthfully, remind me of Acura's MDX.
Compared with Lexus, Toyota cut costs by using a lower-grade stereo, less-expensive upholstery and not providing the same number of standard features that are in the RX 300. But air conditioning, power windows and door locks, cruise control, anti-lock brakes and AM/FM stereo with cassette and CD players are standard on the Highlander.
The Highlander is sold in both two- and four-wheel-drive models. The latter, with a center differential with viscous coupling, is a full-time system and doesn't require the driver to activate it.
In the test Highlander, the system worked valiantly to keep the wheels moving in a half foot of snow when I ventured out of the tire tracks on a dirt road.
The 2001 Highlander has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price plus destination charge of $23,995 for a two-wheel-drive model with four cylinder.
But it's easy to move up from that price. The test Highlander, with V-6 and options, was more than $31,000.
But even at that, it was less than the lowest-priced RX 300, which starts at $34,450.

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