- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2003

All these women can’t be wrong.

Women account for at least 60 percent of the buyers of Toyota’s top-selling sport utility vehicle, the Highlander.

The five-passenger SUV with a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $24,390 for a four-cylinder, two-wheel-drive model has only been out three model years.

But its carlike ride, maneuverable size, elevated ride height and easy entry — not to mention Toyota’s reputation for quality and durable vehicles — continue to win over buyers, especially married women, according to Toyota’s buyer statistics.

Highlander purchasers have a median age of 41 and median household income of $70,000, Toyota reports. Seventy percent are married, 45 percent have children, and 60 percent are college-educated.

Such couples and families aren’t looking for an SUV for rugged off-road use.

So the Highlander, which is available in both two- and four-wheel drive but is basically designed for pavement and mild off-road duty, can fit the bill.

Based on the pricier Lexus RX300, the Highlander has carlike unibody construction, a Toyota Camry sedan platform and a quiet interior, and its independent front strut and rear dual-link suspension provide a jostle-free ride.

In fact, in the test Highlander, a four-cylinder-powered model with four-wheel drive, I didn’t even notice when the vehicle passed over many manhole covers in the pavement.

Even on uneven surfaces, the Highlander kept much of the turbulence away from riders, allowing only mild vibrations to be transferred to passengers. The ride isn’t wallowy and cushioned, though.

The tester rode on standard 16-inch tires, and road noise was at a minimum.

Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering was like that found in cars and had a mainstream feel.

The Highlander’s looks are, well, not exactly bold or aggressive for an SUV. In fact, there’s no cladding on the Highlander’s body sides, and on the test vehicle, even a luggage rack was a $220 extra.

No matter.

This is a sport utility that looks easy to drive, and it is.

At 5 feet, 4 inches, I found it easy to get inside; with just a few adjustments of the seat and tilt steering wheel, I was comfortably positioned.

Riders in the back seat enjoy a flat floor, and even the middle person in the back has a soft resting spot.

Three adults back there will sit closely, however.

I could see over and around cars and through the windows of other midsize and compact SUVs that were in front of me. Larger vehicles, though, blocked my view.

The Highlander is shorter in wheelbase and overall length than competitors such as the Honda Pilot and Nissan Murano, but not by much.

Maximum cargo space in the Highlander, with rear seats folded down, is a spacious 81.4 cubic feet.

The Highlander dimension that’s most telling, perhaps, is width. The Pilot is 77.3 inches wide, according to Honda, and the Murano is 74 inches wide, while the Highlander measures 71.9 inches.

This helps explain why the Highlander lags both competitors in interior shoulder room. The Highlander also has a bit less front headroom and legroom than the Pilot and Murano.

The 2003 Highlander doesn’t offer a third-row seat, so passenger capacity is necessarily limited to five.

The base engine that was in the test Highlander — a 155-horsepower, 2.4-liter, double overhead cam four-cylinder — had a buzzy sound when pressed, and it can seem to struggle to get up to highway speed quickly. It also can feel taxed when the vehicle is loaded with five passengers. Maximum torque is 163 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm.

Fuel economy is the benefit of this powerplant, because the four-cylinder is rated at 22 miles a gallon in city driving and 27 on the highway in a Highlander with two-wheel drive. Note this is the kind of fuel economy more likely found in a car than an SUV.

In the test Highlander with four-wheel drive, the fuel economy rating is 19 and 24 miles per gallon, respectively.

But the majority of Highlanders are sold with the uplevel V-6 that provides better acceleration, quieter performance and is better suited to a vehicle carrying four or five passengers.

The 3.0-liter, double-overhead-cam V-6 is rated at 220 horsepower and 222 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm.

The only transmission in the 2003 Highlander is a four-speed automatic. The MSRP and destination charge for a 2003 Highlander V-6 with two-wheel drive is $26,070. It is $27,470 for a 4X4 model.

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