- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2005

Let’s hear it for the crossovers.

Though they’re a long way from supplanting truck-based sport utility vehicles, the car-based crossover SUVs have been coming on strong as consumers wake up to the fact that, for most people, crossovers are a better choice.

The truck-based SUVs are more rugged and better suited for towing and off-road duty. But surveys have shown that only about 5 percent of SUV owners ever take their vehicles off the pavement.

Crossovers offer almost all of the SUV advantages without many of the disadvantages. They can be equipped with all-wheel drive, an advantage in foul weather, they usually are less expensive and deliver better fuel economy, sometimes have more interior space, and yet they have the same rugged good looks and high-up driving position so cherished by millions of SUV zealots.

The 2004 Toyota Highlander is a prime example. It is a crossover SUV built off the same platform as the Toyota Camry, the best-selling car in the United States. It also is a fraternal twin of the Lexus RX330, which is the best-selling luxury SUV. In 2003, 120,174 Highlanders were purchased in the U.S., which made it the biggest selling SUV in the Toyota lineup.

Compared with the truck-based 4Runner, another midsize SUV from Toyota, the Highlander scores quite well. Looking at the top-of-the-line Limited models with V-6 engines and three rows of seats, the Highlander has 31 cubic feet more passenger space than the 4Runner (134 vs. 103), only one cubic foot less cargo space (11 vs. 12) and can handle about the same payload (1,270 pounds vs. 1,275). The seats can be folded for extra cargo room.

The Highlander weighs less (3,935 pounds vs. 4,310), delivers better fuel economy (18/24 miles per gallon city/highway vs. 17/21), and its suggested sticker price is thousands of dollars less ($31,920 vs. $36,260).

The only place the 4Runner is ahead is in towing (5,000 pounds vs. 2,500) and its off-road prowess. The 4Runner also is available with a V-8 engine.

Obviously, there are buyers out there to whom the comparison will matter not a whit. They will buy the 4Runner simply because they like it better, for whatever reason. And the foregoing is not a rap on the redesigned 4Runner, which is a fine vehicle in its own right.

With the new third-row seat, the 2004 Highlander can carry seven, although the two in the third row should be of small stature. Fortunately, the second-row seats are on tracks and can be moved forward to provide a bit of foot and knee room for the two out back.

The test vehicle was the Limited model with all-wheel drive and a short though hefty list of options that included leather upholstery, a DVD-based rear-seat video and audio system, a motorized glass sunroof, side-curtain and side air bags, and an upgraded stereo system.

That took the base sticker price from $31,920 to a whopping $37,037, which is up there in Lexus RX330 territory. And that did not include a navigation system, which would bump the price even higher.

The standard equipment on the Limited is fairly formidable as well. It includes air conditioning, a five-speed automatic transmission, 17-inch alloy wheels, antilock brakes with traction control, stability control and brake assist, a tire-pressure warning system, a roof rack, remote locking, an anti-theft system that immobilizes the engine, power windows and outside mirrors, auto-dimming inside mirror, interior woodgrain trim, a garage-door opener and an audio system with cassette and CD players.

The 3.3-liter V-6 engine delivers 230 horsepower, enough to prevent any embarrassment in the stoplight sprints but not enough to engage in any acceleration competitions.

The five-speed automatic transmission shifts unobtrusively, both up and down through the gears, and the all-wheel drive seamlessly transfers power to the wheels with the best traction without requiring any conscious input from the driver.

Overall, the Highlander is as capable and competitive a crossover as you are likely to find anywhere, though the price has become a bit daunting. In the three-row-seating version, compare it to the Honda Pilot and the Chrysler Pacifica.

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