- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2008

When I saw the 2008 Toyota Highlander, I observed its crisp lines and wide stance. It’s athletic personality jumped at me and I couldn’t wait to drive.

This SUV doesn’t have the tough and rugged appearance of other SUVs; the Highlander now bears smooth, Camry-like lines. In fact, the Highlander rides on a new chassis based from the Camry and Avalon. It’s about 4 four inches longer, 3 inches wider, and it’s got about 1 inch more ground clearance. And with new 19-inch wheels, significant revisions were made to the suspension.

The 2008 Highlander is powered by a new 3.5-liter V-6 engine mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. The all-new Highlander now delivers 270 horsepower, a 55 hp gain over the previous generation. The V-6 also produces 248 pounds-feet of torque. For those who want to tow, Highlander models offer tow ratings from 2,000 to 5,000 pounds.

Customer input led to the new convenient interior features, such as flexible seating arrangements and improvements in getting in and out of the Highlander.

The three-row seating is designed stadium-style with each row slightly higher than the on in front. The second row seats slide back and forth and the backrests recline up to 14 degrees. Although the seats in my tester were covered with an attractive fabric, if you want to spend the money, beautiful leather seat covers are available.

Highlander appears to be a three-row, seven-passenger SUV, featuring two captain chairs in both the first and second rows. But the Highlander converts to an eight-passenger SUV. The center-mounted console between the second-row captain chairs flips into a middle seat.

The driver’s seat has eight-way power adjustments with a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, which made it easy for me to sit in an upright driving position. The passenger’s seat has four-way controls.

Highlander comes in Base, Sport and Limited grades in both two-wheel and full-time four-wheel-drive models. Starting prices begin at $27,500 for the Base model. My Sport tester’s base price was $31,400, and with a few options, the bottom line ran $34,558.

I appreciated the back-up camera that allowed me to see objects behind me. It also had a DVD player with a screen for those seated in the rear, plus rear climate controls. Heated sideview mirrors and a windshield wiper de-icier are also on the Sport.

As for storage, simply push a button on the keyfob and the rear liftgate raises to expose a deep storage area. Also, the 60/40-rear backrest is easy to lower flat when carrying longer objects.

The Highlander Sport handles exceptionally well and I pushed it extra hard, knowing it was equipped with Vehicle Stability Control plus Traction Control. It comes standard with the Star Safety System, a combination of highly advanced traction braking and stability control technologies - to help me avoid an accident in the first place.

As for other active and passive safety features, the Highlander has one of the most comprehensive lists of standard safety features in its class, including seven airbags.

The Highlander is equipped with front airbags, side airbags and knee airbags. The front seats also have a newly developed system of active headrests in the event of a rear-end collision. In a nutshell, the Highlander Sport is loaded with the latest in safety equipment - including snow and downhill traction buttons to use when necessary.

Put it all together and the Sport is worth taking a good look at - inside and out.

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