Toyota Highlander

Toyota Highlander Toyota Highlander
First Drive Review

We know where sport-utes came from. They issued forth from the loins of truck plants 30-some years ago, in the form of Ford Broncos, Chevy Blazers, and International Scouts. They were all sinew and trucky gristle, those early machines.

But where are the new ones headed?

Toyota's new Highlander is one more signpost pointing the way. It's not a truck, neither in its parts list nor its personality. Rather, it's a tall car wearing trucky clothes.

The Highlander has a unit body, following the pioneering Jeep Cherokee and, among others, the Grand Cherokee, the Nissan Pathfinder, the Toyota RAV4, and recently, the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute. Compared with the body-on-frame method of trucks, unit construction lowers the floor, opens up more room inside, and adds reassuring stiffness to the body, all with less weight. Almost all cars these days are built as units.

The Highlander's unit body, in fact, turns out to be one more sibling in the Camry family -- the cute-ute Lexus RX300 is another -- which makes it heir to the smooth-riding sophistication associated with that popular mid-size car.

Think of the Highlander as a tall Camry station wagon -- a go-anywhere wagon if you opt for all-wheel drive. Go anywhere? The all-terrain capability of serious SUVs is of no use to drivers who never venture off-road. The Highlander, with its modest ground clearance (6.9 inches for two-wheel drive, 7.3 for four-wheel drive) and semi-taut suspenders, is more of an all-weather specialist, trading some bush-bashing ability for carlike comfort.

As for its exact place in today's parade of sport-ute choices, the Highlander, available only as a five-door, is mid-sized, nearly three inches longer than the Grand Cherokee, about five inches shorter than the 2002 Explorer five-door. And it's about four inches shorter than a Camry.

Of all the comparisons we might make, the Highlander is closest to the easy-rider Lexus RX300. "They share platforms," says Toyota. The Highlander's wheelbase is nearly four inches longer, at 106.9 inches, and it's 4.1 inches longer overall at 184.4. The two also share the 220-hp, 3.0-liter V-6, a four-speed automatic, most details of the drivetrain, and other necessities such as the 19.8-gallon gas tank.