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HIGHER GROUND

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Published on Sun, Nov 8, 2009

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

HIGHER GROUND By Brian Kennedy Normally, I drive alone, or with one person. But throw in my sister's kids - two of them - and my sister herself and her husband down from Canada. Math says that's six bodies to transport. Even my biggest car, a '67 Pontiac Tempest, seems suited for only five. The answer? Give Toyota's Highlander a try. Normally outfitted for five, the Highlander has a third seat in the center of its second row that stows and is replaced by a mini table. When you do that, the seating accommodates four. But it also has an available third row of seats for two more people (the option is $740). Perfect for a summer holiday driving the freeways to Disneyland, the beach, and other places. So that plus that middle second-row seat means that seven can travel in the Highlander when it's configured this way. Those in the far back might feel a little bit cramped, since the floor is high there, but nobody in my group complained. The first thing you notice as the Highlander's driver is that getting in and out is a piece of cake. You don't step up into the driver's seat. You slide sideways through the generous door opening. I'm used to dropping down into my two-door coupes, so this vehicle was a nice change from that. Inside, you're met by a number of clever features. There's the usual automatic shifter, but also a Sequential Shift selection feature which allows you to choose the gear you want. It does protect the engine from over-revving, so you can't go too crazy. To be honest, the sport shift is fun for a little while, and then probably will be forgotten by most drivers. It does help to have it on hand when entering a freeway with 900 pounds of human occupants filling the car, though. The 2.7-litre engine is otherwise a little bit reluctant, or perhaps better, the tranny is a wee bit slow on kick-down, to give you a rush of torque when it's most in demand.

You also notice the FWD torque-steer on those occasions when you really jam the throttle down. But hey - the Highlander is not a sports car, and doing what it does, which is hauling people and stuff in quantity, it is an easy-driving machine. More about the inside: above the rearview mirror is a pop-down sunglasses case. Neat. Neater - a mirror on its surface which is curved to show the driver and front passenger exactly what shenanigans little passengers might be getting up to in the seats behind. Also great is the variety of lights, vents (including rear-seat controls), power points, and such like which are spread through the Highlander's interior. In fact, there's not much you could ask for other than what Toyota has already thought of. The switchgear is nicely turned out, with good surfaces. One additional goodie is a radio preset up-down and volume toggle on the steering wheel. The model I drove, a 4X2 model which stickers at near $30 grand (though I'd ditch the towing package and hitch and save nearly a thousand bucks), had a cloth interior and relatively basic stereo, but it was as comfortable as any car I've driven in lately, and the music was well-reproduced on the sound system. Mechanically, the Highlander is decent on power (with the noted reservations). Turning radius is livable, and the only complaint I had in a week of highway and city driving was that the brakes are a tick slow to react to pressure and the car itself prone to some front-end dive. They are technically up to snuff, being four-wheel disks with vented front rotors. My rear-most passengers also said that they felt every cross-wise freeway seam, like their heads were bouncing up and down in time to the road. But it's not often you'll cram six or seven into this thing, at least, not putting adults in the third row, I don't imagine. Cargo space is good with the rear seat folded, but almost nil with the seven-passenger configuration. The space behind the rear seat is about a foot deep. We put a tiny cooler and a couple of beach bags there, and you could get a little more in if pressed. Enough, let's say, for that aforementioned day at Disneyland. Outside, the Highlander is a little bit stylish - engineers having added a curve or two to its flanks. It's not pretty, but it's handsome, a nice change from the Lexus SUV you see everywhere (though of course, that's a Toyota too). I can't imagine taking a backwards glance at this vehicle after parking it, but I can imagine giving it a hearty pat to say "job well done" if I had kids to get to karate and violin. It's big enough for a base fiddle, but small enough to park at the mall. The perfect multi-passenger hauler. EPA gas mileage is 20 City and 27 Highway, and you'll remember that those are new numbers, lower than the old method of testing, which was phased out about a year ago.

Arguments for: Easy in and out for the front-seat passengers Styling that makes a passable attempt at being attractive Nice gauge appearance and good interior features Cons: Slow to downshift when you need power Soft-feeling brakes Bouncy in the third seat SUMMARY JUDGMENT You probably don't want to commute in this car, since one person doesn't need this much space. But you might find it the perfect family hauler, especially around town. Seating for seven is possible, and for four, five, or six, quite do-able as an everyday option. For more information about Toyota products, go to www.toyota.com

SPECIFICATIONS Name of vehicle: 2009 Toyota Highlander Price: $25,705 (base) $29,285 as tested (includes third row seat, Extra Value Package 2, AM/FM/6 CD changer, manual rear HVAC, 8-way power driver seat, tow package) EPA mileage rating (city/highway/combined miles per gallon): 20/27/22 Engine: 2.7 liter dual overhead cam, 16-valve four-in-line with VVT-i (3.3 and 3.5 liter DOHC V6s optional) Power: 187 horsepower at 5800 rpm Torque: 186 pound-feet at 4100 rpm Transmission: 6-speed electronically controlled automatic with intelligence (ECT-i) Drive configuration: Front engine, front-wheel drive (all-wheel drive optional) Steering: Electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion Suspension: 4-wheel independent McPherson struts with front and rear anti-sway bars Dimensions Length: 188.4 inches Width: 75.2 inches Height: 68.1 inches Curb weight: 3847 pounds

 

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