The sporty, premium Toyota Highlander SE is a new trim level for 2017. (Mary Lowry photo)

The sporty, premium Toyota Highlander SE is a new trim level for 2017. (Mary Lowry photo)

Powerful engine, pleasant, quiet ride in new Toyota Highlander

The Toyota Highlander’s buyer bait quotient is heightened for 2017 by a design update and numerous additions to its standard equipment list, including advanced safety systems, convenience features and performance technology.

Highlander is a midsize SUV with three rows of seats, accommodating eight passengers when equipped with a second row bench seat, or seven passengers if the middle row consists of two captain’s chairs.

A new V6 engine boosts output to 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque — an increase of 25 and 15, respectively, above the 2016 model. A new eight-speed automatic transmission is joined to the more powerful V6 to maximize performance as well as efficiency. The EPA fuel economy rating for all-wheel-drive models is increased to 20 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. The 2016 Highlander topped out at 18/24 mpg.

Year 2017 also brings a new model for the Highlander: a sporty, premium SE trim level. That’s the one I tested for this report, and it was given an intense workout.

Three fellow Pilchuck Audubon Society members and I used the 2017 Toyota Highlander SE for transportation during our annual trek to the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas in Eastern Washington to see the spring migration of sandhill cranes. Thousands of these spectacular birds make a stopover there on the way to their breeding grounds in the Matanuska River Valley and Bristol Bay regions in south-central Alaska. The city of Othello in Eastern Washington has a Sandhill Crane Festival every year in conjunction with the migration.

Highlander SE comes with second-row captain’s chairs, so we four birders each had a separate, comfortable seat with a lot of room all around. When Highlander’s third row seat is folded down it creates a flat rear cargo area providing a generous 42.3 cubic feet of space. The sizable amount of gear we were carrying for our two-day trip — including spotting scopes, tripods, binoculars and field guides, a large pile of outdoor apparel, backpacks, insulated lunchboxes, totes and duffle bags — fit easily into the cargo area with room to spare. A power-operated rear liftgate made access a snap, except for that one time when I tried to close it using the key fob without realizing one of my friends was still standing beneath it. The only injury was to my reputation.

The Outspoken Comment Committee in the second row seats expressed enthusiastic appreciation for the fold-down armrests on the seats, the large collapsible double cupholder unit between the seats, and the rear seat climate control system. The Outspoken Comment Committee Chair in the front passenger seat liked the great visibility and the seat’s four-way power adjustability. We all loved Highlander’s pleasant ride and super-quiet interior.

The Outspoken Driver was wildly impressed by the very capable and intuitive navigation system. I wouldn’t be embarrassed calling it the gold standard. The first time we needed some guidance (and we needed it in a hurry) I was amazed at how easy the system was to operate, and especially by how quickly it responded to each touch of the screen. Had it been like the dreadful navigation systems used in some other cars, I’d still be sitting there in that Othello parking lot trying to get it to work.

Highlander’s wondrous navigation system is integrated with an equally fabulous audio system with the sweetest sound this side of the seraphim.

Thanks to the praiseworthy performance of the V6 engine and eight-speed automatic transmission, our fully loaded Highlander cruised up and over Snoqualmie Pass without a hint of a struggle. There was some trepidation among the Outspoken Comment Committee members about road conditions near the summit, but the Outspoken Driver had complete confidence in Toyota’s trusty all-wheel drive system and its push button for a Snow driving mode.

Features specific to the new Highlander SE model include black paint on the front grille, headlamp housings and roof rails, unique 19-inch wheels, and specially tuned front and rear suspension engineered to tighten handling agility. Unique to the SE’s interior are black seats with silver stitching and pattern inserts, and matching dark dash and door accents. The SE comes as a V6-powered model in FWD or AWD.


Base price, including destination charge: $42,090

Price as driven: $43,900

Mary Lowry is an independent automotive writer who lives in Snohomish County. She is a member of the Motor Press Guild, and a member and past president of the Northwest Automotive Press Association. Vehicles are provided by the manufacturers as a one-week loan for review purposes only. In no way do the manufacturers control the content of the reviews.

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