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2017 Toyota Highlander SE AWD: A van for all seasons

By Ted Orme

The classic cars filling this site are seldom used as everyday drivers. For that most of us exercise our more pragmatic side. You know, a vehicle that always starts and runs us through our daily routines without drama and in all kinds of weather.

I’ve got one for you: the 2017 Toyota Highlander SE AWD, a worthy combination of comfort, versatility and drivability. Classified as a three-row crossover “family vehicle,” a condemning nomenclature for “enthusiasts,” the Highlander is what I would call a do-it-all van for all seasons.

I’ve got to add a qualifier up front, however. Although enlarged somewhat in 2014, the midsize Highlander is still smaller than most of its three-row competition. The third row in the Highlander is a pinch that should only hold small people or kids. And storage behind the third row is a meager 14 cubic feet, just enough for a few grocery bags. But with the seats stowed cargo volume grows to 83.7 cubic feet – plenty big enough for all kinds of stuff.

So the easy solution for me was to forget about the third row until pressed into service. I much prefer the smaller size and more nimble handling of the Highlander as opposed to big maladroit three-seaters that are hard to maneuver or park in cities. I could be very happy with a four or five-seat Highlander (two captain’s chairs in the second row of the SE and higher trims and a three- person bench seat in other models).

But make no mistake; the Highlander is no lightweight. At 4,430 pounds, it needs the updated and more powerful direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6 engine and new eight-speed automatic to perform at its best. Rated at 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, the revised V-6 makes 25 more horsepower and an additional 15 lb-ft of torque over previous models. And with a towing capability of 5,000 pounds, you can tow your classic car to the next show.

A wimpy 185-horsepower inline-four is still standard in base front-wheel-drive Highlander LE, but I can’t imagine it getting the job done.

Despite the extra power, 2017 Highlander V-6 all-wheel-drive models with a new stop-start system achieved a 20 mpg city, 26 mpg highway, and 22 mpg combined EPA rating, which is a 2-mpg improvement over last year’s Highlander. My week in the LE in combined driving just bested the average at 22.6 mpg. 

If fuel economy is your top priority, there is also the Highlander Hybrid available for 2017 in LE, XLE, Limited and Limited Platinum AWD grades. The Hybrid Synergy Drive system pairs the new 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine with a high-torque electric drive motor-generator that produces 306 total system horsepower and an EPA-estimated 30 mpg city/28 mpg highway/29 mpg combined fuel economy rating.

New for 2017 is the Highlander SE model I tested, which according to Toyota, is “a blend of sportiness, premium looks and feel, and functionality.” It features dark paint treatment for the front grille, headlamp housings and roof rails, combined with unique 19-inch wheels. It also rides atop firmer, specially tuned front and rear suspension that tightens handling agility.

Truth be known, the Highlander SE handles about like you would expect: a two-ton unibody crossover van/wagon. It will not make any “enthusiast’s” wish list, but it offers most folks a civilized, carlike driving experience in everyday use.

What will keep you happy is the roomy, comfortable, quiet and safe cabin that ranks it high on my score card. That starts with the driver's seat “fits everyone” adjustability and variable-length bottom cushion. Add to that quality materials, well located buttons and knobs and logically laid-out controls that include a large 4.2-inch touchscreen and it’s a very pleasing on-the-road environment.

Where the interior really excels, at least for a packrat like me, is abundant storage nooks and crannies, including a unique built-in shelf across the lower dashboard that is a great place for phones and other gadgets. There’s also a massive center-console bin that can accommodate nearly a cubic foot of other assorted stuff.

And who doesn’t want to feel safe? To ease your mind all 2017 Highlanders include a suite of standard equipment safety technologies that include front collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist, automatic high beams and a rearview camera. Blind-spot monitoring is also standard on the SE, XLE, Limited, and Limited Platinum, which is also equipped with a 360-degree-view camera as standard equipment.

All those safety tech items are even more appreciated as your senses and reactions begin to dull with age. But the proof is in the pudding. In government crash testing, the Highlander received a five-star overall rating (out of a possible five), with four stars for total front-impact protection and five stars for total side-impact protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Highlander the highest possible rating of Good in all crash tests.

With all of its added standard equipment, the tested SE tipped the scales at $42,315, which included $225 for floor and cargo mats and $940 handling fee. That’s not chump change, but you can opt for less.

The Highlander is available in six trim levels – LE, LE Plus, XLE, SE, Limited and Limited Platinum – with a range in base prices from $30,630 for the LE four-cylinder 2WD model to $46,260 for the Limited Platinum V6 AWD. The MSRP for the Highlander Hybrid models range from $36,270 for the LE V6 AWD to $47,880 for the Limited Platinum V6 AWD.

Given all the upgrades to the 2017 Highlander – many added standard safety and convenience features, more powerful and fuel-efficient V-6 engine, and more sporty exterior styling– there is one more thing to consider. The Highlander is a Toyota, synonymous with high popularity, bullet-proof reliability and top resale value. Need I say more?

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