by Sandy Myhre
New is a misnomer. The Toyota Highlander was launched in late 2000 in Japan and in North America in January 2001. It arrived in New Zealand shortly thereafter.
In Japan it’s known at the Kluger and, in fact, in Australia too, because some other company, oh okay, Hyundai, had first call on the name there with the Terracan. The Kluger name, by the way, is derived from the German word klug which means clever or wise but that probably doesn’t mean much to the Aussies who possibly would have preferred the more self-explanatory Highlander name.
Toyota’s Highlander was designed – and still is – to appeal not so much to off-road enthusiasts but more to urban dwellers as a genuine SUV Crossover. Essentially this is the second upgrade to the model launched in 2014.
So, what’s new? More aggressive styling for a start. The 3.5 litre V6 petrol engine has been made more efficient by the adoption of direct injection and two more gears to now boast eight. Equipment levels have been increased and three models are offered – the GX, the GXL and the rather luxurious Limited likely beloved by your corporate boss.
Ever since launch the Highlander has been a top-selling model in New Zealand. While mid-sized SUVs lead the class pack the larger SUVs like the Highlander are enjoying something of a sales surge. It’s the third-favourite rental car company purchase (behind two other Toyotas, the RAV4 and the Corolla) so there is still considerable interest from the driving public in what is a fairly large, seven-seater or even eight-seater vehicle.
At first glance it could be assumed this is the SUV for a man’s man, well suited to a tradie perhaps, a farmer, a winery owner, a man of the land. But assumptions aren’t always accurate. Nigel Gilmour from Northland Toyota says his customers are family people who want all-wheel-drive and as much space as a marquee erected on the lawn for a wedding.
It’s easy to see why there’s the appeal factor. The Highlander delivers what it promises. It’s well-constructed, nicely engineered, very comfortable indeed and with such generous and adaptable cabin space you could fit half the kids’ footy team in and still have room for a week’s victuals.
Style-wise, there’s room to be a bit more dramatic. Although body swirls and indented swathes literally cut a fine figure, Toyota have opted for a more conservative aesthetic approach than they needed to or which reflects the competency and abilities of the rest of the car.
That said, it’s a family mainstay with all the benefits of a minivan or the naffly-named ‘people mover’ but with far more design appeal and considerably more ability than either.
The driver’s seat has a massive 12-point power adjustment that includes the length of the seat cushion and lumbar support. Toyota may or may not have designed this with women in mind but the result is, well, literally comforting.
Speaking of comfort, the Limited model comes equipped with a 360-degree panoramic view-finder so you can see all around the vehicle. It makes parking a breeze as evidenced by getting it to fit between a clapped out flat deck ute with a farm dog waiting patiently in the back and a stunning dark grey Maserati minus a dog, both outside the Trainspotter Café in Kawakawa.
Fuel consumption is officially 9.5l/100kms which Toyota suggests is 10 percent better than the previous model and which is jolly good given the weight. Careful driving should better even that.
On the road driver feel is superb, it handles like it should be a much smaller SUV than it actually is. Around the rolling and twisting hills of the Far North of New Zealand it behaves immaculately.
Sales figures speak volumes and with the updated, upgraded and upskilled Highlander, Toyota will continue to enjoy success with this model and with several very good reasons why.