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First Drive

Another Wannabe SUV? Well, at Least It's a Toyota

April 11, 2001|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It would be tempting to bash Toyota's latest entry in the swelling wannabe-an-SUV category--just because the world probably doesn't really need another sport-utility. The problem is, Toyota rarely makes anything that is bashable.

And the new 2001 Highlander is one more reason that this is the year Toyota probably will become the first import brand ever to capture a 10% share of the American passenger vehicle market.

But we can fault the Highlander for looking a lot like most of the other sport-utility and crossover-utility vehicles--or cute-utes--we've been blessed with in recent years. There are about 52 models now, and the number is climbing. Toyota seems to save its cutting-edge design efforts for special models such as the hybrid Prius and youth-oriented Echo and Celica.

As for whether the world really needs another SUV, the answer, of course, depends. If you are a Toyota fan, it sure does. If not, then the Highlander certainly doesn't fill any great need, although with its Toyota pluses of quality, reliability and value, it certainly doesn't hurt.

But we can't fault the execution. The Highlander does exactly what it was designed to do.

The only real gripe left, then, is the name. We can take Toyota to task for calling this five-passenger relative of the upscale Lexus RX300 the Highlander.

Sean Connery in a kilt. That's a Highlander.

Brawny. Grizzled.

Toyota's version is more like Hugh Grant in a plaid skirt.

Pleasant to look at, extremely competent, but not really believable in the role.

So it is with the Highlander, which fits into Toyota's growing family of trucks and truck-like products, bigger and more expensive than the RAV4 and the same size but less costly than the 4Runner.

Toyota in fact, promotes the mid-size Highlander as an alternative to its own tough truck-based 4Runner.

"Sometimes you feel like a truck, sometimes you don't," says Don Esmond, Toyota general manager. Most Highlander buyers, he says, will be families with young children. And most decisions to buy the Highlander instead of, say, a 4Runner or a Ford Escape, will be made by women.

The vehicle is a crossover, with a unitized body shaped like a truck and riding on a car-like suspension that cancels out a lot of the bouncy ride--and off-road ruggedness--that come with a true truck-based SUV.

Highlander might look like a sport-utility, Esmond acknowledges, but what it provides is "the image and versatility of an SUV with the ride and comfort of a car."

Actually, the stylish interior provides a lot of versatility, and with the all-wheel-drive version, you get additional traction and better performance on loose, slick and slippery surfaces.

But the typical Highlander buyer won't take it over anything rougher than the gravel road to the lake, and probably shouldn't.

That's because, like its close cousin in the Lexus line, the Highlander shares its power train and many of its suspension bits and pieces with the Camry, Toyota's best-selling mid-size passenger car.

That is likely to present some shoppers with a bit of a dilemma.

While its interior echoes the RX300 and its top-of-the-line power plant is the same 220-horsepower V-6 that powers the Lexus SUV, the Highlander is slightly larger--thanks to the boxier body--with more cargo space and back-seat headroom, yet costs thousands less.

The base front-wheel-drive Highlander with 155-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine starts at $23,995 including delivery and destination charges. The all-wheel-drive V-6 model begins at $26,975.

Gas mileage for the all-wheel V-6 model is EPA-rated at 18 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway. The smaller engine with front drive is rated at 22 mpg city and 27 on the open road.

Toyota figures that in the first few months, at least 90% of buyers will be taking the V-6 and 50% will order the limited-edition options package--leather trim, alloy wheels, automatic climate control, keyless entry and a few other goodies--for an additional $3,495.

Standard features include air conditioning; anti-lock brakes; automatic door locks, six-speaker AM/FM-cassette-CD player stereo system; cruise control and tilt steering wheel.

A few neat touches inside include seats that lie flat to create a smooth cargo floor; rear seat backs with three tilt adjustments and easy-to-use single-lever rear seat latches. There are four water bottle holders, but only two cup holders--both up front.

Safety equipment includes dual front air bags, front seats designed to help reduce whiplash injury in rear-end collisions, and adjustable headrests and three-point seat belts for all five seating positions. Side-impact air bags are optional.

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