Now available in the UK, this SUV is a beast of a car, finds Charlie Flindt, though it makes good use of the ‘c’ words: conventional and conservative


After a run of headline-grabbing, eyebrow-raising, tyre-smoking Toyotas (Supra, GR Yaris), it’s time to look at something a little more sensible: the new Highlander. I say ‘new’, but it has been proving popular in other parts of the world for more than two decades. Only now has Toyota decided to sell it in the UK.

Toyota Highlander Excel

The first thing you notice is the size. It’s supposed to fill the gap between the Land Cruiser and the RAV4, but it seems too big for that. The styling is odd, too. More than one visitor asked if the Highlander was a new Subaru Forester. It was enough to make me reach for the press kit to check it wasn’t another bed-hopping joint venture.

Size has its advantages, of course. There are three rows of seats – although the back set are for small journeys and small people only. The rest of the interior is truly capacious – and there’s a word you don’t hear often enough. The full-length ‘panoramic’ sunroof helps with the feeling of space but, oddly, the front row of seats misses out on its benefits.

The panoramic sunroof gives a sense of space

A word you are unlikely to hear in the context of the Highlander is ‘exciting’. It’s all frightfully conservative, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The inside is well laid out and relatively conventional, and – joy of joys – there’s only one bing-bong that has to be silenced before you can get on and drive in peace. The view out is unsurprisingly good, although thick pillars do require some neck stretches.

Outside there’s a noticeable lack of chrome, the wheels are relatively discreet (in an era when many wheels seem styled by spaced-out YTS teenagers) and the tyres aren’t ludicrous low-profile affairs.

And if you yearn for the thrill of choosing your gearbox ratios or selecting which diff to lock (and, yes, I do) then you’ll feel a little let down by the Highlander’s choices. You’ll find ‘trail’ on the drive mode selector, but that’s about it.

The car is capacious, allowing room for three rows of seats

Diehard diesel fans will be disappointed, too: the Highlander is only available with a ‘hybrid’ petrol/electric system – although if the petrol charges the batteries, it seems to me to be ‘petrol’ powered. It works well, although the petrol engine seems a bit gruff at times.

Handling is good for such a big beast, with body roll minimised and lumps and bumps smoothed out remarkably effectively. But, once again, it doesn’t inspire you to go flinging the back end out round some twisting bends – very sensible, too. And the less said about the trip to the local multi-storey car park the better. Let’s just say we left without troubling the ticket machine.

I suppose we’ve been spoiled by some of the manic machines coming from Toyota recently, but the Highlander felt decidedly flat. It would be unkind to call it a RAV4 on steroids, but it’s a pricey vehicle in search of a niche. The Toyota faithful will, of course, flock to it for its sensible image and legendary reliability, because that – and not smoking tyres – is what they want.

Toyota Highlander Excel statistics

♦ Engine: 2,487cc  hybrid

♦ Power: 248bhp

♦ Max speed: 111mph

♦ Performance, 0 to 62: 8.3 seconds

♦ Combined fuel economy: 39.2mpg

♦ Insurance group: 40

♦ Price: £52,590