Those who already like the Highlander will love the new Highlander. Jason Cammisa uncharacteristically found the zeitgeist of the Highlander and is extremely confident that our nitpickiness was overwrought. “Wow, finally a handsome Toyota,” he said. “And although I know my opinion is going to be unpopular, I see many reasons why this Highlander will outsell many of its competitors and why more of those customers will love it more than any other: It nails its intended purpose. Everything about the powertrain oozes smoothness—this V-6 is absolutely imperceptible at idle and inaudible in normal driving. The transmission’s light throttle shifts are perfectly imperceptible, too. The car glides off the line as if were powered by an electric motor. The steering feels like it’s assisted with ball bearings, and no matter what you ask of it on the rough off-road course, the Highlander’s suspension refuses to make a harsh noise, slam into its bump stops, or lose composure. Instrumentation is clear, and the buttons that people who buy these kinds of cars use (. not the stability-control-off stuff) are big, well-labeled, and easy to find. The second row is enormous, with my only complaint being that the seats are mounted so low to the floor. That said, there’s a space between the two captain’s chairs to walk into the third row. The materials in the back (with the exception of the flip-up tray between the seats) are nicer than any other SUV save a Mercedes . I don’t love the way the dash looks, but functionally, it’s brilliant with that shelf for phones and stuff. There’s no reason for the sunroof to have two buttons to control it, and the reach for the stereo tuning knob on the stereo is way too far. But that’s it. This is the kind of vehicle that Consumer Reports will love and that customers will buy over and again. And I see why. Would I buy one? Probably not, but there’s no SUV that I would. However, when someone asks me what the best two-kid-hauling everyday-driving midsize SUV is, my recommendation ain’t gonna be that four-cylinder Mazda . It’ll be this Toyota Highlander every time.”
Where the Lexus missed the luxury mark is with the controller for all things electronic. Thankfully, basic climate controls are simple, hard-button adjusted. Lexus, however, insists on using what it calls its Remote Touch Interface touchpad controller. The joystick is gone, and it’s been replaced with a mouse pad. True, the pad is flanked by a few hard-button big-jump shortcuts (radio, media, map, and back), plus two roller/rockers (seek/track and tune). All other delicate/discrete functions must be accessed/changed with the infuriating touchpad. By the way, that knurled roller labeled tune only scrolls through presets. It doesn’t manually tune. Manually tuning a station (terrestrial or satellite) and saving it to a preset location must be done with the touchpad pointer. Unfortunately, this function is blocked out while the car is in motion because attempting to tune a station feels like a hand-eye dexterity video game. Distracting and attention-demanding doesn’t even begin to describe the ordeal. The cursor jumps across the screen unpredictably, unintentionally landing on and selecting boxes not of your choosing about 50 percent of the time. Not only that, but the menu logic is also flawed. Adjusting the audio system’s equalizer, for instance, took several minutes to locate (and the byzantine path was quickly forgotten). On the plus side, Lexus’ voice-recognition software is quite good, so when we could, we often resorted to that to avoid the touchpad all together.