Styling, V-6, transmission, hybrid accessibility — all change for 2017 Toyota Highlander

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What changes will make the 2017 Toyota Highlander different?

Updated styling, more standard safety features, and an upgraded powertrain. The model line expands, too, with a sport-themed version and lower-cost Hybrid trim levels. These are the most extensive changes to this popular midsize crossover since model-year 2014, when it was last fully redesigned. The styling alterations mostly affect the grille, while all models now come with the security of automatic emergency braking. A more advanced V-6 and a new transmission promise more power and better fuel economy. Sharper handling is the objective of the new sport edition, easier access to higher mileage the goal of the new hybrid models.

Why should I wait for the 2017?

To take advantage of these incremental but worthwhile changes. Larger than Toyota’s compact RAV4 but less off-road-oriented than its far costlier Land Cruiser, Highlander will continue to accommodate up to eight passengers. The Ford Explorer is the only crossover with three rows of seats that outsells it. Its next full redesign is slated for model-year 2020, and with no notable changes expected before then, the ’17 updates will enjoy a reasonable shelf life. And there’s never been a wider variety of Highlander choices. The lineup again begins with the entry-level LE and escalates through LE Plus, volume-selling XLE, upscale Limited, and flagship Limited Platinum trims. Called the SE, the new sporty model slots between the XLE and Limited. The Hybrid roster adds LE and XLE grades to the returning Limited and Platinum trims.

Check out our 2018 Toyota Highlander Preview for the latest info

Should I buy a 2016 model instead?

Only if you want to save a few bucks by exploiting inventory-clearance sales ahead of the ‘17’s arrival. You’ll be getting a still-very-attractive family crossover. Its chassis, dimensions, and general look will be the same as the ’17’s. That means it’s among the more accommodating midsize crossovers, though the third-row isn’t very comfortable for adult-sized bodies. You’ll want to avoid the underpowered four-cylinder version of the LE and opt for the V-6 that’s standard on all other gas-only Highlanders. Its performance, like that of the Hybrid, is more than adequate, even if its fuel economy is merely midpack. The Hybrid delivers good mileage and comes standard with all-wheel drive. AWD is optional on gas V-6 models in place of front-wheel drive; get it unless you live where it doesn’t snow. Reliability is Toyota-typical, so that’s a selling point. So is resale value, and the percentage of it you’ll sacrifice by purchasing a soon-to-be-dated 2016 should be offset by close-out bargains.

Will the styling be different?

Yes, though only at the front and rear. All ‘17s get a much larger grille. It extends into the hood and down to the front apron and is divided laterally by a body-colored bar. Each trim level gets its own grille finish: painted chrome for Limited and Platinum, a shadow treatment for the SE, silver tints for the others. The SE also gets unique 19-inch alloy wheels. Taillamps on all models are revised slightly and look sleeker. A chrome garnish is added to the rear bumper of the Limited and Platinum. Celestial Silver Metallic and Toasted Walnut Pearl join the paint palette, with new Salsa Red Pearl exclusive to the SE. Brown becomes a color choice for the Platinum’s standard leather upholstery. The SE’s cabin gets unique décor: black leather with silver stitching and black trim on dashboard and doors.

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Any mechanical changes?

Yes, for the better. The vast majority of Highlander buyers will continue to choose a gas six-cylinder model and they’ll again get a 3.5-liter V-6. But it’s a new engine that draws abreast of top rivals by adopting direct fuel injection. Toyota had not released specifications in time for this review but says the new six will be more powerful than the old, which was rated at 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. (Used in the Toyota Tacoma pickup, this new V-6 has 278 horses and 265 pound-feet of torque.) Any additional power will be complemented by the two additional gear ratios provided by an 8-speed automatic transmission. It replaces a 6-speed automatic. Only a fraction of sales will continue to go to the four-cylinder LE. It’ll return with a 2.7-liter of 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque and stay with a 6-speed automatic transmission. The Hybrid will again combine a V-6 – it gets the new one, as well – with battery-electric power. It’s not a plug-in, instead recharging by capturing energy during braking. It, too, should exceed its 2016 net output of 280 horsepower (the automaker doesn’t quote net torque for the Hybrid), and will again use a continuously variable automatic transmission. Highlander has traditionally emphasized ride comfort over sporty handling, and that should hold for the ’17, although Toyota says the SE’s suspension is tuned to enhance road manners.

Will fuel economy improve?

It should. Credit the new V-6 and 9-speed automatic, both of which should be more efficient than the less sophisticated engine and transmission they replace. Aid the causing, Toyota adds fuel-saving stop-start to the V-6. It automatically shuts off the engine when the Highlander’s stationary and restarts it when the driver releases the brake pedal; accessories like air conditioning, continue to run. EPA ratings were not released in time for this review, but ’17 Highlander V-6 and Hybrid models will aim to exceed the 2016’s ratings. For gas-only versions, they were 19/25/21 mpg city/highway/combined with front-drive and 18/24/20 with AWD. For the Hybrid and its standard AWD they were 27/28/28 mpg. The four-cylinder should repeat at 20/25/22 mpg.

Will it have new features?

Yes, in addition to the sporty accouterments of the new SE, all ‘17 Highlanders will upgrade to Toyota’s Safety Sense P system as standard equipment. It can detect an impending frontal collision with a vehicle or pedestrian and warn, then automatically apply the brakes, to mitigate it. Lane-departure warning with autonomous steering correction are included, as is adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead. Most of these safety features had been exclusive to the Platinum model. All ’17 Highlanders will also have high-beam headlights that automatically dim for oncoming traffic, and inclusion of a blind-spot monitor now starts with XLE grade rather than the Limited. For 2017, the Platinum gets exterior video cameras that project a bird’s-eye view on the dashboard screen. They’re accompanied by a feature Toyota calls Perimeter Scan, which provides a live rotating 30-degree view around the vehicle to help the driver see potential obstacles. All models gain four USB ports, for a total of five. Adding LE and XLE grades means Hybrid buyers no longer need to shell out for a Limited but can still get such upscale features as the power moonroof, leather upholstery, and remote entry with pushbutton start that are standard on the more affordable XLE. All models will return with Toyota’s well-designed Entune hands-free multimedia interface; it’ll include an 8-inch dashboard screen starting at the LE Plus level and imbedded navigation, plus Siri Eyes Free, and other infotainment perks beginning with the XLE. The Limited and Platinum will again come with second-row captain’s chairs for seven-passenger seating but a three-place bench can be optioned to increase capacity to eight, as standard on the other models. The second-row captain’s chairs, along with a folding table between, have been a $275 option on the XLE and probably will be available on the new SE, as well.

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How will 2017 prices be different?

They’ll increase but remain competitive with comparably equipped versions of the Explorer and other three-row rivals such as the Nissan Pathfinder, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mazda CX-9, and Kia Sorento. Estimated base prices in this review include the automaker’s destination fee, which was $885 for the 2016 Highlander (Toyotas distributed in some states could again carry a different fee). With front-wheel drive, estimated 2017 Highlander base prices are $31,300 for the entry-level LE with the four-cylinder and $32,900 with the V-6. For models with the gas V-6 as standard, estimated 2017 starting prices are $34,400 for the LE Plus, $37,500 for the SE, $38,200 for the XLE, $41,800 for the Limited, and $44,400 for the Platinum. Expect Toyota to again charge around $1,460 for AWD. Based on previous model years, look for 2017 Highlander Hybrids to start around $6,000 higher than their gas-only counterparts. Toyota will likely continue to bundle features strategically, equipping models with amenities for which buyers at the respective price points have shown a desire. For example, the nicely equipped XLE’s sole main option probably will again be a $1,810 rear seat Blu-Ray DVD entertainment system with a 9-inch ceiling screen, RCA jacks, a remote control, and two wireless headphones.

When will it come out?

Release of the 2017 Highlander is set for fall 2016.

Best competitors

Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mazda CX-9, Kia Sorento – and Toyota’s roomy and refined Sienna minivan, which will get the new direct-injected V-6 for 2017 and is the only minivan available with both front- and all-wheel drive.

What change would make it better?

A rethink of the navigation system’s control interface. It needs a dedicated button to quickly summon the map display, and a handy “go back” tab to reverse out of a menu selection. Even with this crossover’s modest cornering prowess, the front seats would benefit from more lateral support in turns. And the suspension tuning used to upgrade the SE’s handling should probably be applied to all Highlanders.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]