Buyers loved Highlander’s 2017 changes; how will they respond to Toyota’s modest plans for the ’18?

2018 Toyota Highlander

2018 Toyota Highlander

What changes will make the 2018 Toyota Highlander different?

Probably nothing more than a new color choice or two, following a pretty thorough model-year 2017 freshening. The updates, which included tweaked styling and powertrain upgrades, helped spark an 11 percent jump in sales. They also and positioned this three-row midsize crossover to coast with little additional change until its next full redesign, slated for model-year 2020. That leaves the ’18 Highlander a fine choice in a reliable SUV with seating for up to eight and standard driver aids – including autonomous emergency braking — that earn it top safety ratings.

Check out our 2018 Toyota Highlander Review and Pricing for the latest ifo

Why should I wait for the 2018?

Little reason to, really. It’ll be a virtual rerun of the ’17, but it’ll almost certainly cost more. Dimensions and styling won’t change. Powertrains will repeat a selection of gas-only four- and six-cylinder engines and a gas-electric hybrid, which is the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the class. Expect a reprised lineup beginning with the rental-fleet-oriented four-cylinder Base model and ascending through V-6-powered, value-priced LE and LE Plus trims; volume-selling XLE; sporty SE; upscale Limited; and flagship Limited Platinum. The Base model will again be confined to front-wheel drive and the SE to all-wheel drive (AWD). The others will offer a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. Look for the hybrid to return in LE, XLE, Limited, and Limited Platinum form, all with AWD.

A caveat to our statement about waiting for the ’18 Highlander involves an addition to Toyota’s premium Lexus brand. For model-year 2018, the Lexus RX crossover, which is essentially an upscale version of the Highlander, will offer a variant with a third seating row. So if you like Highlander’s ability to carry seven passengers but crave more luxury and prestige, wait for the ’18 Lexus/Toyota lineups to compare these three-row crossover cousins.

Should I buy a 2017 model instead?

Yes, if you’re unexcited about detail changes Toyota might make to the ’18. Buying a ’17 would help you duck inevitable model-year price escalation. And it would get you a crossover that’s the ’18 Highlander’s visual and mechanical duplicate. Updates that came on line with the ’17 include sharper styling front and rear and more standard safety features. A more advanced V-6 and a new transmission furnished additional power and better fuel economy. Addition of the SE model brought marginally sharper handling. And the Hybrid became much more attainable thanks to addition of lower-priced LE and XLE trims. These were the most extensive changes to this popular midsize crossover since model-year 2014, when it was last fully redesigned.

Rent but don’t buy the underpowered Base model. The V-6 that’s standard on the other gas-only Highlanders delivers more than adequate performance, even if its fuel economy is still midpack. The Hybrid furnishes surprising acceleration and terrific mileage. AWD is standard on the Hybrid and recommended on gas V-6s unless you live where it doesn’t snow. Highlander emphasizes ride comfort over sporty handling, and that should hold for the ’18. The SE’s tauter suspension marginally enhances road manners, but most buyers will probably choose it more for its unique styling details. Top safety ratings and Toyota reliability are selling points for all Highlanders. So is resale value, and the percentage of it you’ll sacrifice by purchasing a ’17 instead of an ’18 will be negligible within just a few years.

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Will the styling be different?

No, although a new exterior hue or two wouldn’t be unexpected: Celestial Silver Metallic and Toasted Walnut Pearl joined the palette for 2017. The ‘18s will carry over the larger grille and more dashing taillamps that were part of the model-year-’17 freshening. Expect each trim level to continue with its own grille finish, too: painted chrome for Limited and Platinum, a shadow treatment for the SE, silver tints for the others. The SE should also return with unique 19-inch alloy wheels. A chrome rear-bumper garnish should again help distinguish the Limited and Platinum. Toyota could dish up a new cabin-material hue, as well: for ’17, brown became a color choice for the Platinum’s standard leather upholstery. Expect the SE to retain its unique interior décor: black leather with silver stitching and black trim on doors and dashboard. Highlander is larger than Toyota’s compact RAV4 and more suited to everyday family duty than the far costlier Land Cruiser. It’s among the more accommodating midsize crossovers, even if the third row isn’t overly hospitable for adult-sized bodies. The SE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum should again come with second-row captain’s chairs for seven-passenger seating. A three-place second-row bench will likely remain a no-cost option for the XLE and Limited to increase capacity to eight, as standard on the LE and LE Plus.

Any mechanical changes?

No. The ’18 Highlander will continue updates made for 2017, foremost among them a new V-6 engine and an upgrade to an automatic transmission with eight speeds instead of a less-efficient six. The vast majority of Highlander buyers choose a non-hybrid V-6 model. Like its predecessor, the newest six is a 3.5-liter, but it boasts direct fuel injection and other advances to boost horsepower to 295, an increase of 25, and 263 pound-feet of torque, an increase of 15. On LE Plus, XLE, SE, Limited, and Platinum models, the V-6 benefits from fuel-saving stop-start, in which it automatically shuts down when the Highlander is stationary, then restarts when the driver releases the brake pedal; accessories like air conditioning, continue to run. The fleet-special Base model will continue with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder of 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque and will stay with a six-speed automatic transmission.

The Hybrid will again combine the latest V-6 with battery-electric power. This is not a plug-in, recharging instead by recapturing energy otherwise lost during braking and coasting. It, too, will carryover the power boost it got for 2017, an increase to 306 net horsepower, from 280 (Toyota doesn’t quote net torque for the Hybrid). Here, a continuously variable automatic transmission is used in place of a conventional automatic with stepped gear changes. On all Highlanders, the AWD system is not designed for serious off-roading but intended more as a traction adjunct on snowy pavement or gravelsurfaces.

Will fuel economy improve?

No, but it will continue to benefit from the increases fostered by the 2017 powertrain upgrades. EPA ratings for the four-cylinder didn’t change, remaining a rather woeful 20/24/22 mpg city/highway/combined. They did increase for the V-6 and Hybrid, a nice achievement, given that the newer models have more power than their pre-2017 counterparts. Expect 2018 EPA ratings for gas-only V-6 models to remain 21/27/23 mpg with front-drive and 20/26/22 with AWD. (That’s an increase from 19/25/21 and 18/24/20, respectively.) Note that ratings for the LE model, which doesn’t have stop-start, should continue at 20/27/23 mpg front front-drive and 19/26/22 with AWD. Ratings for the 2018 Highlander Hybrid models should repeat at 30/28/29 mpg, an increase from the pre-update 27/28/28 rating.

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Will it have new features?

Not likely. Expect a continuation of an exemplary range of standard and optional features. All ‘18 Highlanders will come standard with Toyota’s Safety Sense P system, a suite of driver aids for which many rivals charge extra — and which too many reserve for their top trim levels. Toyota’s system includes lane-departure warning with autonomous steering correction, as well as adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead. It also includes sensors that can detect an impending frontal collision with a vehicle or pedestrian. It warns the driver, then can automatically apply the brakes to bring the crossover to a stop. It’s this feature that should again earn every ’18 Highlander a rating highly valued by automakers: Top Safety Pick+ status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

All ’18 Highlanders will also have high-beam headlights that automatically dim for oncoming traffic, and every model starting with the XLE will include a blind-spot monitor to warn of unseen vehicles in adjacent lanes. Expect the Limited Platinum to again have 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 real-time rotating 360-degree view around the vehicle to help the driver see potential obstacles. Every model will again have five USB ports, plus Toyota’s well-designed Entune hands-free multimedia interface with an 8-inch dashboard screen starting at the LE Plus level. Imbedded navigation, plus Siri Eyes Free, and other infotainment perks should again kick in at the XLE tier. Hybrid buyers will again benefit from the 2017 addition of the LE and XLE grades. XLE buyers, for example, will not 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 as standard.

How will 2018 prices be different?

They’ll increase but probably not as much as they did for model-year 2017, when base prices for gas-V-6 versions rose between $625 and $1,705, depending on model. Without the more advanced powertrain and enhanced safety equipment to account for, ’18 Highlander prices should 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 $940 for the 2017 Highlander (Toyotas distributed in some states could again carry a different fee). With front-wheel drive, estimated 2018 Highlander base prices are $31,900 for the entry-level Base model. Among gas-only V-6 models, expect the LE to start around $34,000 with front-drive and around $34,900 with AWD. Estimated starting prices are $36,500 for the LE Plus with front-drive and $38,000 with AWD; $40,000 and $41,500 for the XLE; $43,600 for the AWD-only SE; $43,100 and $44,600 for the Limited; and $46,100 and $47,700 for the Limited Platinum. Expect 2018 Highlander Hybrids to start around $6,000 higher than their gas-only AWD 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?

Expect a 2018 Highlander release date in fall 2017.

Best competitors

Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mazda CX-9, Kia Sorento. Family buyers freed from the tyranny of minivan stigma should also consider Toyota’s roomy and refined Sienna minivan, the only minivan available with both front- and all-wheel drive.

What change would make it better?

A revamp of the navigation system’s control interface. A dedicated button to quickly summon the map display would improve usability. So would a “go back” tab to reverse out of a menu selection. Even with this crossover’s modest cornering prowess, the front-seat occupants would benefit from more lateral bolstering in turns. And some of the suspension tuning that upgrades the SE’s handling, however marginally, would benefit all Highlanders.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com 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 HowStuffWorks.com, 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]