I have the upmost respect for anyone who has honed their singing, dancing or performing skills to produce a thoroughly enjoyable act. That said, I hold some STDs in higher regard than television talent shows.
Though my wife is not a fan of the nearly 1,400 available to watch on any given night, she does religiously watch a few dancing competitions and one talent-based show. And whenever she tunes in to one of these programs, I tune out, usually by planting my phone about three millimeters from my face.
However, I can still hear these judges, who usually have the same personality as a bowling ball, go on about how something was a good performance, but they needed something more to be wowed.
It’s a critique that fitting of the Toyota Highlander.
In no way is the Highlander akin to William Hung singing “She Bangs,” on American Idol many years ago. In fact, there is little the three-row SUV gets wrong, but the judges (me in this case) would certainly call out its lack of pizzazz.
The Highlander looks like a three-row SUV, and that’s about all one can say about its styling. In the mid-range XLE trim I tested the interior is neither lavish nor meager. Its driving characteristics are not inspiring or sporty, though in many ways the Highlander slots into reasonably good where handling, feel and ride quality are concerned.
The Highlander does a lot of things right, it’s just not going to blow the audience away.
Wind and tire noise are kept to a minimum in the cabin, and the three-row does provide a comfortable ride over all but the most cavernous of potholes. There’s room to stretch for those in the front and middle row, though fitting adults in the third row is a tough proposition if they happen to have legs. It is also challenging for large adults to climb over the 60/40 split middle row to reach the third. However, Toyota also offers optional captain’s chairs for the middle row which would ease in-car contortions.
The Highlander is well equipped with safety features in the base LE trim and includes radar cruise control, lane departure warning with steering assist, automatic high beams and a pre-collision system with brake assist. Other standard features include an LCD information display, four tie-downs in the cargo area and 18-inch wheels.
Opting for the mid-range XLE adds blind spot warning, roof rails, a large moonroof, leather-trimmed seats in the front and middle row, push-button start, second row window shades and other amenities that most drivers seek without hurting the wallet too much with higher trims. The XLE also offers Driver Easy Speak which uses the microphone in the overhead console to project the driver’s voice through the rear speakers for those times when you really need to emphasize you will turn this damn car around.
Other tech features include an 8-inch infotainment screen that is mostly easy to use. There is an auxiliary audio jack, Bluetooth and three USB ports in the front, but those hoping for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto connectivity are out of luck.
The Highlander is offered with three engines including a hybrid, a four-cylinder and the option I tested, a 3.5-liter V6 offering 295-horsepower. The V6 can be a bit sluggish to respond to input, especially when the light turns green, but non-enthusiasts will likely take no issue with its capabilities.
All engine options are paired with a mostly smooth eight-speed Continuously Variable Transmission. The CVT is mostly unnoticeable but does occasionally seem reluctant to downshift.
There isn’t much feedback to be gathered from the Highlander’s brakes or steering, but neither feels overly disconnected.
Those who don’t often need the added three seats of the third row will get plenty of cargo area. With the third row folded flat, the Highlander provides an ample 42-cubic feet of cargo area. That cubic-footage is reduced to 13.8 with the rear seats up.
If you decide to take the Highlander off the pavement, you know, like people once did in SUVs, the Toyota offers all-wheel drive and downhill assist control. The V6 and hybrid models also have a 5,000-pound towing capacity.
With rear-wheel drive in base trim, the Highlander starts at $36,610. The XLE with all-wheel drive starts at $41,030, but the version I tested had a few options to put the price tag at just over $44,000.
One of the added options was the BluRay DVD Entertainment System that include a 9-inch, drop down display with two wireless headphones, an RCA jack in case you want to hook up a PlayStation 2, and a remote. But buyer beware. Hide the remote once the kids have started a movie, otherwise they can blast the volume on “Frozen,” and with one button push, pump that same ear-splitting noise through the car’s speaker system.
Or, God forbid, they could play the audio of a judge rambling on during a televised talent show.
Those judges would likely not shower the Highlander with praise, but they would commend it on a strong performance that fell just a bit short of the style and flair they sought.
But what about the next act?
Toyota revealed the fourth-generation, 2020 Highlander at the New York Auto Show April 17 with the new model sporting chiseled, attractive exterior styling. Toyota says using its TGNA-K platform will give the Highlander better agility and a smoother ride. The three-row will also now come with Android, Apple, SiriusXM and Amazon Alexa connectivity as standard.
A new hybrid system will be available using a 2.5-liter four-cylinder which Toyota says will jump the hybrid’s efficiency from 28 to 34 combined mpg.
Upper trims will come standard with captain’s chairs in the second row versus the 60/40 bench, new safety features have been added and the infotainment screen will swell to 12.3 inches.
So maybe the fourth act is the performance that will wow the judges.