Increasingly, buyers are asking for sport-utility attributes, versatility, all-weather security, and a commanding view, without giving up the comforts and handling of a car. Now, Toyota first tried to answer those buyers with the RAV4 mini-ute, and then with the luxury Lexus RX300. Two SUVs not based on the traditional full-frame truck chassis, but on a unitized car chassis. And guess what? Both are big hits. But what about the heart of the SUV market, the mid-size family SUV? Can a car-based SUV succeed there too? Well, this is the 2001 Toyota Highlander, and we’re about to find out! The 2001 Highlander is the latest member of a Toyota vehicle clan that now blankets the increasingly diverse SUV market. Based on the Lexus RX300, which is in turn based on the Camry, the Highlander pushes ahead of the 4Runner as a more civil challenger to segment stalwarts, like the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee. A few inches longer than the Grand Cherokee, or its Lexus cousin, the Highlander rides on a short-for-its class 106.9-inch wheelbase. The unibody structure is clad in boxier, more utilitarian panels than the Lexus, giving the Highlander a look of significant mass. But with a base curb weight of 3,715 pounds, it’s actually a lightweight for a midsize SUV. That weight is motivated by a pair of engines. Base is a new 2.4-liter dual-overhead-cam 4-cylinder, rated at 155 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque. But most buyers will choose the RX300’s 3.0-liter, dual-overhead-cam, 24-valve, V6 with variable valve timing. It puts out a healthy 220 horsepower, and 222 pound-feet of torque. Power flows to a seamless shifting 4-speed automatic transmission, and then on to either the front wheels, or to a full-time 4-wheel-drive system similar to the one in the RAV4. It’s geared primarily for on-road use. But, while Highlander has no all-terrain low-range, it does have about 7 inches of ground clearance. But you can also enhance the traction of two-wheel drive Highlanders with optional traction control and VSC electronic stability control. VSC is also available on Highlander 4X4s. While all Highlanders feature all-disc ABS brakes with brake assist. We spent most of our early time in V6 Highlanders on the rolling roads outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Both 4X2 and 4X4 models felt strong, albeit with light loads. Throttle response was quick, even at high altitudes. Flat-land 0-to-60 is 9.6 seconds, or about the same as truck- based SUVs with a V-8. But, don’t buy a Highlander for serious towing, its limit is 3,500 pounds. Handling is also car-like, a positive for many buyers. Thanks to well-damped MacPherson struts front and rear, the all-independent suspension corners with only moderate roll. The power rack-and-pinion steering returns reasonable feedback, as the Highlander understeers safely at high speeds. The ride is fairly firm, with the occasional thump. A feeling shared by AMI Auto World Weekly who wrote: “Over road imperfections…there is impact harshness that the RX300 filters out.” Inside, the Highlander is roomier overall than the Grand Cherokee, and in typical Toyota fashion, well-laid out, and superbly put together. The Highlander shares the basic instrument panel of the RX300 with its short center console. Although this well-equipped Highlander Limited’s plastic wood trim keeps it in its place. The front bucket seats are armchair comfortable, and include side impact airbags and an anti-whiplash system. Seat heat is optional with leather trim but not seat memory. Highlanders start with a dual-media cassette-CD stereo. On the Limited, an in-dash CD- changer is optional. A/C is another given, with Limited upgrading to an automatic climate control system. The rear bench seat offers plenty of head room, but leg room is still a little tight for the tall. As a consolation, it splits, folds and reclines. There is no third seat option, but maximum cargo room of 81 cubic feet rivals the longer Ford Explorer. And prices are pretty much in line with other mid-size SUVs too. $23,995 buys a front- drive, 4-cylinder Highlander. 4-wheel-drive pushes it to $25,395. Highlander V6 begins at $25,575, while $26,975 adds 4-wheel drive. Limited trim adds $3,500 more. We’d rather pay $850 for the stability and traction control systems. With the Highlander, Toyota has indeed produced a genuine uni-body contender for the huge mid-size family SUV market. It may not be able to tackle the Rubicon Trail with success, but we do think it will appeal to urban buyers more concerned with conquering slippery roads to work, school, and the mall. So, with a roomy interior, an available stability system, and Toyota quality, the 2001 Highlander looks like another smart turn for Toyota.
Engine: 3.0-Liter Dohc 24-valve V6
Torque: 222 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 9.6 Seconds