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Monday, September 3, 2007

'Bigger' key word for new model 2008 Toyota Highlander

Bigger' key word for new model 2008 Toyota Highlander

Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. unveil the all-new Highlander and Highlander hybrid mid-size sport utility vehicles at a press conference at the 2007 Chicago Auto Show.

Bigger, bigger, bigger, Toyota says about the redesigned 2008 Highlander.

The insides grew. Weight is up 300 pounds. Body is 4 inches longer, 3 inches wider, an inch taller than the old one.

Power is way up, and fuel economy in the gasoline models is better by 1 mile per gallon - remarkable given the additional weight and the bigger engine.

Just doing what customers ask, Toyota says.

Prices are bigger, too. The gasoline model is up a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars. Hybrids are up a couple hundred to more than $3,000.

Yet the new Highlander remains on the small end of the midsize SUV spectrum. Though wider than the Honda Pilot, Highlander seats fewer, has a little less interior room and a lot less cargo space behind the third row.

Toyota is constructing a $1.3 billioin plant that will build the Highlander in Mississippi starting in 2010.

The enlarged exterior improves space generously for first- and second-row occupants, but the new Highlander offers fractionally less cargo room behind the third-row seat than the old one, and slightly less legroom for third-row passengers.

The marquee feature on the new Highlander, standard on all models, is what Toyota calls the Center Stow seat. Clever idea, clumsy execution.

The middle section of the second-row seat unlatches and stows under the center console between the front bucket seats, leaving the second-row with semi-bucket seats. You can leave the gap between them as a kid-size aisle to the kid-size third row. Or you can fill it with a latch-in tray that has cup holders and covered storage.

When the center seat section is removed, it leaves visible slots where its hardware attaches. Looks ugly and unfinished. Even if you snap in the tray to cover the lower attaching slots, there's still an upper slot glaring at you. Still, better to have such a convenience than not.

That middle seat is firmer than the left and right seats in the second row, and narrower. But it felt reasonably comfortable in the test vehicles. And three, uh, full-grown gents fit across the second row without serious crowding.

The Center Stow system is one of several features that, however well-meant, fail to prove Toyota's assertion that the interior design theme was "smart." Others:

Only the right side of the second-row seat flops and slides forward to open a path to the third row. If you have your child seat strapped in that spot, you can't open the aisle.

A pull-down strap has been added to the tailgate. But it's small and narrow, and you have to fuss with it to open it wide enough to get your fingers in.

The third row continues to fold as a single unit. You can't flop half of it down to expand the scarce cargo space.

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