2004 Toyota Highlander Review
More seats, more power to haul more people, more stuff.
The Toyota Highlander looks smart and trim, falling somewhere between the edgy high style of the RAV4 and the muscular purposefulness of the 4Runner. There's a slight family resemblance between the Highlander and the Lexus RX 330, although the Highlander looks more dressed down, rather like wearing faded jeans and a favorite windbreaker instead of dry-clean-only lunch-with-the-ladies attire.
Highlander is actually slightly larger inside, as measured by total EPA interior volume, than the RX 330, although the Lexus has slightly more cargo volume.
Highlander's front bumper, light clusters and grille are new for 2004. The bumper cover has sharper lines molded into it, so its shape is better defined than before. The grille's horizontal bars are bolder and better defined, while the various elements of the light clusters seem to blend together more smoothly. Similar changes have been made around back. At either end, however, the difference is so subtle that only the most dedicated Toyota-watcher is likely to notice.
The Highlander no longer represents the latest in design, however. While the Lexus RX 330, which uses the same basic chassis architecture as the Highlander, is now in its second generation, the Highlander is still in its first generation of design. The Highlander lacks the cutting-edge design of the Nissan Murano, and its front and rear overhangs are relatively large.
Entry, both for cargo and for people, is easier in the Highlander than in truck-based SUVs. With its more car-like step-in and lift-into, the Highlander is even friendly to wearers of tight skirts. Not so the usual truck-based SUV.
While the Toyota 4Runner is basically a truck, the Highlander is essentially a car. Like a car, the Highlander uses unit-body construction rather than having a separate frame. And, like a car, the Highlander features a four-wheel independent suspension, rather than a solid rear axle. Two-wheel-drive versions are front-wheel drive, not rear-wheel drive. The 4Runner is the opposite of each of those. The best choice? It comes down to your game: For towing and driving off road, the 4Runner is better. For commuting and transporting the family, the Highlander is the better choice. Properly equipped, Highlander can tow up to 2,500 pounds, not much by truck standards.
Few vehicles are easier to get in and out of than the Toyota Highlander. Neither climbing up nor stepping down is required. Simply slide in. This makes the Highlander one of the most convenient vehicles on the planet for running daily errands. The Highlander will not likely ever annoy you.
Highlander comes with reclining front bucket seats in front. These seats are flat and lean, but supportive and comfortable and adjust to suit various-size drivers. Part of the appeal of SUVs is the ease of seeing out at every angle. And so it is here. The sloping hood of the Highlander makes the forward view even more encompassing.
The second row seats up to three passengers, but is better for two. The center of the second-row seat folds down into an arm rest with cup holders, adding comfort with four aboard and the seats recline for added comfort. It's split 60/40 and folds down with a cleverly articulated seat bottom. It folds fairly flat but not perfectly flat. The second-row seat slides forward to make access to the third row easier, and to provide more legroom for third-row passengers.
Toyota intends for the third row to be used only occasionally. We found sitting in the third row uncomfortable. Our knees rode high, there's no leg room and it's relatively cramped. Legroom is the same, but the Honda Pilot offers substantially more hip and shoulder room in the third row. Also, the side-curtain airbags do not protect third-row passengers as they are designed to do in a Toyota Sienna minivan. Bottom line: Consider a minivan if you need the third row often. A third-row seat folds flat into the floor, with no need to remove the headrests. Third-row seats ($850) include rear privacy glass, a rear heater system with separate fan controls, and additional cup holders.
Back up front, you'll find everything in its place. Power window buttons are right there on the doors. Ventilation ducts are right where you would expect to find them. Radio and heater controls use simple dials and amply sized buttons and operate intuitively. Instruments are readily visible through a panoramic space in the comfortable four-spoke steering wheel. The whole layout bespeaks thoughtful appraisal and wise choices. V6 models come with aluminum interior accents. Interior trim and fabrics in all Highlanders have been upgraded for 2004. 2004 Limited models come with simulated maple-burl dash trim and door scuff plates, but the fake wood on the center stack looks like fake wood. The standard climate control is a single-zone system.
The shifter is uniquely positioned more as a part of the dash than on a central console. This opens up the space between the front seats. It also lends an open, unconfined air to the cockpit. The interior is outfitted with dome, door courtesy, glove box and cargo-area lighting. Map pockets, visor mirrors, and front and rear auxiliary power outlets are provided. The driver's window has one-touch Auto-down.
Highlander provides a large amount of cargo space: 80.6 cubic feet with the second- and third-row seats folded. The second row does not fold perfectly flat, but the third row folds flat and does not take up cargo space. Most people end up riding around with the second-row in place for passengers and the third row folded flat into the floor, leaving nearly 40 cubic feet of space available for stuff. Opening up the third-row seat leaves only 10.5 cubic feet behind it for cargo. The Honda Pilot offers more cargo space, however. A neat feature: The cargo cover stows.
• For more information such as specs, prices, and photos of the 2004 Toyota Highlander, click here: 2004 Toyota Highlander.