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Toyota Highlander History: A Closer Look at the Ever-Evolving Ute

See how the crossover has changed over four generations

See how the crossover has changed over four generations

After its debut at the 2000 New York auto show, the Toyota Highlander quickly became a hot seller. Slotting between the RAV4 and 4Runner, the original Highlander offered the best of both worlds with car-like handling, lots of interior space, and light off-road capability. Over the years, it has morphed into a very different vehicle, growing in size and adding new features. Read on to find out exactly how the Toyota Highlander has changed over the years.


First Generation (2001-2007): Reinventing the midsize utility

A couple years before Honda would introduce the Pilot, Toyota rolled out the 2001 Highlander. Most SUVs at the time were truck-based, but the Highlander offered a more comfortable ride with a unibody structure and four-wheel independent suspension. It sat on a modified Camry platform.

A 2.4-liter inline-four engine provided 155 hp and 163 lb-ft of torque, fine for trips in town. But the 3.0-liter V-6 was the engine of choice, making 220 hp and 222 lb-ft. The Highlander with this powerplant could hit 60 mph in 8.3 seconds, according to our tests.

Pairing to the engine was a four-speed automatic transmission with snow mode. For 2004, Toyota updated the Highlander with a new 3.3-liter V-6 making 230 hp, paired to a five-speed. It also received slightly more power for the base engine, a freshened exterior, and a third row option. For 2005, Toyota introduced the Highlander Hybrid, which became the world’s first seven-passenger hybrid SUV.


Second Generation (2008-2013): More space, more power

Moving into its second generation, the Highlander grew quite a bit from 2007. Still Camry-based, the 2008 model was 3.8 inches longer and 3.3 inches wider, with about an inch more ground clearance. Three inches were added to the wheelbase, and the model was 2.8 inches taller. It boasted quite a bit more room in the first two rows, although the third row was still cramped. All models but the base model got a 3.5-inch rear camera display.

Toyota threw out the four-cylinder engine, and there was a new 3.5 liter V-6 making 270 hp and 248 lb-ft. This extra power proved enough to propel the larger crossover to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds. The Hybrid kept its 3.3-liter V-6 making 208 hp, paired with electric motors for a total 270 hp. It was outfitted with all-wheel drive only.

A four-cylinder returned for 2009 in the form of a 187-hp 2.7-liter unit with a six-speed automatic. Model year 2011 saw a new design with slimmer headlights, and the third row as standard equipment. The 6.1-inch screen Display Audio system was standard on the Highlander for 2013.

See the Toyota Highlander’s evolution from first to current generation in the gallery below.


Third Generation (2014-2019): Beefed up

The 2014 Highlander debuted with a more compelling exterior design, starting the large grille trend that would remain on the model for the entire third generation. It grew 2.7 inches in length and about half an inch in width from the 2013 model. The crossovers seats a maximum of eight people instead of seven now. The engine choices were essentially unchanged, with the four-cylinder losing a few hp. A 2014 Highlander V-6 we tested hit 60 mph in 7.1 seconds.

Toyota refreshed the Highlander for 2017, and it wore an even larger grille. The four-cylinder carried over, but the V-6 was updated to produce 295 hp and 263 lb-ft, and it uses a new eight-speed auto. Another big update was a new SE trim with an updated suspension and dark exterior treatment. In our tests, though, we didn’t find it particularly sporty, acting jittery on less than perfect pavement and leaning in the corners. But it hit 60 mph in a respectable 7.2 seconds. In our last review of the third-gen Highlander, we concluded it was a quiet, comfortable family hauler but it came up short in terms of ride and handling.


Fourth Generation (2020- ): Stylish and youthful

With the new fourth-generation model, Toyota is looking to expand its customer base beyond families to include young active buyers and empty-nesters, and the streamlined design should reach more people. But the Highlander grows once again, this time gaining 2.4 inches in length and 2.4 inches in its wheelbase. It’s also slightly wider than before. Cargo room behind the third row grows to 16.1 cubic feet.

Finally, the Highlander shifts to the more rigid Toyota New Global Architecture, which should mean improved ride and handling, although we’ll have to test this out for ourselves at some point.

Once again, Toyota dropped the four-cylinder, and the previous V-6 carries over. The hybrid model gets a new-generation powertrain that includes a 2.5-liter I-4 paired to an electric motor for a combined 240 hp, and it’s available in front-drive form. Inside the cabin, Toyota introduced a 12.3-inch touchscreen that makes the crossover look more modern.

The 2020 Toyota Highlander goes on sale late this year, with the hybrid coming in early 2020.