2011 Toyota Highlander Review and Prices

Last Updated: Feb 5, 2011

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2011 Toyota Highlander Buying Advice

The 2011 Toyota Highlander is the best midsize SUV for you if you want a seven-passenger crossover that cleverly blends genres.

The 2011 Toyota Highlander has revised styling and expanded standard equipment. The 2011 Highlander Hybrid has more horsepower yet better fuel economy. And the handling-tuned Sport model is history. All this adds up to a midcycle freshening for a vehicle last fully redesigned in model-year 2008. The 2011 Highlander’s basic form doesn’t change; this Toyota remains a carefully calculated compromise between a minivan and an SUV. Styling is more masculine than any minivan’s, and although it has three versatile seating rows, Highlander lacks a minivan’s easy sliding-side-door access and low step-in height. It doesn’t boast the brawny bearing or off-road prowess of a true SUV, yet it offers all-wheel drive and elevates your eyes level above traffic. And the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is the only gas-electric seven-seat crossover in the U.S.         

Should you buy a 2011 Toyota Highlander or wait for the 2012 Toyota Highlander? Buy a 2011 Highlander. It’ll have the basic styling and features that’ll carry this crossover to its next full redesign in model-year 2014. The 2012 Highlander isn’t on track for any changes significant enough to wait for, and it likely will be subject to normal year-over-year price increases.  

2011 Toyota Highlander Changes back to top

Styling: The 2011 Toyota Highlander gets styling revisions to its nose and tail and a slight cabin revamp. The hood and front fascia and fenders are subtly reshaped. So are the headlamps and taillamps. The Highlander Hybrid continues with its own, slightly different grille and front bumper, vertically stacked fog lights, and by blue-tinted headlamps and taillamps. Hybrids also have body-colored lower-side trim versus black on gas-only Highlanders. Daytime running lamps are now also standard on all Highlander models.

These are the first alterations to this second-generation Highlander, which is substantially larger than the 2001-2007 first-generation. It’s more assertive-looking, too, with crisply folded sheetmetal and husky fender bulges. Size-wise, the 2011 Highlander remains smack-dab in the middle of the midsize-crossover category. Yet it shoehorns a third-row seat into a body that’s no longer than most five-seat crossovers. This is a plus for garageability and maneuverability, but dictates a third-row best suited for kids. First- and second-row space is first-rate, however, and five-seat versions are available.

Highlander’s a crossover because it’s built on a weight-saving unibody structure that shares DNA with the 2011 Toyota Camry platform. This is in contrast to the heavier-duty body-on-frame construction of truck-based SUVs like the 2011 Toyota 4Runner.

The midcycle freshening brings an altered model lineup. The 2011 Highlander is again available in three levels of trim, but the batting order now reads Base, SE, and top-of-the-line Limited. The 2011 Highlander SE replaces the slow-selling Highlander Sport model in the middle of the lineup and helps expand the number versions available with the four-cylinder engine; the Sport had come only with the V-6. The gas-electric 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid returns in Base and Limited form.

Toyota wisely limits exterior differences between the trim lines to minor details. Even Base models come with handsome 17-inch alloy wheels, for example, and they’re restyled for model-year 2011. (The Sport had been distinguished by “smoked” exterior trim and 19-inch alloys.) The 2011 Highlander SE adds fog lamps, and the 2011 Highlander Limited gas and hybrid models continue to dress the part with exclusive brightwork and their own 19-inch alloys.

Mechanical: The 2011 Toyota Highlander repeats with a choice of four- and six-cylinder gasoline engines. The Hybrid again teams a gas V-6 with electric power. All gas models are available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (AWD); the Hybrid is AWD only.

The four-cylinder engine is again a 2.7-liter rated at 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. (Think of torque as the force that gets you moving, horsepower as the energy that sustains momentum.) The 2.7’s output isn’t impressive on paper, but this four-cylinder proves surprisingly adept in most driving situations thanks to its nicely matched six-speed automatic transmission, which chooses gears quickly and wisely. Toyota’s smart to limit the four-cylinder to front-drive Highlanders, which start out some 200 pounds lighter than AWD models. And with the model-year 2011 introduction of the SE model, the money-saving four is now available in more than just the Base-level Highlander.

Standard on all 2011 Highlander Limited models and available in both front- and all-wheel-drive Base and SE versions is a 3.5-liter V-6. It’s unchanged at 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, enough to provide satisfying if not exhilarating performance, though you’ll appreciate its extra torque if you’re headed uphill or loaded with people and packages. Toyota trails the class leaders in linking Highlander’s V-6 with a five-speed automatic transmission; most top rivals have a six-speed for more efficient extraction of engine power. Still, Highlander’s five-speed is a smooth operator. And like the four-cylinder’s six-speed, it has a shift lever that slides effortlessly into an adjacent gate, where it can be toggled fore and aft to summon manual-style gear selection. That’s handy in rolling terrain or for quick passing response in dense, fast-moving traffic.   

The 2011 Highlander Hybrid continues to mate a V-6 gas engine with two electric motors. One motor helps propel the front wheels, the second powers the rears to accomplish AWD. For model-year 2011, however, the V-6 a slightly larger 3.5-liter in place of a 3.3-liter and the result is enough extra muscle to boost net horsepower of the gas-electric system to 280 horsepower, up from 270. (Toyota does not furnish a net torque figure for the Highlander Hybrid.) The 3.5 also has a more-sophisticated valvetrain and other internal improvements that make it more fuel-efficient than the 3.3 it replaces.

The 2011 Highlander Hybrid again uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT). A CVT mimics the role of an automatic transmission but dispenses with traditional gear ratios in favor of a rheostat-like delivery of power. Employing Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, the Highlander Hybrid self-charges its on-board nickel-metal hydride battery pack; no plug-in is provided. It can run on pure electric power in certain low-speed conditions, on the gas engine at higher speeds, or any combination of the two that its computer determines best balances power and fuel economy. An “EV mode” switch on the center console allows the driver to operate strictly on electricity under ideal low-speed conditions for a limited distance. And an “Econ-drive-mode switch reduces throttle response during acceleration, enhancing fuel economy. A system indicator provides guidelines to help the driver minimize fuel consumption.

Front-wheel-drive Highlanders place the weight of the engine over the wheels that propel the vehicle, which aids slippery-surface grip. Highlander is not intended for off-roading and the AWD system in both the gas and Hybrid models is essentially an all-weather traction-enhancer. It normally operates in front-drive but automatically shuffles power between the front and rear wheels to quell tire slip.

All 2011 Highlanders come with Toyota’s Star Safety System, which is how the company bills an integrated linking of various brake, traction, and steering sensors to keep the crossover on its intended course with the driver in control. Traction control for better grip on take-offs and antilock brakes for added control in emergency stops are part of the system. So is an antiskid system to minimize chances of sideways slides. Also standard is a “corner-braking” feature that limits brake pressure on inside wheels during cornering to help enhance control through a turn.
Highlander’s towing capability is par for the midsize crossover class. V-6 versions can pull 3,500 pounds standard or 5,000 with the optional trailering package; the ratings are 1,500 and 3,500 pounds, respectively, for four-cylinder Highlanders and 3,500 pounds for the Hybrid.

Features: The 2011 Highlander’s midcycle freshening signals a welcome expansion of features and the addition of some overdue amenities. The navigation system , for example, is no longer confined to just the Limited model. And Highlander is finally available with a USB interface for iPods and other digital music devices.

All 2011 Highlanders accommodate seven passengers now that Base and SE models come standard with a third-row bench seat. Highlander’s second-row seat is split 40/20/40 and the middle section removes and stows onboard to create a pair of captain’s chairs and a convenient, minivan-style pass-through between. The third-row bench splits 50/50 and folds into a rear floor well. Highlanders have 42 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the second-row seat and 95 cubic feet with all rear seats folded. Both figures beat those of most rivals.

Power windows, mirrors, and locks, height-adjustable driver’s seat, tilt/telescope steering wheel, and cruise control continue among 2011 Highlander standard features. For model-year 2011, Highlander SE joins the Limited with a standard power liftgate, and the Base version gains joins the SE with manual rear climate control. Unique to the Hybrid instrument panel is a monitor that displays the flow of gas and electric power.

A new audio system standard for the 2011 Highlander SE and Limited models and optional for the Base grade features the USB interface, Bluetooth mobile-phone connectivity, and XM satellite radio with a 90-day trial subscription. Ordering this system on the Base model triggers the more comprehensive Tech Package that also includes a rearview camera that projects onto a 3.5-inch multi-information instrument panel display; the display shows outside temperature and detailed fuel-economy data, as well. An eight-way power driver’s seat, rear tonneau cover, new “easy-clean” fabric upholstery, a flip-up liftgate window, fog lamps, and black roof rails also are part of the package.

Leather upholstery remains an exclusive standard feature on the Highlander Limited models, and for 2011, it uses perforated hides. The Limited’s standard three-zone climate system also gains automatic control for its rear zone. Standard on the SE model and newly optional as a package on Hybrid Base models are leather-trimmed front seats with front seat heaters, leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob, power moonroof, HomeLink remote garage and gate control, an automatic-dimming rearview mirror with compass, and a security alarm with engine immobilizer.
Highlander’s navigation system is now optional on the SE model as well as the Limited. It responds via voice commands and an 8-inch dashboard touch-screen that also displays the backup camera. Navigation is teamed with a JBL audio system that includes a 4-CD changer and nine speakers including a subwoofer. USB and Bluetooth are part of the option. The rear-DVD entertainment system remains an option exclusive to the Highlander Limited model. It uses a 9-inch overhead screen and includes RCA jacks and two wireless headphones.

All 2011 Toyota Highlanders continue with safety features that include a driver’s knee airbag and head-protecting curtain side airbags that cover all three seating rows and deploy in both side collisions and when sensors detect an impending rollover.

2011 Toyota Highlander Prices back to top

Base-price range for the 2011 Toyota Highlander is $28,200-$43,755. That’s up from a model-year 2010 base-price range of $26,505-$41,820, reflecting in part the 2011 Highlander’s additional standard equipment. (Base prices in this review include the manufacturer’s destination fee; Toyota’s fee for the 2011 Highlander is $810. Toyotas sold in certain Southeaster and Gulf states are delivered by independent distributors and may have different destination fees.)

The 2011 Toyota Highlander Base model with front-wheel drive starts at $28,200 equipped with the four-cylinder engine and at $29,335 powered by the V-6. Pricing for the 2011 Highlander Base model with AWD and the V-6 starts at $30,805. These Base models come with the standard equipment mentioned in the Features section, as well as remote keyless entry. Options available for the Base model include the Tech Package with the easy-to-clean fabric upholstery, the audio upgrade with USB and Bluetooth, power driver’s seat, multi-information display, fog lamps, and other features.

The 2011 Toyota Highlander SE model with front-wheel drive starts at $32,805 equipped with the four-cylinder engine and at $33,960 with the V-6. Pricing for the 2011 Highlander SE with AWD and the V-6 starts at $35,410. To the Base model, the SE adds the multi-information display with rearview camera and the leather-trimmed heated front seats with eight-way power adjustment for the drive and four-way for the passenger. The SE’s shift knob and steering wheel are leather-trimmed, and the latter has controls for audio, Bluetooth, and the multi-function display.  

The 2011 Toyota Highlander Limited model comes standard with the V-6 and starts at $35,705 with front-wheel and $37,115 AWD. To the SE, the Limited adds the perforated leather upholstery for the first two seating rows and upgrades the power front seats with driver-side power lumbar and thigh-support adjustments. A climate-system control is added to the steering wheel and the cabin is trimmed with artificial woodgrain accents. The navigation-system option remains exclusive to the Limited model.  

The 2011 Highlander Hybrid Base model starts at $38,100 and the 2011 Highlander Hybrid Limited is priced from $43,775. Both Hybrid models come with AWD and, except for hybrid-specific trim and instrument panel-monitors, their standard and optional equipment levels mirror those of the gas-only Base and Limited Highlanders.  

2011 Toyota Highlander Fuel Economy back to top

Good news and not-so-good news on the 2011 Toyota Highlander fuel-economy front. First the not-so-good: EPA ratings for some the gas-only models sees a declines in highway mileage. With the four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, the 2011 Highlander rates 20/25 mpg city/highway; its 2010 counterpart rated 20/27.

No change for Highlanders with the V-6 and front-wheel drive; the 2011 version is again rated at 18/24 mpg. However, the 2011 Highlander with the V-6 and AWD rates 17/22 mpg; its 2010 counterpart rated 17/23.

Gas-powered Highlanders had traditionally been slightly more fuel-efficient than comparable versions of key competitors, partly an advantage of Highlander’s marginally lighter curb weight. That advantage has narrowed with 2011’s lower ratings.

On the bright side, the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid rates 28/28 mpg city/highway, a notable improvement over the 27/25 rating for the 2010 Highlander Hybrid. The 2011 Highlander Hybrid is the only hybrid seven-passenger crossover SUV. No hybrid car carries more than five passengers, and there are no hybrid minivans. The only other hybrids with similar passenger capacity are gas-electric versions of the Cadillac Escalade/Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon. These GM full-size SUVs seat up to nine passengers but are not crossovers, using instead traditional truck-type body-on-frame construction.    

2011 Toyota Highlander Release Date back to top

The 2011 Toyota Highlander went on sale in September 2010.

What's next for the 2011 Toyota Highlander back to top

The 2011 Highlander’s midcycle freshening is an encouraging course correction. Expanding availability of the four-cylinder engine beyond the Base model brings Highlander in line with some newer rivals, though some potential competitors, such as the 2011 Kia Sorento, make the four-cylinder available with AWD. Adding the USB interface was a relatively minor but overdue catch-up on the infotainment front, while greater availability of the rearview camera was an important safety advancement.

Still, it’s unlikely such upgrades will sway a significant number of buying decisions. For that matter, midcycle styling changes rarely have much effect on sales, either. This generation Highlander will have to stand on its balance of SUV-minivan appeal.

Judging by sales alone, Highlander is not a leader among its competitive set of three-row, midsize-crossover SUVs. It trails the Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, and Kia Sorento in popularity. But Toyota buyers looking for a three-row vehicle have more than just Highlander to consider. Like the Pilot with the Honda Odyssey and Sorento with Kia Sedona, Highlander also face competition in its own showroom from a minivan. And Highlander is the only one to face yet a third, three-row choice from within its own family, the 2011 Toyota 4Runner (the premium-class Toyota Land Cruiser also has three rows, but starting around $66,000, isn’t really a Highlander alternative).

All three Toyotas – Highlander, 4Runner SUV, and Sienna minivan -- have distinctly different character, which suggests the third-generation Highlander due for model-year 2014 will continue to fill the gap between minivan and SUV.

2011 Toyota Highlander Competition back to top

2011 Ford Flex: Even more of a genre-bender than the Highlander, this shoebox-shaped crossover seats seven but has a relatively low-roof body that looks like nothing else on the road. The squat build creates a handling-enhancing low center of gravity, though it cuts down on maximum cargo volume. Base engine is a 262-horsepower 3.5-liter V-8, but genuine performance is on tap with Ford’s available 355-horsepower twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6, which is teamed with AWD and suspension upgrades. Front-drive base-engine models rate 17/22 mpg and have a $29,850-$41,115 starting-price range. AWD base-engine models rate 16/22 and have a $34,500-$42,960 starting-price range. To Ford’s credit, EcoBoost versions also rate 16/22 mpg; their base-price range is $37,495-$45,960. Flex is due a model-year 2013 facelift.

2011 Honda Pilot: Plays the SUV-attitude card with more conviction than any other crossover discussed in this review. But don’t be fooled by its trucky styling: this is a highly refined eight-passenger wagon. It’s driver-friendly, solidly built, and vies with the Highlander for best resale value among midsize crossovers. Front-drive versions range from $28,755-$39,505 and rate 17/23 mpg, AWD models from $30,355-$41,105 and rate16/22. Pilot was redesigned for model-year 2009 and could be in for a model-year 2012 facelift.

2011 Chevrolet Traverse: It’s nearly a foot-and-a-half longer overall than the Highlander, but price, power, and driving feel are similar. All that extra length nets lots more cargo room and a relatively spacious third-row seat; Traverse holds up to eight passengers. The only engine is a capable V-6 rated at 281 horsepower, or 288 in the top-line LTZ model with its dual exhausts. Front-drive Traverses rate 17/24 and have a base-price range of $29,999-$38,750. AWD versions rate 16/23 and have a base-price range of $31,999-$40,750. The solid, smooth-driving Traverse bowed for model-year 2009 and is due a freshening for model-year 2013.