2012 Toyota Highlander Review and Prices

Last Updated: Oct 15, 2011

Like this Review

2012 Toyota Highlander Buying Advice

The 2012 Toyota Highlander is the best crossover for you if you want a seven-passenger wagon that’s cooler than a minivan and cushier than an SUV.  

The 2012 Toyota Highlander stands pat awaiting a full redesign for model-year 2013. This stylish midsize crossover utility vehicle continues the changes made for model-year 2011. That midcycle freshening updated its looks and features without changing its size or basic character. Available in front- and all-wheel drive and with gasoline and gas-electric hybrid power, the 2012 Highlander treads a line between minivan and SUV. It may not possess enough attributes of either to satisfy committed family types or image-conscious SUV fans. But if you’re somewhere in the middle you’ll find it an astute compromise.  

Should you buy a 2012 Toyota Highlander or wait for the 2013 Toyota Highlander? Buy a 2012 Highlander if your family’s ready for a roomy wagon and you’re excited about the possibility of close-out savings as the all-new 2013 Highlander approaches. Wait for the 2013 Toyota Highlander if you’re not prepared to pull the trigger on your first crossover purchase or there’s still life in the one you have. That’ll let you assess whether you like the way Toyota changes the next-generation Highlander.

2012 Toyota Highlander Changes back to top

Styling: The 2012 Toyota Highlander is a visual rerun of the 2011 Highlander. It carries forward the minor styling alterations that dressed up the 2011 model but had no effect on dimensions or overall proportions.

Thanks to its rather long nose, Highlander presents the “two-box” profile of an SUV. But its lengthy wagon body speaks of minivan-like interior volume. However, without sliding side doors, it’s clearly no minivan. And with no pretension of off-road ability, it lacks hard-core-SUV credentials.

Nonetheless, Highlander does a fine job bridging the two genres. It looks more muscular than a minivan and drives with a bit more precision and road feel, too. It’s not as threatening as a trucky SUV, though its all-wheel-drive can tackle deep snow and rutted backroads. Highlander is relatively easy to maneuver and garage because its body is no larger overall than the typical five-seat midsize crossover. Toyota does, however, squeeze in a third-row seat. It’s tighter back there than in a minivan, but still quite handy. And Highlander’s first- and second-row accommodations are as generous as any midsize SUV’s.

This is a true crossover because its body and frame are a single unibody structure similar to that of a car’s. Unibody designs benefit fuel economy, ride, and handling because they’re lighter than the truck-like, separate-body-and-frame construction typical of old-school SUVs, such as the 2012 Toyota 4Runner.

The 2012 Highlander continues in Base, SE, and Limited models. The 2012 Highlander Hybrid returns in Base and Limited form. Toyota gives the Highlander Hybrid its own grille and front bumper and tints its headlamp and taillamp covers blue.

All 2012 Highlanders come with handsome alloy wheels, 17-inch diameter on Base and SE models, 19-inch diameter on the Limiteds. All have darkened rear side glass and a rear spoiler. SE models are distinguished from Base versions by body-colored mirrors, standard roof cargo rails, fog lamps, and an antenna in the rear side window instead of on the front fender.

Highlander Limited models dress up with chrome door handles and roof rails and also come with leather upholstery and plastic woodgrain interior trim instead of cloth seats and silver cabin accents. A power liftgate that can be opened and closed via the key fob or a driver-side control is standard on SE and Limited models and optional on the Base Highlanders.

Mechanical: The 2012 Toyota Highlander returns a choice of four- and six-cylinder gasoline engines as well as a gas-electric hybrid powertrain.

The four-cylinder is a 2.7-liter with 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque (think of torque as the force that generates movement, horsepower as the energy that sustains momentum). The four-cylinder is standard on Highlander Base and SE models and is available only with front-wheel drive. It mates with a six-speed automatic transmission.

The 2012 Highlander’s V-6 is a 3.5-liter with 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. It’s optional on the Base and SE models and standard on the Limited. It’s available with both front-drive and all-wheel drive (AWD.) In a class where six-speed automatics are the norm, Highlanders with the V-6 use a five-speed automatic transmission. With either engine, Highlander’s dashboard-mounted transmission shift lever includes a separate gate for manual-type gear control.  

The 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid combines a 3.5-liter gasoline V-6 with an electric motor at each axle. The motor in front assists the gas engine and can propel the Highlander on electric power alone. The motor in the rear kicks in as needed to provide AWD. Net horsepower is 280; Toyota does not provide a torque rating for the Highlander Hybrid.

The 2012 Highlander Hybrid utilizes Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system. It can propel the crossover on electric power alone, with the engine alone, or with a combination of the two as determined by sensors set to balance acceleration and fuel economy. No plug-in charging is needed; the system recharges by capturing energy during braking and from the engine.

The Highlander Hybrid has a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which performs like an automatic but with a rheostat-like delivery of power. A console-mounted “EV” button enables the driver to extend the electric-only range slightly at low speeds, battery charge permitting. And an “Econ-mode” switch maximizes fuel economy by modulating throttle response during acceleration.

As with any front-wheel drive vehicle, the weight of the engine is over the tires that also propel the Highlander, giving it good overall traction. AWD Highlanders are not intended for serious off-roading but do provide an extra measure of all-surface, all-weather traction by automatically shuffling power from the front wheels to the rears to minimize tire slip.

Again standard on all 2012 Highlanders is traction and antiskid technology for enhanced grip on take-offs and in turns. The standard antilock brakes improve control in emergency stops, and a corner-braking feature limits brake pressure on inside wheels during cornering to improve control. With the optional towing package, 2012 Highlanders with the V-6 can tow trailers weighing up to 5,000 pounds and four-cylinder models and the Hybrid can pull 3,500 pounds.

Features: The 2012 Toyota Highlander continues to appeal to upmarket buyers who tend to order it in higher trim levels or with a substantial number of options. All versions of the 2012 Highlander again seat seven passengers on three rows of seats and furnish 10.3 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the rearmost seat – pretty typical for a three-row crossover.

Fold that third row into the floor and cargo volume expands to 42.3 cubic feet. A total of 95.4 cubic feet is available with the second and third rows folded. Both are very good figures for a midsize SUV, though the load floor is fairly high. Highlander’s second-row seat is split 40/20/40 and the middle section removes and stows onboard to create a minivan-like arrangement of captain’s chairs with a walk-through between.

Standard on every 2012 Highlander are power windows, mirrors, and locks, tilt/telescope steering wheel, cruise control, and a height-adjustable driver’s seat. Standard safety features again include a driver’s knee airbag, and head-protecting curtain side airbags that cover all three seating rows and deploy both in side collisions and when sensors detect an impending rollover.

The 2012 Highlander SE and Limited models come with leather upholstery and feature a standard backup camera that displays on a 3.5-inch dashboard screen. The screen also displays a clock, outside temperature, warning messages, and average fuel economy, average speed, distance to empty, current fuel economy, and trip timer. On models equipped with the optional navigation system, the backup camera's images are viewed on a 7-inch dashboard screen.
The Tech Audio system is standard for 2012 Highlander SE and Limited model and optional for Base versions. It features a USB iPod interface, XM satellite radio (includes 90-day trial subscription), and Bluetooth hands-free mobile phone and music streaming connectivity.

The USB and Bluetooth linking are available on Base Highlanders as part of the Tech Package option. This also includes the backup monitor and dash screen, an eight-way power driver seat, flip-up liftgate window, fog lamps, and black roof rails.

Standard on all 2012 Highlander Hybrids are the eight-way power driver’s seat, the Tech Audio system, and manual rear climate control. The Highlander Hybrid Limited features standard automatic climate control for the rear and offers perforated leather seating surfaces. The Base Hybird can be brought closer to Limited livery with a Leather Package that includes leather-trimmed seats with front seat heaters, leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob, power moonroof, HomeLink®, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, plus an engine immobilizer with security alarm.

Among 2012 Highlander options are a voice-activated touch screen navigation system with an 8-inch dashboard screen; JBL audio systems; leather-trimmed seats with front seat heaters, and a power tilt/slide moonroof. 

2012 Toyota Highlander Prices back to top

Base-price range for the 2012 Toyota Highlander is $28,900-$37,885 for gas-only models and $38,950-$44,605 for the Hybrid models. (Base prices in this review do not include options but do include the manufacturer’s mandated destination fee; Toyota’s fee for the 2012 Highlander is $810.)

Base-model 2012 Toyota Highlanders start at $28,900 with the four-cylinder engine and at $30,055 with the V-6. Base models with the V-6 and AWD are priced from $31,505.

Base price for front-wheel-drive 2012 Highlander SE models is $33,505 with the four-cylinder engine and $34,660 with the V-6. The SE V-6 AWD model starts at $36,110. Highlander Limited models come with the V-6 and are priced from $36,405 with front-wheel drive and from $37,855 with AWD.

The 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid starts at $38,950 in Base trim and $44,605 in Limited-model form.  

Among popular 2012 Highlander options, the navigation system costs $2,650, rear-seat DVD entertainment is $1,819, and the Tech Package for Base models runs $1,835.

2012 Toyota Highlander Fuel Economy back to top

Fuel-economy ratings for the 2012 Toyota Highlander place its gas models among the more fuel-efficient three-row crossover SUVs and competitive with the top minivans. The 2012 Highlander Hybrid, meanwhile, is one of the most fuel-efficient three-row vehicles of any description.

The 2012 Toyota Highlander Base and SE models with the four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive rate 20/25 mpg city/highway and 22 mpg combined city/highway.

With the V-6 engine, front-wheel drive Highlanders rate 18/24 mpg city/highway and 20 mpg combined and AWD versions rate 17/22/19.

The 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid rates 28/28 mpg city/highway and 28 mpg combined city/highway. All models use regular-octane fuel.

2012 Toyota Highlander Release Date back to top

The 2012 Toyota Highlander went on sale in August 2011.

What's next for the 2012 Toyota Highlander back to top

The 2012 Highlander belongs to this crossover’s second-generation design, which was introduced in model-year 2008 as a larger, more powerful follow-up to the successful 2001-2007 first generation. Highlander’s model-year 2011 freshening constituted its first cosmetic changes and only noteworthy equipment alterations. Highlander probably will conclude this generation with no additional major changes.

Expect the third-generation Highlander to launch in late 2012 as a 2013 model. It’ll utilize the basic understructure of the redesigned 2012 Toyota Camry sedan to remain a car-based crossover with three rows of seats. Toyota will try to reduce its weight, which would allow broader use of four-cylinder engines with their attendant fuel-saving advantages.

That’s not to say the 2013 Highlander won’t offer a V-6 – its upscale buyers are likely to demand six-cylinder power and smoothness. And it probably will again be available in gas-electric hybrid form, though the hybrid’s gas engine could be a four-cylinder rather than a six. Infotainment and connectivity options will expand to exploit smartphone apps.

2012 Toyota Highlander Competition back to top

Chevrolet Traverse: Chevy’s got a winner in this refined, easy-driving eight-seat crossover. Traverse is a corporate cousin to the GMC Arcadia and Buick Enclave. It’s some 17 inches longer than the Highlander and has a 9-inch-longer wheelbase. That extra bulk pushes Traverse into the full-size-SUV category and gives it more cargo volume and a slightly roomier third-row than the Highlander. But it also makes Traverse a tighter fit in traffic or in a garage. A capable V-6 of 288 horsepower is the sole Traverse engine. Front-wheel-drive versions rate 17/24 mpg, 19 mpg combined and have a base-price range of $30,240-$39,615. AWD versions rate 16/23/19 and have a base-price range of $32,240-$41,615. This popular Chevy is due a midcycle update for model-year 2013 or 2014.    

Ford Flex: Brave enough to be seen in something really different? If it’s the Flex, you’ll be rewarded with surprisingly agile road manners. And if you opt for the 355-horsepower twin-turbo EcoBoost version the payback is grin-inducing acceleration. Flex packages seating for seven in a cubist wagon body with the lowest roofline in the category. That crouched stance means a lower center of gravity for impressive handling but cuts maximum cargo volume to a middling 83.2 cubic feet. With the 262-horsepower base V-6, the front-wheel-drive 2012 Flex starts at $30,180 and rates 17/24/19 mpg. With AWD it starts at $34,660 and rates 16/23/18. EcoBoost versions come with AWD, start at $41,310 and as testimony to the engine’s efficiency also rate 16/23/18. On tap is a model-year 2013 freshening that’ll tweak styling, increase base-engine horsepower, add tech features, and make available an EcoBoost four-cylinder with an estimated 290 horsepower.

Honda Pilot: Tall and square-rigged, this three-row crossover certainly looks more like a traditional SUV than does the Highlander. But Pilot is every bit as refined and actually seats up to eight, though it has tighter third-row leg room than Highlander and less overall cargo volume, at 87 cubic feet. Pilot steers and handles with more precision than the Toyota. Its V-6-only powertrain furnishes outstanding acceleration. The 2012 Pilot received updates that calmed down the goofy grille design, simplified some dashboard controls, and improved fuel economy. The sole engine remains a smooth 250-horsepoer V-6 but the only transmission is again a five-speed automatic. Fuel economy is excellent for a gas-only eight-seat crossover, at 18/25/21 mpg with front-wheel drive and 17/24/20 with AWD. The 2012 Pilot’s base-price range is $29,280-$40,030 with front-wheel drive and $30,880-$41,630 with AWD.

2012 Toyota Highlander Next Steps