Life with the Toyota Highlander: What Do Owners Really Think?

toyota highlander 2018 comments gif Toyota Highlander | Cars.com graphic by Paul Dolan

As the minivan increasingly (and undeservingly?) loses favor as the go-to family hauler, three-row SUVs like the Toyota Highlander are swooping in to lure in large families instead. The current, fourth-generation Highlander got a full redesign in the 2020 model year, revealing a better-equipped yet pricier SUV. Can the third-gen Highlander (2014-19) present better value at a more digestible price?

Related: 2017 Toyota Highlander: Our View

Cars.com’s team of automotive experts took a deep dive into the previous-gen Highlander in our 2014 and 2017 reviews and pitted it against competitors in a 2017 Three-Row SUV Challenge. To give additional perspectives on what that Highlander does well, and where it falls short, we analyzed Cars.com user reviews of the third-gen Highlander to identify collective pros (raves) and cons (rants) from vehicle owners and compared them to our experts’ feedback.

2014-19 Highlander: The Highlights

toyota highlander 2017 as ac 10 exterior front angle red suv scaled jpg 2017 Toyota Highlander | Cars.com photo by Angela Conners

The Highlander’s third generation arrived in the 2014 model year with bolder styling, added amenities, more space and a new eight-passenger seating configuration. While our experts welcomed some changes, the SUV’s rougher ride was not one of them.

The third-generation Highlander was available with a gas-only or hybrid powertrain. The non-hybrid SUV’s base engine was a 2.7-liter four-cylinder with 185 horsepower, though most examples employed Toyota’s optional 270-hp, 3.5-liter V-6. The Highlander Hybrid combined a 3.5-liter V-6 with three electric motors for a total 280 hp. Towing capacity maxed out at just 1,500 pounds for the four-cylinder models but 5,000 pounds for the V-6.

Front-wheel drive was standard in the base Highlander, and all-wheel drive was offered for V-6 models. The four-cylinder SUV got an EPA-estimated mpg rating of 20/25/22 (city/highway/combined), while the mpg for the V-6 with AWD dropped to 20 combined. Hybrid models got an EPA-estimated 27/28/28 mpg.

For its mid-cycle refresh in the 2017 model year, the Highlander’s front end got a styling update, while a new V-6 engine came on the scene, boosting hp to 295. A new eight-speed transmission replaced the six-speed unit for the V-6, helping improve mileage to 23 mpg combined in FWD models. Still, the SUV’s driving experience left our experts underwhelmed, with sluggish low-speed acceleration that only improved at midrange speeds.

Toyota Highlander Raves and Rants

Owners of the 2014-19 Highlander appreciate its comfortable ride, standard safety features, and roomy first and second rows — as well as the cargo space with the third row folded down. The collective sentiment on the Highlander’s third row takes a turn for the worse, along with the SUV’s jerky transmission and irksome blind spots. (Comments have been edited for clarity.)

Rave: It’s Roomy — At Least in the First Two Rows

toyota highlander 2017 as ac 23 back row folding seats interior suv scaled jpg 2017 Toyota Highlander | Cars.com photo by Angela Conners

The Highlander offers seating for seven or eight occupants in its three rows. Cars.com user feedback suggests families that mainly use the first two rows — with only an occasional need for the third — find the SUV generous in space. In a 2017 Cars.com three-row SUV comparison, our judges were impressed by the Highlander’s comfortable front seats and agreed that the SUV is better suited to accommodate passengers in the first two rows only, as opposed to all three.

“This car is spacious for the four of us. The technology inside is amazing and it has so many features. The third row isn’t super spacious, but we don’t plan on using it anyway, so we don’t mind. We put the third row down to have more room for cargo space!” — Cars.com consumer review for 2019 Highlander; Rexburg, Idaho

“This SUV is perfect for a very large family and comfortable for road trips. It has a very quiet ride, and it’s exceptionally smooth over bumpy roads. Being 4-foot-10 with a husband who is 6-foot-5 and teenage boys (5-foot-4 to 5-foot-9), all of us ride very comfortably, even with luggage in the rear compartment. It definitely beats the [Chevrolet] Tahoe’s price tag and is more reasonable in overall luxury.” — 2017 Highlander; Greer, S.C.

“I absolutely love my 2017 Highlander. Aside from reliability and safety, it has features that make it awesome: The third-row optional seating is great when I need to fit extra people in the car, there’s room for my large German Shepherd in the back, and I love the Bluetooth connection for my phone.” — 2017 Highlander; Peabody, Mass.

“I was ready for an SUV again and traded my 2019 Toyota Camry for the Highlander. Love my leather interior and the roominess when I go to the beach with six other family members. This vehicle is the best investment I’ve made in years.” — 2019 Highlander; Stockbridge, Ga.

“We decided to purchase a used Highlander Limited Platinum after owning a 2002 Highlander. The Highlander has plenty of legroom and headroom. The cargo [compartment] is huge with the third-row seat folded down. I was able to haul large, 5.5-foot-long bale-wrap cylinders with room to spare.” — 2016 Highlander; Houston, Mo.

Rave: Smooth, Carlike Ride

Toyota Highlander 2017 FD BW 05 exterior rear angle suv white scaled jpg 2017 Toyota Highlander | Cars.com photo by Brian Wong

Highlander owners also raved about the SUV’s smooth ride, with many referring to it as carlike. This is one area where our experts’ opinions diverged from that of Cars.com users. We found the Highlander’s ride to be firm and choppy over rough roads, with one judge in our three-row SUV comparison comparing ride quality to that of a truck.

“I have just over 74,000 miles on this vehicle, and it rides like new. Sure, I’ve been in smoother riding cars, but not in a smoother riding SUV. Towing a trailer even seems to smooth it out a little further. Admittedly, I haven’t towed up to the 5,000-pound rating, but I can say that the Highlander can certainly handle 3,500 pounds without much trouble.” — 2016 Highlander; Excelsior Springs, Mo.

“The Toyota Highlander is a good mixture of a car and SUV. The Highlander drives and has the comfort of a car, but also gives you the space and height of an SUV. When looking at buying an SUV, I first looked at the 4Runner, but for the price and comfort options the Highlander came with, you couldn’t beat the price.” — 2016 Highlander; Rock Hill, S.C.

“This is a roomy SUV that is quiet and smooth with car-like driving dynamics. It has lots of room in the front and second-row seats with easy access. It has a quiet interior and smooth drive even on bad roads. However, it lacks power from a stop and when having to pass or merge.” — 2018 Highlander; Dallas

“I purchased a [Highlander] XLE AWD under the Toyota [certified pre-owned] program with the warranty. It’s a very comfortable, near-luxury, car-like ride. Although it doesn’t handle like a BMW, it is much more responsive than the old truck-based ‘utes were 20 years back.” — 2018 Highlander; San Jose, Calif.

Rave: Safety Standard

toyota highlander hybrid 2016 es 04 instrument panel interior steering wheel suv scaled jpg 2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

The Highlander’s robust list of standard safety features after its 2017 model-year refresh was well-received by owners who said it gives them peace of mind. Newer Highlanders offer the Toyota Safety Sense suite of driver-assist features, including automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning with steering assist across all trims. This gives the Highlander an edge against competitors that only offered such technology in higher trim levels: “You get the full array even if your budget is limited to the entry model,” said Fred Meier, a judge in our 2017 three-row SUV comparison.

“We love this vehicle! It is very comfortable for both long and short trips. It has so many safety features that it took me a couple of hours with the owner’s manual to appreciate them all — that was the primary reason I wanted this car. The other reason is the dependability of Toyota vehicles. My entire family has driven Toyotas for many years, and no one has had a bad experience.” — 2017 Highlander; St. Louis

“I purchased this car because of the safety features (automatic cruise control, lane change warning, backup camera and various warnings) and the comfort features (power memory seat, cell phone hands-free etc.).” — 2019 Highlander; Lake Sinclair, Ga.

“Changing from a 2009 Highlander to a 2018 Highlander was a no-brainer with all the great new bells and whistles that came standard with our new car. The car is loaded with new technology such as keeping the car in the lane, intuitive cruise control, warning of cars next to me, etc.” — 2018 Highlander; Houston

“This is an awesome vehicle! It has a lot of great safety features like auto-braking on cruise control, blind-spot notification and lane drift notification.” — 2019 Highlander; Reno, Nev.

Rant: Stingy Space in the Third Row (and Behind it)

toyota highlander hybrid 2016 es 24 cargo folding seats interior suv scaled jpg 2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

As we noted above, the Highlander’s passenger and cargo space generally fell into the “Rave” category among owners — when only the first two rows are in use. The downfall is the claustrophobic third row and the limited cargo space behind it. Highlander owners and Cars.com experts were in agreement that the SUV’s third row is tight, uncomfortable and hard to access, making it ill-suited for adults.

“I’m crazy about this Highlander. I am very short but am able to adjust the seat to drive comfortably. Love the way it handles and the safety features. I’m only unhappy with the legroom for the third-row seat. It is not possible for an adult to sit there and be comfortable. Other than that, I have no complaints.” — 2017 Highlander; Lake City, Fla.

“Great mid-sized SUV: seating for up to seven, great power from the V-6, good fuel economy for an SUV. I like the styling and the reliability of the Highlander; overall it’s a great vehicle. It does need a little more room behind the third row.” — 2018 Highlander; Paris, Texas.

“Interior materials are nice, but the third-row seat is cramped. Priced higher than other comparable SUVs, and not as many features.” — 2017 Highlander; Lutz, Fla.

“Needed a car that could have three large car seats installed. This fits the bill. Not much room in the third row for kids’ legs when in car seats.” — 2017 Highlander; Elizabeth, N.J.

Rant: Obstructed Views

Toyota Highlander 2017 FD BW 06 exterior headlights suv white scaled jpg 2017 Toyota Highlander | Cars.com photo by Brian Wong

The Toyota Highlander earned top safety scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, including the organization’s highest designation, Top Safety Pick Plus, from 2014-17 and penultimate Top Safety Pick award for 2018 and 2019. Despite such accolades, some owners had concerns about the vehicle’s safety and visibility due to the blind spots left by its side mirrors and head restraints.

“I purchased this SUV new. I like everything about it except the fact that I am short (5-foot-2) and the mirrors are so large that they create a blind spot. I almost crashed several times as a result, and I finally did have a fairly significant wreck, which was my fault; I simply could not see the other car.” — 2016 Highlander; Johnson City, Tenn.

“Bought this Highlander for my wife and we also use it as our family car. So far we love this car. The car has great power and handling. Plenty of room with the third-row seats folded down most of the time for groceries and such. There are a couple of things we don’t like, and one is the side mirrors, which are huge and make a big blind spot on each side. They could be three inches lower and work just as well.” — 2016 Highlander; Rockmart, Ga.

“Don’t want to drive a minivan but need the minivan benefits? This is the vehicle for you. Very luxurious ride and has a good amount of space. The third-row seating is really only comfortable for very small and young people. My wife has trouble with the sightlines when the backseat head [restraints] are in place, but much better when they are removed (with no backseat passengers).” — 2016 Highlander; Villa Park, Ill.

Rant: Jerky Transmission

toyota highlander 2017 as ac 20 cup holders gear shift interior suv scaled jpg 2017 Toyota Highlander | Cars.com photo by Angela Conners

In the 2017 refresh, the Highlander gained a new eight-speed automatic transmission for its V-6 models. Our expert review of the 2017 Highlander found that the new powertrain struggled when accelerating from a stop, even when hitting the gas hard — as if the transmission is in too high of a gear. Owners had their own struggles with the Highlander’s transmission, claiming it has difficulty finding the right gear, particularly at low speeds, and feels jerky overall.

“The biggest advantages: It’s reliable, has a comfortable and quiet ride, and a roomy and comfortable interior. Cons: It’s not a car for city driving. The eight-speed transmission is awful at the first three gears, changing them constantly, making the engine go into higher revs all of a sudden — very, very annoying. I’m an experienced driver, but I couldn’t find a good way to handle this.” — 2018 Highlander; Chicago

“I bought a 2018 Highlander Limited AWD. The new eight-speed transmission is jerky and annoying. I wish Toyota would have tested some more before releasing it. The 295-hp engine feels like a four-cylinder engine in normal mode. To switch to power mode you have to fiddle with some controls — it’s not straightforward.” — 2018 Highlander; Charlotte, N.C.

“I traded in my 2015 Highlander, which I loved, for a 2018 model, which I hate. It has the most herky-jerky transmission: It’s up and down, up and down at lower speeds. The dealer service manager says it’s trying to find the right gear. I [usually] put 30,000 miles on a car a year. I’m at 6,000 now and I might not make it to 7,000.” — 2018 Highlander; Clinton, N.J.

“It’s great on road trips and OK around town. The multi-function display is fairly intuitive and easy to use. The eight-speed transmission has a little difficulty finding the right gear, although it is superior to a CVT.” — 2017 Highlander; Panama City, Fla.

Features and Pricing

toyota highlander hybrid 2016 es 13 climate control front row infotainment system interior suv scaled jpg 2016 Toyota Highlander | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

The 2014-16 Highlander came with standard features like a backup camera, a 6.1-inch touchscreen with Toyota’s Entune multimedia system and Bluetooth. Higher trims, including the XLE and Limited, swapped in a larger 8-inch touchscreen with navigation. Our experts found one of the SUV’s most convenient features to be its in-dash shelf, which has channels to fit charging cables for mobile devices.

The 2017 model year saw a new SE trim, which offered a sportier appearance but not many performance gains to back it up. A suite of technologies called Toyota Safety Sense brought numerous standard safety and driver-assist features: forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning with steering assist, automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control. A 360-degree camera also became available, but Android Auto and Apple CarPlay were notably absent until the SUV’s redesign in 2020.

As new and used car prices continue their upward trajectory, shoppers are likely to find savings, however slight, on a used third-gen Highlander compared to a new or a lightly used fourth-gen model (2020-present), with median pricing among Cars.com dealers in November at $31,499 for 2014-19 gas-only models or $39,999 for hybrids. By contrast, the median price for new 2021-22 Highlanders is $41,017 for gas-only models or $44,495 for hybrids. Interestingly, the median used price for the fourth-gen 2020 Highlander — at this point a one- or two-year-old car — is currently higher than new, at $43,940 and $45,990 for non-hybrid and hybrid models, respectively.

What’s New for 2022?

toyota highlander bronze 2022 001 exterior front angle silver suv scaled jpg 2022 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Bronze Edition | Manufacturer image

The 2022 Toyota Highlander is currently on sale, offering a choice of a 295-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 or a 243-hp hybrid drivetrain; the gas-only four-cylinder is no longer available. Notable standard features include an 8-inch touchscreen, 18-inch wheels, LED lights, and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity. A larger 12.3-inch touchscreen, wireless charging and head-up display are among the available features. The starting price for the 2022 non-hybrid Toyota Highlander is $36,420, and the hybrid model starts at $40,070 (all prices include destination fees).

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Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

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Former News Editor Jane Ulitskaya joined the Cars.com team in 2021, and her areas of focus included researching and reporting on vehicle pricing, inventory and auto finance trends. Email Jane Ulitskaya

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