So you need the interior room of a minivan, but you wouldn’t want to be caught ever driving such a vehicle?
Well, there are alternatives, among them the 2017 Toyota Highlander SE, which is what we used for our annual trip from Phoenix to Monterey Car Week in northern California.
Bob Golfen and I do this trip, and we need a vehicle that’s large enough so he at 6-foot-6, can be comfortable riding or driving, while also providing enough room for all the stuff we have to take along. For example, one year, before we started renting adequate accommodations in Monterey, I lugged along a folding table and an office chair and a lamp in addition to luggage since our visit to Monterey is a work trip where we produce around 30 stories as we cover the various events.
This year, we rode there and back in the Highlander. Once we arrived, Bob moved into his own vehicle, a Dodge Durango Citadel, while I drove the Highlander to and from Monterey to Seaside, Carmel Valley and Pacific Grove. I also spent a few days before and after the trip driving the Highlander in Phoenix.
For the 2017 model year, the Highlander is available with a new 3.5-liter V6 engine and 8-speed automatic transmission and start/stop technology that saves on fuel while you’re sitting there waiting for the light to change from red to green.
There also are updated safety systems, refreshed exterior styling and, as in the Highlander we were driving, the SE trim package designed to combine sport and luxury with dark-painted grille, 19-inch wheels, sport-tuned front and rear suspension, black leather-trimmed seats with silver stitching and patterned insets and dark dash and door accents.
Our test vehicle also had captains-style second-row seats with a flip-up cupholder between them. For the most part, we kept the third-row seats folded down to take advantage of the 42 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row. However, even with the third row seats up and occupied, there’s nearly 14 cubic feet of cargo room behind them, plus some storage beneath the floor
The base price on the SE with front-wheel drive is a substantial $39,690, and our test version also had a rear-seat BluRay DVD entertainment system that added $1,810 to the bottom line.
Such a vehicle seems an ideal alternative to a minivan for a young and active family.
Oh, and we averaged 23.4 miles per gallon overall, a nice number for a vehicle with a 295-horsepower V6. A 185-hp 2.7-liter four-cylinder is the base engine in 2017 Highlanders.
Having said all of that, there are some nits to pick:
* Even with the V6, the Highlander is no road rocket, but at least there is a “power” mode that can be selected via controls on the steering wheel. The change is more than noticeable, and very welcome if you really want to drive. However, you have to remember to engage the power mode every time you start the car. Why can’t I have the option of simply defaulting to the power mode?
* The voice recognition system frequently misunderstood my requests. When I’d ask it to “call Abby” (one of my daughters), it would respond with the number of someone in my phone director whose name sounds nothing like Abby’s. It was so frustrating I finally pulled out my phone and went hands-on instead of hands-free when I needed to make a call.
* But perhaps the most irritating fault or default was the way the navigation screen automatically went to a split display, showing only half the map — and much less information than I wanted to needed to see — with the other half indicating the radio source and station. Again, I had to punch a button on the dash and then touch the NAV spot on the screen to get the map display I wanted — and needed.
Perhaps there are ways to permanently reconfigure such things. Or maybe if you owned the vehicle you’d get used to such irritations. I hope so, because there is a lot to like about this minivan alternative.
2017 Toyota Highlander SE V6 FWD
Vehicle type: 7-passenger crossover utility, front-wheel drive
Base price: $39,690 Price as tested: $42,440
Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 295 horsepower @ 6,600 rpm, 263 pound-feet of torque @ 4,700 rpm Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 109.8 inches Overall length/width: 192.5 inches / 75.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,430 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 21 city / 27 highway / 23 combined
Assembled in: Princeton, Indiana