Kids have a way of changing everything, and once they start coming along mom and dad pretty much have to rearrange their automotive priorities to fit the practical needs of a growing family.
In this day and age, the transportation module of choice quite often is the crossover-utility vehicle, which more or less fits in the space between a rugged sport-utility vehicle and that ultimately practical giant bread box, a minivan.
That brings us to the 2013 Toyota Highlander, a blend of comfort and utility large enough to stow those 2.3 kids and all their associated paraphernalia.
A softer, gentler version of the truck-based sport-utility vehicle, the Highlander actually can hold up to seven passengers, assuming the third-row denizens are two children who have no trouble hopping past the opening behind the second row and plopping into their seats. Grandparents need not attempt this maneuver.
For the days you head out to buy that giant flat-screen tv, or a season’s worth of gardening supplies, you can fold the second- and third-row seats into the floor and enlarge the cargo space to 95.4 cubic feet of space.
But, If you need to fill all of the seats, you will be left with only 10.3 cubic feet of space for groceries, or whatever.
To be honest, then, the Highlander, like most mid-size crossovers, actually functions best as a five-passenger vehicle. Fill up the first two rows with people and leave the third row folded into the floor. Then you have a 42.3-cubic-foot cargo area generous enough for most family transportation needs. In addition, it’s a lot easier to park than those full-size behemoths.
The top-of-the-line Limited edition I tested was probably designed with empty nesters in mind. It had many of the features of a luxury car, but had room for only two in the second row with a console separating them. It’s an excellent vehicle for long-distance travel and the seating arrangements can be expanded to accommodate six on those occasions when the children and/or grandchildren come to visit.
Now, on to the basics.
Power for the Highlander Limited is provided by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that produces 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift capability routes the test car’s power to the front wheels or, on many models, all four wheels as needed.
For the lowest two trim lines, Highlander and Highlander Plus, the standard engine is a 2.7-liter, four-cylinder model that can produce 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque.It is teamed with a six-speed automatic transmission.
For the sake of comparison, a four-cylinder HIghlander, available only with front-wheel-drive, will return an EPA-estimated 20 miles per gallon in town and 25 on the open road. The V-6 engine in a front-wheel-drive vehicle can return an estimated 18 miles per gallon around town and 24 mpg on the highway.
The crossover I drove, V-6 engine. four-wheel drive and five-speed automatic transmission, is able to return an estimated 17 mpg in the city and 22 on the open road. All Highlanders will run happily on regular-grade fuel.
In my week with the Highlander Limited, I averaged about 19 mpg in a variety of driving conditions.
With 8 inches of ground clearance, the four-wheel-drive 2013 Toyota Highlander is an excellent winter-weather vehicle, and it can also travel off road until the going gets seriously rough.
For those slippery and/or probably infrequent off-road excursions, the Highlander Limited also has Downhill Assist Control. It helps to maintain a constant speed and maintain handling and speed control.
But this crossover is mostly about comfortable family travel. The engine sings with a sewing machine smoothness, shifting is nearly seamless, the four-wheel independent suspension absorbs the bumps, the four-wheel disc brakes do their job well and the interior is quiet.
The driver will notice immediately that there is nothing sporty about the way the Highlander handles. But, it behaves with enough composure to make driving a relaxing experience, Unexpected sudden lane changes can be handled without excess drama, and the Highlander acquits itself satisfactorily on the back roads.
All Highlanders come with a long list of safety equipment that give it four stars out of a possible five in the government’s safety ratings.
As the king-of the-hill Highlander, the Limited also comes with a long list of comfort and convenience features. Included are perforated leather seats, eight-way-power for the driver’s chair and four-way power for the front-set passenger. The second-row seats recline and slide fore and aft.
Also standard is a display screen for the navigation system, Entune infotainment system and back-up camera. The nine-speaker premium audio system includes 90 days of satellite radio programming.
In addition, the 2013 Toyota HIghlander Limited comes with Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, three-zone climate control and keyless entry and ignition.
Base price is $39,400.Add mats, cargo net, cross bars for the roof rails and an $845 delivery charge and the manufacturer’s suggested price comes to $40,803.
That may seem a bit much for a family with small children, but it is possible to get an equally practical, less luxurious Highlander for significantly less money.
No matter that the term is pretty much universally shunned in the United States, the Highlander and other similar vehicles really are the station wagons of the 21st Century.
The big difference is that they do the job a lot better than the Ford Country Squires and Oldsmobile Vista Cruisers of yesteryear.