Enjoying the Highlander's quiet comforts

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A lightly revised exterior undersells the changes wrought to Toyota's family focused, road-first seven-seater. Photo: Toyota

It's facelift time for New Zealand's favourite American car, but not the one you're probably thinking of. The Ford Mustang is the No 1 born-and-bred Yank for Kiwis, but the Indiana-built Toyota Highlander, with 1989 registrations last year, is actually this country's strongest-selling US-manufactured vehicle.

A lightly revised exterior undersells the changes wrought to Toyota's family focused, road-first seven-seater. It now packs a swish direct-injected 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine and an equally classy eight-speed automatic, both taken from Lexus. Additional to the enhanced urge and economy this engine/ gearbox combination delivers, the range gains additional equipment, with prices increasing by $2000 to $3500.

Occupant wellbeing improves with the adoption of the Toyota Safety System (TSS), with the latest active assists including automated emergency braking (AEB), now becoming crucial to a maximum score in the only crash tests that matter here. TheHighlander already has that treasured five-star accreditation, from 2014. 

Initially just the flagship Highlander Limited gets TSS, but Toyota NZ has vowed to get TSS into the entry GX and mid-grade GLX as soon as possible. This should not prove too hard, as all America-market Highlanders have a package that additionally provides high speed dynamic radar cruise control, automatic high beam and lane departure alert with steering assist.

The US spec's auto stop-start also fails to make the boat for now - a pity given the engine type - but ours do step up to an emergency stop signal and trailer sway control.

A 10%-11% improvement in economy compared to the pre-facelift Highlander is a big positive, as is the lift in power and torque. Most impressive is the refinement. The old engine was certainly smooth and punchy, but the replacement is more hushed and that new transmission is a good buddy

Schmoozy cruising is a Highlander forte that continues. Forget charging around and dial it back to enjoy the quietly comfortable ride qualities, the roomy and well-appointed interior and some ergonomic Americanisms. Aside from the foot-operated parking brake, the other US-centric oddity is that the transmission-sharpening ‘‘power'' function now eschews its previously orthodox location and button operation by the gear selector to re-site as a trip computer sub-menu function.

Enjoying the Highlander's quiet comforts
At a Glance

Price: $63,490 to $81,490
Engine: 3456cc six-cylinder quad cam VVTi petrol, maximum power 218kW@ 6600rpm, maximum torque 350Nm@4700rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, front wheel drive (GX), all-wheel drive (GX, GXL, Limited)
Brakes and stabilitysystems: Front and rear disc brakes, ABS, VSC, HAC, DAB, TSC
Safety rating: Five-star Ancap
Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 245/60 R18 tyres
Fuel and economy: GX front-wheel drive 9.1 litres per 100km, GXL and Limited 9.5 litres per 100km, capacity 72 litres
Emissions: CO2 212/221 g/km on combined cycle
Dimensions: Length 4890mm, width 1925mm, height 1730mm