2003 Toyota Highlander Reviews and Ratings

Utility 4D 4WD

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Expert Reviews ( 1 )

2003 Toyota Highlander
Denise McCluggage

Toyota Highlander is among the easiest of motoring companions. Getting in and out of it couldn't be easier. Highlander offers lots of flexibility when it comes to carrying people and things. It totes four people comfortably, five less so. The rear seats can be folded down for cargo carrying. Highlander offers plenty of utility, with more total cargo space than a 4Runner.

On street and highway, Highlander performs decorously, pretending to be a car. Yet it can swallow impromptu flea-markets buys with ease, and tote them home despite sudden worsening of the weather. Highlander offers much of what made the Lexus RX 300 so popular without the high payments.

The four-wheel-drive V6 model offers impressive all-weather capability. The base model with front-wheel drive and a four-cylinder engine performs brilliantly around town and on the open highway, delivering responsive performance when merging into highway traffic.

Model Lineup
Highlander is available in two trim levels, each with either full-time four-wheel drive or front-wheel drive. There's also a choice of engines: A 2.4-liter inline-4 comes standard, and is rated 155 horsepower. A 3.0-liter V6 that produces 220 horsepower is optional. All Highlanders come with automatic transmissions.

Prices start at $23,880 for the four-cylinder model with front-wheel drive. With full-time four-wheel drive, the four-cylinder Highlander lists for $25,280. V6 models are priced at $25,460 with front-wheel drive and $26,860 with four-wheel drive.

Even the base trim level is well-equipped, and includes air conditioning, power windows and door locks, cruise control, cloth upholstery, and anti-lock brakes. Some of the Limited's standard features are offered as options on the base Highlander, either by themselves or grouped into packages.

Highlander Limited ($29,935 with 2WD, $30,795 with 4WD) comes with the V6 as standard equipment, and adds automatic climate control, an eight-speaker JBL sound system, eight-way power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, aluminum wheels, roof rack, fog lights, rear privacy glass, heated mirrors, remote keyless entry with security system and engine immobilizer, wood-grain interior trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and other amenities. Leather upholstery, heated front seats, and an in-dash six-disc CD changer are optional.

With either trim level, and especially with the V6, we highly recommend the optional Traction Control with Vehicle Skid Control ($850). We also recommend the seat-mounted side-impact airbags ($250).

Toyota Highlander looks smart and trim, falling somewhere between the edgy high style of the RAV4 and the intense purposefulness of the 4Runner. The Highlander is actually roomier than the outgoing Lexus RX 300. The family resemblance to the Lexus is evident, but the Highlander is dressed down, rather like wearing faded jeans and a favorite windbreaker instead of dry-clean-only lunch-with-the-ladies attire.

Entry, both for cargo and for people, is easier than in truck-based SUVs. With its more car-like step-in and lift-into, the Highlander is even friendly to wearers of tight skirts. Not so the usual truck-based SUV.

When it comes to ingress and egress (getting in and out), Toyota Highlander has no peers. Neither climbing up nor stepping down is required. Simply slide into one of the comfortable front seats. This makes Highlander one of the most convenient vehicles on the planet for running daily errands. This product will never annoy you.

Highlander comes with reclining front bucket seats in front, and a three-passenger 60/40 split fold-down reclining bench in the rear. The seats are supportive and comfortable and adjust to suit various-size drivers. Part of the appeal of SUVs is the ease of seeing out at every angle. And so it is here. The sloping hood of the Highlander makes the forward view even more encompassing.

Once seated, you'll find everything in its place. Power window buttons are right there on the doors. Ventilation ducts are right where you would expect to find them. Radio and heater controls use simple dials and amply sized buttons and operate intuitively. Instruments are readily visible through a panoramic space in the comfortable four-spoke steering wheel. The whole layout bespeaks thoughtful appraisal and wise choices. V6 models come with aluminum interior accents. Wood and chrome touches warm and brighten the Limited edition.

The shifter is uniquely positioned more as a part of the dash than on a central console. This opens up the space between the front seats. It also lends an open, unconfined air to the cockpit. The interior is outfitted with dome, door courtesy, glove box and cargo-area lighting. Map pockets, visor mirrors, and front and rear auxiliary power outlets are provided.

Driving Impressions
Toyota Highlander is easy to drive and operate. It feels instantly familiar with no fumbling for controls. The Highlander is quieter than truck-based SUVs both in engine and road noise. It rides smoothly on a variety of surfaces, true to the car side of its SUV heritage. The appeal of the Highlander continues to grow over time, gradually blossoming into a sense of general well-being and satisfaction.

The standard front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder Highlander with traction control makes for a superb wagon for the city and suburbs. It's far easier to deal with on a daily basis than a truck-based sport-utility. Though you ride a little taller, you look eye to eye at Volvo wagon drivers. This is a quick, sprightly car with the four-cylinder engine, and it's smooth and quiet. It also gets better fuel economy (22/27 mpg city/highway vs. 18/22 for the 4WD V6). The steering is sedan-like with an appropriate feel. Braking is certain and smooth. Acceleration is nimble. We expected this in the V6 test car, but found the four-cylinder version to be a happy performer as well. We didn't feel like we were missing something by not having the V6.

Highlander feels at home around town, amidst traffic lights and parking seekers. It's a good size for city streets and soaks up potholes and irregular pavement well. Rolling into suburbia, the Highlander fits right in. It's a natural mall-crawler, maneuverable and quick to nose into a parking slot. Steering effort is very light at low speeds, so it's easy to turn in tight quarters. It cruises well on major highways, offering good stability and a smooth, quiet ride.

Highlander deals with mountain roads like an expert speller in the early stages of a championship bee. Snow melt, muddy ruts, icy patches on shadowed curves were easily handled by a 4WD V6 model. On a meandering backroad, the Highlander cut up hills through eight inches of newly fallen snow like a snowplow on a rescue mission.

Highlander is intended primarily as a highway and street vehicle with all-weather capability. It is not meant for boulder bashing and serious off-road driving. That said, we found the Highlander more capable in demanding situations than Toyota publicizes. After all, Toyota has the 4Runner for serious off-road duty.

Toyota Highlander is an excellent choice as a no-hassle wagon. It is a jack of all trades. Its ease of operation and convenience features make it eminently easy to live with. Highlander carries four people in comfort, hauls a lot of stuff, and will roll through any storm. Toyota's reputation for quality, durability and reliability should mean trouble-free ownership and a strong resale value.

Toyota is determined to have the best-outfitted SUV stores on the planet, with an array of both truck and car-based models ranging from compact cute-utes to hulking Suburban fighters. Five different sport-utilities are now available from Toyota, and that's not counting the two from Lexus. Clearly, Toyota's goal is to meet every need, want, taste and whim of the SUV shopper. Highlander meets the needs of what most people want from a modern, on-road sport-utility.

Model as tested
Toyota Highlander 4x2 ($23,880)
Basic Warranty
3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in
Kyushu, Japan
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
Vehicle Skid Control and traction control ($650); side airbags ($250); QO Quick Order Package ($630) includes remote keyless entry, tonneau cover, privacy glass; HE Preferred Package ($645) includes 8-way power driver's seat, Homelink garage door opener, illuminated sunvisor vanity mirrors, immobilizer pre-wire for alarm; floor and cargo mat set ($170); aluminum wheels ($520); color-keyed mudguards ($80); heated folding outside mirrors ($30)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
4-cyl 2WD ($23,880); 4-cyl 4WD ($25,280); V6 2WD ($25,460); V6 4WD ($26,860); Limited 2WD ($29,395); Limited 4WD ($30,795)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual front airbags, ABS, EBD, brake assist
Safety equipment (optional)
2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve inline-4
4-speed electronically controlled automatic

Specifications as Tested
air conditioning, digital clock, mini overhead console, cruise control, electric rear window defroster, power windows, power door locks with rear child-safety locks, remote fuel-filler release, AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo with six speakers, retained accessory power, dual visor mirrors, dual power outside mirrors; six-way adjustable driver's seat, tilt steering wheel

Engine & Transmission
2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve inline-4
Drivetrain type
front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
155 @ 5600
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
ventilated disc/disc with ABS, EBD and Brake Assist
Suspension, front
independent MacPherson strut with L-shaped lower arm and stabilizer bar
Suspension, rear
independent dual-link MacPherson struts and stabilizer bar

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

J.D. Power Rating
Overall Quality Not Available
Overall Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Overall Quality - Design
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Design
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Design
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Design
Not Available

Overall Dependability Not Available
Powertrain Dependability
Not Available
Body & Interior Dependability
Not Available
Feature & Accessory Dependability
Not Available

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J.D. Power Rating Legend
Among the Best
5 / 5
Better than Most
4 / 5
About Average
3 / 5
The Rest
2 / 5

* The J.D. Power Ratings are calculated based on the range between the car manufacturer or car model with the highest score and the car manufacturer or car model with the lowest score. J.D. Power generates a rating of a five, four, three, or two. If there is insufficient data to calculate a rating, “Not Available” is used in its place.

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