Road Test Review – 2015 Toyota Highlander AWD Limited – Fave Family Truckster Is Tahoe-Tough but Lexus-Smooth

2015 Toyota Highlander AWD Limited 2222015 Toyota Highlander AWD Limited Review

There is a huge rationality shake-out in the large SUV segment. Buyers are no longer willing to shoulder enormous fuel bills and big-rig parking manners in order to seat seven. Nor are they up for joining the minivan clan — typically using the AWD or all-weather argument to avoid that blatant admission of parenthood.

The 2015 Highlander is right at the center of a new SUV ideal for millions of post-van, post-SUV buyers.

Why can’t there be a car-based crossover with jumbo cabin space, but AWD and enough ground clearance to glide over gravel or grass without a worry?  But the new Highlander is obviously not alone in courting these demanding families: the Nissan Pathfinder, Ford Explorer, Dodge Durango, Hyundai Santa Fe LWB and Honda Pilot are fresh this year as well and gunning for the same shoppers.

Final mystery detail? While being smooth, efficient and roomy… the next-gen family truckster should, ideally, look butch enough to fit in with a trailer at the horse stables. And modern enough to feel worth large crossvoer prices nearing $50k echelon of luxury brands or full-size trucks.

The new Highlander aces dozens of metrics to come out atop a diverse competitive set. Hop in and let’s explore the Exterior, Interior, Performance and Pricing of this ultra-evolved crossover.

 2015 Toyota Highlander AWD Limited 111


The new Highlander is really a dashing design. It genuinely looks cool from all sides — but especially up front. Versus the ultra rounded and inoffensive design this replaced, the new Highlander nose is far more butch.

It looks like the old Highlander was sent on one of those punishing Outward Bound pain-cations for weeks of mountain exploration.

The new Highlander came back a bit more stern-faced, more lantern-jawed, and a bit more skeptical in the eyes. It is quieter than before — more focused than ever on its ultimate goal of CUV world domination!

The most notable change up front is a bulging dome hood that flows into a strong, trapezoidal single-frame grille. A flying slash of horizontal chrome bar slide through the Toyota badge, runs up the gloss-black grille and through the tops of the slim headlamps.

This Limited AWD Highlander (along with the Hybrid) is the top model. It wears LED foglamps that lower trimlines lack — making the Limited seem like the must-have model in the range. As much as we liked the elegant profile surfacing, sleek chrome roofrack and macho new tail on a Highlander XLE test truck earlier this year, we craved the LEDs of the top model. This difference on the road is between inner highbeams for DRLs on the XLE to these low-slung white LEDs for daylighting on the Limited.

We do still love the Limited’s lights, but there is a big caveat on this particular test truck: it is loaded with exterior lifestyle accessories that both balloon the list price and weigh down the look.

Our new thinking? An XLE with the LED fogs added post-sale to balance size/seats/price closer to $40k.


This Highlander is a showcase for the Highlander as a do-it-all machine as comfortable outdoors as in city gridlock. Nearly $2700 in upgrades to the Limited Platinum AWD come in the form of:

— rear bumper protector

— fixed running boards

— roofrack crossbars

— all-season cargo/floormats

— tow hitch receiver with wiring harness

— remote start

— paint protection film

Among these, the must-skip for me would be the running boards. They are huge and stay mounted outward versus tucking under like top trucks. As such, they always feel in the way as you slide into the Highlander cabin. The floor is so low and the seating so optimal for easy entry/exit… the Highlander running boards are totally unnecessary — even for very compact grown-ups or munchkins.

They got very muddy on our visit, adding pantleg dirt and off-road clearance worries to our existing gripes of ankle-bashing excess.

We feel almost as strongly about the crossbars for the roofrack… but just because they look so strange next to the flush-mounted chrome rails that are so well integrated in the design.

The most helpful upgrades are the trailer hitch and remote start.



The Highlander’s design is a solid A- for standing out and pleasing the eye with memorable new shapes. In a blah segment, the Highlander finally makes a confident style statement.

We love the 19-inch ‘chromatec’ wheels from the Limited trim, but like most of the other colors better than the Ooh La La Rouge Metallic. Too dull for our eyes, especially with the scruff-resistant grey lower bodywork.




The Highlander cabin is the opposite of those superfluous exterior accessories: the loaded Limited AWD with Platinum package is ridiculously posh inside. For a family-oriented crossover, the buttery-soft carpets and vented leather seats are beyond Audi Q7 in their touchability.

All Highlanders have a great starting point for a lux interior in 2015 — even without leather, full-length moonroof and the tech goodies list here. The new Highlander cabin is defined by very high-quality fixtures and materials at all touchpoints. Ultra-creamy headrests are even softer than the rest of the hides — which shows great attention important details on Toyota’s part.

Post-drive, the enveloping Highlander driving position is what stick with us. Despite the competing Santa Fe running a sportier chassis and tighter cornering hold, it can’t touch the lower and more-planted seat confidence of the Highlander.

That was an awkward description. The point is that many car-based crossovers sit you up high, perched on the seat. In a recent Mazda CX-9 drive, holding the steering wheel for dear life around fast corners was all that kept us in place on a fast roundabout. The Mazda felt like it was actively trying to make you drive slower. Many crossovers have this issue, and you can barely explore their handling at speed as a result. It certainly makes it less fun.

So the Highlander is great on the drive position scale — but that is just one of many major front-seat assets. The rest are very atypical things to highlight as defining features… but are cool enough to be USPs in their own right.

First? The full-width shelf in the middle of the dashboard is genius. Versus phones and wallets flying around cabins and consoles… having a rubber-lined cubby with ridged edges keeps everything in place. Even your sanity!   =]

The second thing we really loved is the giant “roll-top” center console/armrest. This thing is huge, super comfy for all elbows, and uses some really slick retracting covers to hide is jumbo interior dimensions. Just a fabulous, high-design that is full of surprise, delight and long-term appeal. The big and wide middle box helps the Highlander feel like a full-size SUV in shoulder and cabin width counts, but with a lower and flatter floor.

The Platinum Package is a gamechanger for cabin swankiness: it includes the Tech pack and a half-dozen very easy, very useful active safety features plus moonroof, rear captains chairs and other sweets. We became instantly hooked on the dynamic cruise control and automatic high beam controls. We now expect them on all other cars… and are sorely disappointed in 9/10 cases. Auto highbeams for all!  NBD in city or burbs, but on country two-lanes they are a godsend.


The captains chairs in the Highlander’s second row are divine. They are super comfy and adjustable, reclining for a nap with window shades up as easily as they slide up and back. Or to tumble to let people into the third row.

With so much hip, knee and toe room… the Highlander’s second row is class-best. The panoramic moonroof helps the ambiance, of course, as does the heated-seat upgrade on Platinum pack cars. But the core comfort is — dare we say it — much better than even a 2015 Navigator with a bench second row. The Nav’s legroom and seat cosseting cannot match the Highlander, surprising as that is considering the Nav is 2000-pounds heavier and 20-inches bigger all around.2015 Toyota Highlander AWD Limited - Interior Photos 5

With seating for eight as standard in the Highlander, the standard bench second row is also good… but feels much less special and premium than the individual captains chairs. All could use more USB charge ports at a higher voltage for quick-charging.


A full climate and infotainment head unit is a nice touch back there — with tons of vents in floor and roof to pipe in fresh-air. An auxiliary AC in the rear doubles system capacity and can chill the truck to frigid even in the Sahara with the moonroof shade retracted.  One-touch buttons for that opaque roof shade and glass slide/tilt is a nice touch.

In-flight beverages find a good home in a flip-up middle console between the seats. With it down, there is just enough room for adults to shimmy into the third row. For kids, they can just walk right in … sit right down….   Just kidding. That flat and low floor is a welcome part of the (clearly super macho!) Highlander as it battles minivan practicality, but in a sexier way.


Where most crossovers lose points is in the third row. Legroom is a zero-sum affair for many of these torture chambers — with the Nissan Rogue, the cheapest seven-seater, offering less actual space for toes and legs than a Porsche 911. Legless torsos seem to have been the design dummy.  Or kiddies, of course.

The Highlander is better than many but still quite snug in the third row. The seatback angle is actually decent back there, but we only fit with our knees up and head grazing the roof.

Full-size SUVs do have an advantage back there — especially in their LWB variants like Expedition EL or Denali XL. Still not good, of course, but much more shoulder room on offer.






The Highlander is sppokily confident and capable on the roads. It is seriously silent inside — like a tomb with little to none of the sharp bump spikes, tire rumble or wind roar that mars even some of the world’s best SUVs. Unreal levels of luxury from the Highlander’s $30k price base.

With the trusty 3.5-liter V6 up front and a six-speed automatic to front or all wheels, the Highlander is a people-pleaser on throttle as well. While less advanced than some new eight-speed auto’s or turbo motors, there is logic in using this tried/true powertrain. After selling around ~25-million cars with this 268-horsepower engine, Toyota has achieved near-perfect power delivery / efficiency balance. All on regular fuel.

This Highlander AWD was quite a different steer to the previous Highlander FWD XLE mentioned earlier. The AWD car felt, subjectively, much slower and less enthusiastic on kickdown or passing. It seems really weird to report this, but these are what we observed.

The AWD is fully automatic at sending power to the back axle as needed. It just seems to dull the drivetrain’s potency pretty notably. Yes, the flipside is much more grip off the line, or turning right onto 4-lane road — places there the FWD Highlander is less sure-footed.

Overall, though, for people who love driving on full throttle, the Highlander front-drive felt much more entertaining than the AWD model. Will depend on your weather needs, likely. But perhaps try both front and AWD versions before deciding.

How does either feel versus the Pathfinder’s V6 + CVT combo? Nearly as smooth, nearly as effortless on passing downshifts. But not quite as serene as the Pathfinder or RX450h around town.

Handling-wise, the Highlander is very, very good overall. A soft initial spring rate firms up progressively around bends. It feels good; as does the heavy and much-more-accurate electronic power steering — even versus other 2015 Toyota’s like the Avalon.


This loaded and superlux Highlander (initially) gave us sticker shock when we perusing the Monroney after a few days driving. The car you see here stickers for $47,671.

That seems like a lot, and it is. But it is also very competitive and actually much cheaper than loaded Ford Explorers, which can hit $55k.2015-Toyota-Highlander-S119311

So let’s break it down, because first off the exterior accessories are almost $3k in fluff. You can fit all this stuff after you already own it, too.

Including destination charge, the Highlander Limited Platinum stickers from $44,600, a jump of about $3k versus the normal Limited.

This model is one below the most-expensive Hybrid from $47k.

But in truth, the convenience features are up to you. Unlike some cars, the Highlander is basically as great a machine even in its cheap/cheerful LE spec from just above $30k with a standard V6.

2015 Toyota Highlander AWD Limited Interior

Highlander Models



$29,765 starting1
  • Seating for eight
  • Soft-touch in-dash shelf with easy cable management
  • Entune™ Audio with Bluetooth®14 and backup camera19

LE Plus

$33,290 starting1
  • Entune™ Audio Plus with HD Radio™,16 SiriusXM All Access Radio15 and backup camera19
  • Adjustable power liftgate with flip-up
    hatch window
  • Three-zone automatic climate control


$36,590 starting1
  • Entune™ Premium Audio with 8-in. touch-screen, navigation,18 App Suite,17 and backup camera19
  • Leather seats with heated front seats
  • Power tilt/slide moonroof


$40,190 starting1
  • Seating for seven with second-row captain’s chairs
  • Heated and ventilated front-row seats
  • Blind Spot Monitor20 with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert21
  • 19-in. Chromtec® alloy wheels

Hybrid Limited

$47,850 starting1
as shown $48,245
  • Seating for seven with second-row captain’s chairs
  • Heated and ventilated front-row seats
  • Blind Spot Monitor20 with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert21
  • 19-in. Chromtec® alloy wheels
  • Hybrid Synergy Drive® system




So, the Highlander is a really recommendable family crossover. We have done just that numerous times lately.

Like the sword-slayer from the Highlander TV show… the Toyota seven-seater is eliminating all of its competition one by one.

Starting with the Tahoe perhaps, the Highlander brings nimbleness, fuel economy, ride quality and lower pricing. All while seating the same 7 or 8 folks inside in more comfort.

The Highlander looks as butch and trucklike as a Durango this year, albeit with less-cool LEDs. But the low-roof stance of an ultra-modern crossover is one place where the Highlander follows the Dodge’s lead.

Pop-culture comparisons aside, the Highlander is an awesome machine. It is almost the sweet-spot showing the best of the entire automotive industry — on size, price, features, and more. Even style — a successful best-of-all-worlds machine.

The fact that is is so wonderful inside and from behind the wheel? Or sharp to see from any angle?

Just extra merits to help the Highlander vanquish foes near and far.