The automobile industry in North America has never responded well to change. As a rule, manufacturers have to be cattle-prodded into action before they�ll deviate from established norms (it wasn�t that long ago when vinyl roofs and whitewall tires were still optional), and change comes slowly in the boardrooms at General Motors, Toyota, Ford and others. As one GM executive explained to me years ag "General Motors is a big ship and it takes time to turn it around."
Well, they�re turning around now, and so is everyone else. As part of its new "More Power, Less Fuel" program, Toyota is fitting four cylinder engines to a variety of its products and extolling the virtues of less is more, when it comes to engine size. You coulda had a V6 the last time you went car shopping, but now you can have a four-banger instead.
Case in point: the Highlander, which, for the firs time, is available with a four cylinder engine. You can still get a V6 or hybrid drivetrain, but the base model is now offered with a 2.7 litre four-banger, mated to front-drive only, with a six-speed automatic transmission. That�s correct: a four cylinder engine powering a full-size SUV.
And here�s the thing: it works. And works rather well. This version of the Highlander won�t win awards when it comes to stoplight derbies, and you might want to think twice about towing anything, but, as a goodly-sized people-mover, it does the job. It will tow up to 1587 kilograms (680 kilos less than the V6), and has more than enough reserve power on the highway…..to a point. Even with a load of passengers, it gets you around town at a decent clip. It ain�t no hot rod, but nor is it a slug. This engine, by the way, is one of the biggest of its kind on the market, and, with over 185 horsepower on tap, has more grunt than some V6s. It�s almost identical to the one found in the base Venza and is essentially a Camry four cylinder powerplant punched out and tweaked.
By way of comparison, the V6 engine available with the Highlander dishes up 270 horsepower, and, yes, it�s a much livelier vehicle, with 4WD availability and all kinds of pulling power. It also starts at almost $5000 more than the base model, and when it comes to creature comforts and accessories, there isn�t much difference between the two. Same body configurations, same interior layout, same comfort level. And, of course, the four cylinder delivers better fuel economy than its V6 stablemate…..not a huge amount: 10.4 L/100 km in town, vs. 12.3, but over the long haul, it would add up. The four cylinder version also comes with a six-speed automatic transmission, where the V6 has just five speeds. This will probably change in the near future, but it gives the four-banger a bit of a leg up when it comes to highway cruising.
When carmakers start bumping up the displacement of their four cylinder engines, they run into all kinds of issues, one of the primary ones being engine vibrations and harmonics. Once you get above two litres, four cylinder engines tend to lose their smoothness and something has to be done. The most common remedy is to fit a counterbalancer – or two – and that�s what Toyota has done here. In tandem with Toyota�s variable valve timing system, the end result is a well-behaved, very usable powerplant that in many ways, transcends the usual configuration parameters. It�s easy to forget that this particular SUV has two less cylinders than its predecessors, and it doesn�t seem to mind the extra load. At 2490 kilograms dry and empty, the Highlander is not a small vehicle, but at no time during my time with this rig, did I feel handicapped by a lack of snap or power.
But enough about the engine. For its under-$33,000 price tag, the base Highlander comes well furnished. It has a vehicle stability control system, traction control, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake force distribution, as well as the usual modcons such as air conditioning, power windows and door lockss, tilt/telescoping steering, and keyless entry. This is not a stripper, in other words. My tester also had an optional upgrade package that included rear air conditioning, a six-disc CD player, steering wheel audio controls, roof rails, fog lamps and a power drivers seat. It�ll run you an additional $1800 and I would recommend it. Total cargo capacity is the same as the V6 models at 2700 litres, and this version of the Highlander will seat seven adults in comfort.
In fact, I would recommend the four cylinder Highlander on a bunch of levels. It costs less, is comparatively thrifty, reasonably peppy, roomy, very driveable, and does all that you could ask of it. No, it doesn�t have that extra dose of power that some people seem to need, but it still has the bases covered.
Think of it as a big station wagon.
AT A GLANCE
Type: Full-size SUV
Base Price: $32,600; as tested: $35,895
Engine: 2.7 litre four cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Horsepower/Torque: 187 hp @ 5800 rpm/ 186 foot-pounds @ 4100 rpm
Fuel Economy (L/100 km):10.4 city; 7.3 hwy, regular gas.
Alternatives: Honda Pilot, Hyundai Vera Cruz, Kia Borrego, Subaru Outback, GMC Acadia, Chev Trailblazer, Dodge Nitro, Ford Flex.
Likes: Surprisingly capable engine, decent fuel economy, plenty of elbow room,
Dislikes: Still a big vehicle, won�t tow as much as a V6.