It seems that every week, Globe Drive readers send in letters asking for a recommendation for a family-sized vehicle. They’re parents with more than two kids and probably a dog, or they regularly carry other adults and luggage, but they categorically do not want a minivan. They want an SUV, because they want the rugged style that an SUV suggests. More important, they want to avoid the mild-mannered, suburban reputation.
Their best choice, however, is almost always a minivan. They need the practical space. They don’t need the off-road capability and the third row of most SUVs is usually cramped. It sits above the rear axle and limits the depth of legroom. As well, the entire vehicle is taller because it sits higher off the ground, so the space for cargo is more shallow.
For all but the largest, extended SUVs, the third row of seats also cuts into the dedicated luggage space, with the seat backs sometimes almost touching the rear door. The choice is between carrying extra passengers or carrying their bags, and only a minivan can easily do both.
The current Toyota Highlander is no exception to this. It’s a mid-sized SUV, larger than the five-passenger RAV4 and fitted with a standard third row of seats for three people that folds flat for carrying extra cargo. The idea is that the third row is there when needed for additional people, but it will really only be suitable for smaller children. Most of the time, it will be folded out of the way to create a spacious place for luggage.
Now Toyota’s introduced the Grand Highlander, which debuted earlier this month at the Chicago auto show and will be on display in Toronto at the Canadian International Auto Show, which runs from Feb. 17-26. Toyota isn’t releasing pricing until closer to its availability in showrooms late this summer. However, the current Highlander has a suggested price that starts at just under $50,000 and rises to almost $60,000, so the Grand Highlander will likely cost at least $5,000 above those prices.
It’s still considered a mid-sized SUV, not quite so large and bulky as the full-sized Sequoia SUV that Toyota sells for $80,000 and up. Instead, the Grand Highlander adds 16.5 centimetres to the length of the Highlander, which creates an extra 14 centimetres of legroom for passengers in the third row. It’s also five centimetres taller and six centimetres wider, which adds 2.5 centimetres of headroom for passengers and an extra five centimetres of shoulder space. The third row offers almost as much space for passengers as the second row, just like a minivan.
As well, cargo space is increased to almost that of the Toyota Sienna minivan. The Grand Highlander’s total capacity with its second and third rows of seats folded flat is 2,775 litres, compared to 2,860 litres for the Sienna. When all three rows are in use, there’s still plenty of space for luggage in the back of the SUV, which Toyota says is enough for seven carry-on pieces of baggage.
Unlike both the Sienna and the Highlander, the Indiana-assembled Grand Highlander comes with a choice of three powertrains, all of them with all-wheel drive as standard. There will be two lower trim levels that will each offer either a 2.4-litre turbocharged gasoline engine or a 2.5-litre hybrid engine, similar to those available in the Highlander. The conventional engine makes 265 horsepower and comes with an eight-speed automatic transmission, while the hybrid engine makes 243 horsepower and is attached to a continuously variable transmission. That hybrid is apparently good for an average fuel consumption of 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres.
The top-end trim is powered by Toyota’s Hybrid Max engine, which combines the 2.4-litre engine with two electric motors and a six-speed automatic transmission. It’s the most powerful powertrain of any mid-sized Toyota SUV, making 362 horsepower and 400 lb-ft of torque. It’s good for accelerating to 100 kilometres an hour in about 6.5 seconds, and it can tow up to 2,268 kilograms (5,000 pounds), which is the same as the standard, non-hybrid Highlander.
Off-road driving options on the Grand Highlander are offered with the gas-powered and Hybrid Max engines, but they’re not standard – the SUV might look rugged, but drivers won’t have to pay for rugged capability if they don’t want it. They can drive it just like a minivan if they prefer, without feeling mild-mannered or suburban. Nobody will know the difference.