2013 Toyota Highlander

First Drive

Advocate WHEELS editor

Baton Rougeans love to go to the beach this time of year, and Louisiana license plates are plentiful from Gulf Shores to Panama City. If your Louisiana license plate is on a 2013 Toyota Highlander, you’ve got an excellent ride for your family beach trip.

The three-row Highlander isn’t the largest family hauler available, but it has a great combination of roominess, comfort and fuel economy for family sand sprints to the beach.

We loaded up our test Highlander last week for a weekend at Gulf Shores, and four adults and a toddler in a child seat fit very comfortably in the front two rows. With Row 3 folded down, all our vacation stuff packed neatly in the 42.3 cubic feet behind Row 2: a beach tent, four suitcases with way more clothes than we needed, two ice chests and a gallon of SPF 30.

Powered by either a 2.7-liter four-cylinder or a 3.5-liter V6 engine, the Highlander comes in four trims: Highlander, the new Highlander Plus, SE and Limited. Prices range from $28,870 for the Highlander 2WD four-cylinder up to $39,250 for the 4WD Limited with the V6. A Highlander Hybrid is available in Base and Limited trim. Our test SE model fit about in the middle with a base price of $34,410.

The 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine – standard on the Highlander and Highlander Plus – produces 187 horsepower and 186 lb.-ft. of torque. The 3.5-liter V6 – standard on Se and Limited models – kicks out 270 horses and 248 lb.-ft. of torque. The 2.7-liter engine is paired with a 6-speed automatic, but the V6 comes with a 5-speed automatic.

The four-cylinder engine is rated at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. After our week with the V6 Highlander, we’d recommend the larger engine.

The 4,045-pound SE model with the larger engine promises to get you 18 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the road. With a properly equipped V6 model, you can tow 5,000 pounds worth of boats, jet-skis or other beach toys. The four-cylinder towing package is discontinued for 2013.

In our test Highlander SE – loaded to the gills and with the air blowing full blast – we averaged 23.5 mpg at speeds approaching 80 mph on
Interstates 10 and 12.

If you’re headed back from the beach on a Sunday afternoon, expect the traffic to be moving that speed or higher. Like workhorses headed back to the barn after a hard day on the plow, some beachgoers tend to fudge on the speed limit. You can go along with them, or you can get in the right lane and stay out of the way.

Inside the cabin, the Highlander has seating for seven that morphs into 95.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the two back rows folded down. The second row is in a 40/20/40 split, which allows a three-person bench or two captains chairs with a walkthrough. The 50/50 split Row 3, with just 29.9 inches of legroom, is better suited for kids than grown-ups.

The driver’s seat in the Highlander is firm and comfortable, heated and adjustable eight ways. The heated passenger seat adjusts four ways.

Standard equipment on the SE trim includes a power lift gate, roof rails, and front and rear air conditioning. A $1,015 Navigation and Entune connectivity package adds a 6.1-inch touchscreen with a backup camera, upgraded audio, hands-free phone with voice recognition and music streaming via Bluetooth. The navigation system could use some visual updating and a larger screen.

All Highlanders are equipped with Toyota’s Star safety system, including seven standard airbags. The Highlander gets four stars in frontal crashes and five stars in side crashes in government safety tests.

You can find bigger SUVs for this summer’s trip(s) to the beach, but why? The 3-row Highlander is just the right size for a family of four or five, and it’ll hold and all their stuff too.

2013 Toyota Highlander SE