KONA, Hawaii – Adding another entry to the burgeoning number of 3-row CUVs in the market may not qualify as “grand.” But when the newbie expands the seating space – and likely market reach – of a perennially top-selling model in its segment, “grand” becomes an appropriate moniker.
Such is the case with the ’24 Toyota Grand Highlander, the mostly new version of the Japanese automaker’s Highlander that’s primarily a 2-row midsize CUV with a third-row penalty box strictly reserved for youthful offenders.
The handicap of offering such tight confines in the third row mostly goes away in the Grand Highlander, as back row legroom grows by a significant 5.5 ins. (140 mm) to 33.5 ins. (851 mm) with improvements in headroom (+1.1 in. [28 mm]) and shoulder space (+2.5 ins. [64 mm]) as well. There’s truly enough room for two fullsize adults or three children, with access aided by a sliding second row. Kneeroom can get tight if the second row is slid fully aft. A built-in step and grab handles also assist third-row access.
Cargo area (behind the third row) increases 4.6 cu. ft. (130 L) to 20.6 cu. ft. (583 L) – enough space for seven suitcases, Toyota notes – while overall passenger volume grows 12 cu. ft. (340 L) to 153.3 cu. ft. (4,332 L), with slightly less volume in models with panoramic moonroofs.
Added third row and cargo space doesn’t detract from front and second rows thanks to a 3.9-ins. (99-mm) longer wheelbase to 116.1 ins. (2,949 mm) and a slightly wider track.
The Grand Highlander shares some powertrains and its TNGA-K unibody mid- and fullsize vehicle platform with its standard sibling, but Toyota wasn’t satisfied with simply shoehorning a third row into a stretched Highlander. All upper body sheetmetal is new and engineers took pains to stiffen the rear portion of the chassis, primarily with added welds and structural adhesives.
That extra work is evident in the crisp handling, body control and lack of squeaks and rattles during our drives on a few winding routes here on the Big Island. Front cabin noise reduction efforts would make any untoward sounds emanating from the rear obvious – and we hear none.
As previously mentioned, the Grand Highlander is “mostly new” with carryover limited to its gas powertrain and one of its hybrid propulsion systems. They include:
- A 265-hp, 310-lb.-ft. (420-Nm) 2.4L turbo 4-cyl. paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission in the base model.
- A hybrid featuring Toyota’s tried-and-true system based on a 2.5L 4-cyl. producing 187 hp, 177-lb.-ft. (240-Nm) of torque and backed by an electric motor that boosts torque and pushes horsepower to 245. Power is routed to front or all wheels via a continuously variable transmission.
The top of the powertrain pyramid is the new-to-Highlander Hybrid MAX propulsion system (pictured, below), which it shares with the recently introduced Toyota Crown CUV and the Lexus RX500h. It uses the same 2.4L turbo I-4 paired with an electric motor producing 265 hp and 332 lb.-ft. (450 Nm) of torque driving the front wheels via a 6-speed automatic. All-wheel drive comes from a powerful rear e-axle motor that boosts the vehicle’s overall output to 362 hp and 400 lb.-ft. (542 Nm) of torque.
Different needs for buyers: Gas and Hybrid MAX models offer the most towing capacity at 5,000 lbs. (2,268 kg); Hybrid (non-MAX) owners see combined fuel economy of 34 mpg (6.9 L/100 km); Hybrid MAX purchasers get a family hauler that can turn a 6.3-second 0-60 mph (97 km/h) time despite a curb weight of 4,920 lbs. (2,232 kg), while achieving a reasonable 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) combined.
While most buyers will opt for the traditional gas-engine Grand Highlander, Toyota estimates more than a third will choose the Hybrid while just 6% will upgrade to the Hybrid MAX, says Lisa Materazzo, group vice president of marketing for Toyota.
That’s too bad. The Hybrid MAX offers a noticeable level of extra punch, especially in 45-70 mph (72-113 km/h) range needed for passing and accelerating up to freeway speed from an on-ramp. Overall, the system is quick to react and provides significant power to get the vehicle up to speed in a hurry, with good balance between the ICE-based front propulsion and the effortless torque provided by the rear e-axle motor.
Given the smooth roads in Hawaii and drive routes with little variance, it’s hard to gauge fuel efficiency, but we did note the hybrid achieved 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) over a 63-mile (101-km) route. Our drives of the standard gas model and Hybrid MAX powertrains were too short to make meaningful fuel economy observations.
Both hybrids utilize nickel-metal-hydride batteries rather than lithium-ion packs found in many electrified vehicles. Toyota reasons that li-ion is good for some applications, but the company has a long track record with NimH technology, says Craig Payne, chief engineer for North American SUVs.
“We have good consistency, so we’re able to get a lot of the performance we need with that proven technology,” Payne says.
Inside, the Grand Highlander shines, regardless of trim level. Drivers see a large instrument cluster providing key information and easy customization. A 12.3-in. (31-cm) horizontal center infotainment screen handles all of the essential functions, backed by hard switchgear for temperature control and audio volume. “Hey Toyota” activates the voice recognition system to find locations and get directions, adjust audio and raise or lower cabin temperature. Pretty slick and no longer the province of high-end luxury models.
Depending on trim, the interior is outfitted in light gray or black, with the option of a 3-seat bench in the second row or captain’s chairs. Cupholders abound – 13 of them, exactly – along with seven USB-C hookups to accommodate every seating position.
While the XLE, Hybrid and Limited trims offer the sporty black and more airy light gray interiors, we’re particularly taken with the Portobello Ultrasuede and leather upholstery in the Platinum models, with the medium brown providing a perfect frame for black and alloy insets.
Toyota equips all Highlanders with a full suite of Toyota Safety Sense driver-assistance features, including full-range adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping capability, along with a host of connected services for emergency notifications, all on a 10-year free trial. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity is standard.
With almost 223,000 sales in 2022 and nearly 75,000 through April this year, the Highlander holds a commanding lead in Wards Large CUV Segment, with its closest competitors recording less than half of Toyota’s numbers annually, according to Wards Intelligence data.
Grand Highlander goes on sale in July, priced from $44,405 for a front-drive XLE to $59,460 for a max-out Platinum Hybrid MAX (prices include $1,335 in freight and handling charges).
Adding Grand Highlander’s depth to the model line, both physically and in range of interior and powertrain offerings, likely will see the Highlander brand expand its already prodigious lead while offering owners a good value and a variety of choices at the dealership.