The economics of car-making (or perhaps Americans' taste) dictate a crossover in every possible size. Especially big ones. No footprint between "large, please" and "Super Size Me!" should go unexplored by mainstream automakers.
It's something American automakers have long recognized. The Chevy Traverse is about 10 inches longer than the Highlander, and the early three-rows from other Japanese, Korean, and German brands were similarly undersized compared to options from Chevy and Dodge. It was Volkswagen that realized there was room for foreign brands to go bigger. The Germans rolled out their massive three-row concept about a decade ago and had a Volkswagen Atlas on American roads just four years later, in 2017. The Atlas's recipe was simple: Provide an acre of sheetmetal at Dollar-Store prices. Quality and driving experience were sacrificed on an altar built of those priorities.
It was a brilliant play, truth be told. Problem is, that formula doesn't hold in 2023. The pandemic and its economic fallout shifted the average transaction price for a vehicle so steeply, that even an Atlas is knocking on the door of near-luxury heavy hitters; In 2018, the cheapest Atlas set you back about $32,000; That base price has risen to $39,075, putting the Atlas in the thick of some very persuasive competition.
This has me thinking about the all-new, 2024 Toyota Grand Highlander, which I drove at the vehicle's launch in Hawaii a couple weeks back. The Grand Highlander follows the formula that VW pioneered, offering a larger, more capacious version of Toyota's Highlander crossover for those who want the extra space and a third-row capable of ferrying adults; With this extra-large offering, Toyota asks, "What if we built an Atlas for Toyota People?"
How do you go about doing that?
Firstly, the Grand Highlander borrows a bit from Toyota SUV design, namely a few styling cues from the now-departed Land Cruiser. Squared-off edges at each end of the car provide maximum interior volume and a corresponding sense of gravitas. There's even a bit of the old Lexus LX mixed in there somewhere. But mostly a Grand Highlander is exactly as the name intones: a larger, boxier, more handsome version of the Highlander CUV.
Those exterior features, including a generous hexagonal grille, hint at the sort of ultra-macho, individualist ethos that sells so many 4Runners, Sequoias. It's a smart play from Toyota.
But inside the Grand Highlander, it's clear that the family is the focal point, not the individual. During their presentation to the media, one Toyota exec mentioned the "chaos" of raising a family. There's beauty in that disorder, she insisted, and the Grand Highlander is the type of vehicle with an interior that's flexible, spacious, and functional enough to navigate that chaos.
The driver's seat, second-row captains' chairs, and even the third row mostly confirm that ambition. That'll be a selling point for many families. I found the first two rows generous on space compared to competitors in the segment (roughly $40k-and-up family mobiles). The third row can't quite fit my 6'2" adult frame without my head hitting the ceiling (in direct conflict with some marketing material we were shown by Toyota), but all the kids in your life—and most adults under 6' tall—will find just enough headroom and ample leg room back there. Those adults will even feel comfortable for a couple hours back there.
A key to that third-row space is a seatback that reclines to allow extra headroom. With the 60/40 split seatback reclined in full, most of the Grand Highlander's 21 cubic feet of cargo space is still available. That's plenty for a family haul to the airport.
Perhaps more important than the available room is how easy it is to access the room within the Grand Highlander. The little foot sill beside either of the second-row captains chairs is handy for ingress and for vaulting into the third row, or to pick a knee up and reach into the cab and pull your kid out of a car seat. That extra space for leverage makes all the difference. Its clear that getting the troops in and out of this vehicle was a priority.
That focus on maximizing space and convenience makes the Grand Highlander feel like a Sienna minivan for people who don’t see themselves as minivan owners, but who still value a minivan's convenience. From a functional perspective, the Grand Highlander beats out most competitors in the Big Crossover Game.
But from a design perspective, the Grand Highlander's interior lags behind the smart offerings from three-row Kias and Mazda. The materials quality, design, and layout all seem geared toward functionality here, which is why this feels more like an Atlas competitor—a vehicle with an MSRP dragged up to luxury-adjacent territory by its footprint, rather than an overt play at luxury from the off.
The Grand Highlander's heated and cooled second-row seats are a bonus in a segment that can often cut corners for passengers who don't sit in the front row. Same goes for the myriad cup holder and charging and cubby options. Like the Atlas before it, the Grand Highlander is truly a car for Americans, those who drink from vessels the size of a bucket and who carry enough crap in their pockets to sink a dinghy.
Toyota offers three powertrain options to motivate its three "grades" of Grand Highlander.
There's a 2.4-liter turbo four-cylinder. This traditional ICE option makes 265 hp at 6000 rpm, and 310 lb-ft down low, from 1700-3600 rpm. The "Hybrid" grade offers 20 fewer horsepower. The Hybrid MAX grade offers 362 horses and 400 lb-ft from those same 2.4 liters. The ICE Grand Highlander routes power through an 8-spee automatic, while the Hybrid uses a CVT, and the Hybrid Max turns to a 6-speed auto. These powerplants motivate the Grand Highlander's curb weight, which fluctuates from 4300 lbs in FWD ICE trim up to 4920 lbs for a loaded Hybrid MAX with AWD.
Toyota estimates that ICE-only Grand Highlanders will reach about 21/28 mpg in the city and on the highway, respectively, so long as the turbo mill is paired to FWD. The AWD gas Grand Highlander loses 1 mpg overall and just a bit more if the vehicle comes loaded with options. The Hybrid grade achieves 34 combined mpg in either FWD or AWD form, while the Hybrid Max, with its added weight, will reach 27 combined mpg.
R&T sampled that range-topping Hybrid MAX and the Grand Highlander's predicted volume seller, the one equipped with the pure ICE drivetrain.
Predictably, the Hybrid MAX grade rolls out its power in an easier, silkier fashion than the noticeably louder four-cylinder. However, Toyota anticipates that very few of its customers will opt for the full-line Hybrid MAX option (around five percent).
Once up to highway speeds, both vehicles sounded equally quiet; it's clear Toyota focused on a civilized experience with the Grand Highlander's interior, via the select application of acoustic glass and sound deadening. From the driver's seat, I could carry out a conversation at low volumes with a passenger in any row of this crossover.
For the passengers up front, there's a pair of comfortable, adjustable seats. There's a familiar and workable pair of displays with all of the safety features, creature comforts, and tech amenities you'd expect from Toyota in 2023.
I found the Grand Highlander comfortably damped across Kona's highways and easy to maneuver on its winding backroads. This isn't a sports car, nor does it pretend to be, but it's responsive enough to feel safe, with a predictable behavior and a unibody's surpassing civility. The Grand Highlander is a versatile, flexible, decent-looking Toyota.
In short, Toyota knows its customers. Toyota People are those pragmatic buyers who, like myself, value a well-earned reputation for reliability and clear-eyed functionality above all else. Their heads aren't turned by German prestige, cutting-edge amenities, or luxury features. Rather, these buyers wear their preference for stolid reliability as a badge of honor. They shop for everything at Costco, wear sensible shoes, and take pride in modesty.
And while much of the press material for Grand Highlander hints at ambitions beyond the Atlas, the Grand Highlander doesn't threaten those three-row entry-lux leaders like the Kia Telluride and Mazda CX-90. Instead, I think it'll offer an alternative to the Atlas, and fill a niche for Toyota Buyers who need a larger Highlander.
There are many of those buyers in the current market; I get the sense that regardless of how Toyota thinks the vehicle is positioned in the market, and how it actually fits within the market, Toyota will sell as many Grand Highlanders as they can make. My neighbors waited many many months for a Highlander Hybrid, despite my insistence on looking at alternatives. They love their new Toyota.
For the money, and for the record, I'd steer friends and family members and R&T readers toward a similarly priced Kia Telluride or a Mazda CX-9 (0r the new CX-90). These vehicles offer slightly less usable interior volume across their three rows, from my experience, but both crossovers offer superior driving dynamics, more compelling powertrain options, luxurious interior appointments, and better design both inside and out. They're better vehicles, in my opinion, full stop.
However, neither of those competitors offer a Toyota badge, and for many that will be the deciding factor. The cheapest Grand Highlander, a gas-powered FWD XLE will sell at an MSRP of $43,070. A loaded Platinum Hybrid MAX will set you back $58,125. In that price range, buyers are blessed with a bevy of options and we always suggest exploring those options during the buying process.
But if you're the type of person who buys Toyota, and you need the biggest crossover they've got, the Grand Highlander is the right large Toyota for you.
You Might Also Like