An auto review for the average driver ... Each week, The Tribune will feature a different automobile, test driven by me, the average driver. Stop by our office, 18525 West Lake Houston Parkway, if you would like to see the latest car or go for a ride! The all-new Highlander was certainly new to me, as I had never driven one prior to this test drive. I can honestly say that I like virtually everything about this vehicle. The Highlander’s versatility is great. Want an SUV that handles like a car? Done. Like the five-passenger SUV but sometimes need room for seven without driving a really big vehicle? Done. Like the room of an SUV but want to be green? Done. According to Toyota, the new Highlander is larger in length and width than its predecessor, but gas mileage has improved. You can get the very nicely equipped Limited 4X2, with many options added, for right at $40,000. I know that 40 grand is no small sum, but compared with comparably equipped, mid-size SUVs, it’s not bad at all. The standard package price ranges from $27,300 (Base) to $39,950 (Hybrid Limited). The Limited that I drove had the standard 3.5-liter DOHC V-6 engine. Mileage is reported to be 18 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway in the Limited. There are three models available: the Base, Sport and Limited, with two- or four-wheel drive. If you want the hybrid, they’re equipped with four-wheel drive – Base and Limited only. Rather than bore you with the list of standard and available equipment, I’ll just say that you can, for the most part, get as few or as many of the latest new features available as you like. This is a vehicle that I would be willing to sacrifice some on looks to get the rest of the package. The good news is that it’s not necessary because it looks really nice, without looking like it’s trying too hard. The first thing that I noticed when I took it for a drive was that it was very easy to get into. Many SUVs that can seat seven are so high in profile that without a running board, you would need a running start. Not so with the Highlander. I thought that a shorter person might disagree, but my 5’2” Cute Little German Mother said, “Dis is so easy to get in.” She liked it so well, and she’s test-ridden many with me, that she announced, “I could ride to Canada in dis one.” The seats are very comfortable and the ride is quiet, both for engine and road noise. It’s so quiet that I had to get into the peripheral view of a group of ladies walking side-by-side down a street in Old Town Spring. I didn’t honk because I didn’t want to scare them. None of them heard the car and turned around until I was within view from the side, trying to maneuver around them. The second-row seat incorporates some clever engineering. You can have two bucket seats that recline and move forward and back, with armrests. You can also have a bench for when you need to get a third person or a car seat in the center. The 40/20/40 design allows that the small, center seat be removed to leave the buckets with a handy pass-thru to the third row, or just slide a cup holder console (optional), stored in back of the front center console, into the space between the second row seats. The third row is so well designed that I didn’t actually realize it was there until I noticed the cup holders back there. You just tug on a loop and up it goes, but it can be completely concealed under the large, carpeted mat in the cargo area. If you have more cargo than passengers, you can fold the second and third rows flat, or the third row and part of the second. As for safety, the new Highlander has seven airbags: driver and front passenger; front, seat-mounted side; driver’s knee airbag; and roll-sensing side curtain airbags. The only things I didn’t love were the cup holders and the radio controls. The number of cup holders is great at 10, but I don’t like the little rubber insert in the front that comes out with your cup and falls into your lap. I also like to be able to set my radio stations without having to read about how to do it. Other than those two little setbacks, it’s awesome. I really think that if you’re considering a new car, SUV or minivan, you should really take this one for a spin before you pick your favorite.

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