Road trips are the jam on my wanderlust biscuits. They're the icing on my travel cake. I love road trips so much I created a whole new website, Drive By Towns, and am launching a book series (first volume out this November!), Two Lane Gems, dedicated to heading out on the open road.
Unfortunately, despite this love of four-wheeled tourism, our current vehicle is a 2005 sedan that's nearing 170,000 miles. It's in decent shape considering its age, but the cruise control hasn't worked since 2011, neither has the sound system, and we're at the point where we have to invest at least a grand every year to keep her running. Not exactly road trip ready.
Fortunately, I've partnered with Driveshop, which means I can test out new vehicles when I have some exploring to do. This means I get to put cars through the road trip ringer and then tell you both the good and the bad, so when you're in the market for your perfect road trip car, you know what to expect.
Last month I introduced you to Grace, a lovely Mazda crossover. In this episode of Theresa Test Drives, I bring you Bruce, a 2017 Toyota Highlander Limited V6 AWD. This rugged gent ferried us from Elgin, Illinois, to Terre Haute to Hendricks County to Lafayette, Indiana, and back, and didn't issue a single complaint when we asked him to carry our bikes to the Fox River Trail. In fact, he said "What? That's all you got?"
This was my first time driving a mid-size SUV. At 5'4", I'm borderline petite, but the step to get in wasn't too steep. As soon as I was up there, though, I felt like I could plow over anything in my way. "You think you can cut me off, you puny little two-door? Ha! I sit on your roof!" Not really, Driveshop. Please don't take my toys - I mean reliable means of transportation - away. I'll behave. I promise.
Bruce, a.k.a. Mr. Toyota Highlander, handled much more smoothly than I thought he would, although I did remark that he drove like a truck. (My husband's comment: "Ya' think?") More accurately, he drove like I thought a truck would handle, if it purred so quietly you had to check to make sure the engine was on (which sometimes it wasn't, and that was a good thing. More on that later.) and had super smooth acceleration.
So what's Bruce really like, you ask?
Let's start with his looks. His exterior is oh-so-fine. I mean, look at those lines!
Inside, he's got more room than my first studio apartment. The second row is two captain chairs, which makes it easy to get to the third row. All together, we could have fit seven people inside his spacious environs.
What really surprised me was when we folded the seats down so we could take our bikes for a ride. There was so much space we could have packed our giant cooler in there along with some chairs and made a picnic of it. It's surprising, because he doesn't look that big from the outside. (Does that mean Bruce is the TARDIS of mid-size SUVs?)
In the category of "little things making a big difference," I loved the in dash shelf, which stretched from the driver's side to the passenger door. It was a perfect place to store our phones while they were charging, and there's a pop-up tab so you can thread the cords through the shelf to the USB ports below. It keeps the interior a little more nice and tidy, and that's definitely an important consideration when you're in a vehicle for awhile.
See that dashboard? Look at all those buttons and stuff you can push! There's a navigation system (which is a little confusing), a great audio system (JBL speakers), and independent climate controls. Not pictured are the dials to either heat or cool your seats. Tip: if you turn it to cool, you'll hear some white noise. That's just the fan in the seat kicking in.
You can connect your bluetooth and go handsfree, and a lot of the important controls are right at the driver's fingertips.
I also liked that the center console had two doors: one that pushed back to reveal most of the chamber, and a smaller door that could be pushed down, creating a perfect place to store that tube of Pringles upright so it doesn't take up one of the cupholders. If you're a road tripper, you know this is vital.
Another nice feature is the built in sunshades. Parents love them for the kids; road trippers love them because people can't peek in the windows and see your stuff. Either way, kudos to Toyota for including them.
Their safety features are decent, if a little bossy. You do not have to worry about running into anyone or anything. Bruce won't let you. He'll not-so-subtly warn you anytime you get close to the edge of the road, are about to back up into something, or try to get into a lane that's not yet available.
Under the hood is the aforementioned V6. It's a 3.5-liter direct-injection engine with an 8-speed Automatic Transmission. Translated: that baby can move. It also gets higher fuel efficiency. While it's estimated to get 27 mpg highway, we averaged about 29 during our 600+ miles.
One of the reasons for this efficiency freaked me out the first time we drove Bruce. I was getting ready to back up and he kind of jumped. It felt like I ran over something. What actually happened was that his engine had turned off before I backed out. This, I found out later, was intentional. It's Toyota's Stop and Start Engine System. When you come to a complete stop, the engine shuts off. As soon as you release the brake pedal, it turns back on again. It's a little discomfitting at first, because I was worried I'd get stuck when the stoplight turned green, but it started up immediately every time. And hey, if it's helping to reduce emissions? I'm all for it.
My only regret with Bruce is that I didn't get to test that All Wheel Drive.
Make that two regrets - I had to give him back.
Click here to learn more about the Toyota Highlander.
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