By Derek Price
CNHI News Service
— I usually don't pay much attention to the engine in Toyota products.
If I'm driving a sports car, I might get all nerdy about the lightweight construction and drool over the high-tech, electronic variable-vale whatchamacallit. But Toyotas are merely Toyotas — practical, comfortable and reliable.
Weirdly, though, I was smitten by the 3.5-liter V6 engine in Toyota's Highlander crossover I drove this week. It's powerful, producing a muscle-car-like 270 horsepower, and sounds inspiring with a throaty exhaust note.
The V6 is the bigger of two engines Toyota offers in the Highlander — the other being a 2.7-liter four-cylinder that makes 187 horses — but the fuel economy figures make the bigger engine a no-brainer if you can afford it.
It makes 44 percent more power but is rated for just 1 mpg worse on the highway.
According to the EPA's figures for a two-wheel-drive Highlander, you'll get 25 mpg on the highway with four cylinders and 24 mpg if you opt for the V6. That's amazing.
Aside from the surprisingly good V6, the Highlander simply lives up to expectations as a Toyota crossover.
It's quiet, smooth riding and car-like in demeanor, despite having a high ride height and boxy body that make it look like an SUV. It has three rows of seats, although cargo space is pretty limited when you have people sitting in the third row.
Carrying three rows of passengers and their bulky luggage for a road trip would be tough. With the third row folded down, though, it's got plenty of cargo room to offer SUV-like versatility. If you need to haul a big dresser home from the furniture store, you can fold the seats flat and treat the Highlander like a plush moving van.
Toyota has rearranged the Highlander's standard equipment and option packages for 2013. In addition to the base model, it's available in the new Highlander Plus trim that replaces the old Tech Package and adds several popular features, including a back-up camera. It's also available in SE and Limited grades that come standard with the V6 engine.
Finally, it's available as an all-wheel-drive hybrid that's rated for 28 mpg in both city and highway driving.
One big plus on the features list is Entune, which is Toyota's multimedia system that talks to your cell phone. It can make phone calls, play music from your smartphone and connect to online apps such as Bing, iHeartRadio, OpenTable and Pandora. It uses voice recognition for some features, too.
Pricing starts at $29,715 for the base Highlander, which doesn't seem like a stripped-down model at all. It comes standard with rear climate control, an eight-way adjustable driver's seat, keyless entry, cruise control, and power windows, doors and locks.
The top-end model is the Hybrid Limited at $47,015. You can also get Limited trim with two-wheel drive and without the hybrid powertrain for $38,645.
What was tested?
2013 Toyota Highlander Limited AWD ($40,095). Options: None. Price as tested: $40,095.
Why buy it?
If you opt for the V6, it has ample power and good fuel economy. It enjoys Toyota's reputation for dependability and comfort.
The SUV-like styling is starting to look a bit dated.