Born in the USA

ROB MAETZIG
Last updated 09:21 26/02/2014
Toyota Highlander full

The new Toyota Highlander

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Toyota New Zealand claims its Highlander has been at the forefront of the big change in vehicle preferences towards SUVs.

"These days everyone seems to want an SUV," said TNZ's general manager of product planning Neeraj Lala at the media launch of the third- generation Highlander in Auckland last week. Underlining his opinion was the fact that last year SUV sales grew 17 per cent to 28,290 - clearly the biggest segment in the new vehicle sales chart.

"People are buying SUVs because these vehicles offer the best balance between work and play," said Lala. "So we think that right now is the perfect time to launch the new model." The first-generation Highlander was available in New Zealand between 2003 and 2007 and a total of 1214 of them were sold. The second generation model achieved 7386 sales between 2007 and last year. Now Toyota NZ is expecting further sales growth with the new model - in fact it has sent out 9000 test drive invitations to prospective customers.

And those customers will be driving a vehicle that will have been built in the United States - a first for a Toyota sold in New Zealand. The previous two models were sourced from Japan, but this time it comes from a massive plant in Indiana which directly and indirectly employs 17,000 workers. The new Highlanders get here via a long sea journey that goes from Baltimore in the US's east coast, through the Panama Canal, and on to Auckland via Papeete.

What the new Highlander will offer the potential customers is a better balance between work and play, said Lala. Sitting longer, lower and wider, the vehicle debuts a number of new features including an upgraded interior that will appeal to business and recreation alike.

Not only that, but Toyota has recognised the changing requirements of many New Zealand SUV drivers with the addition of a new entry level 2WD GXL, which adds higher specification for buyers who want a little more luxury, but without the need for a full all-wheel drive.

Meanwhile, the AWD range has been expanded from two to four grades. The AWD GX arrives with 18-inch alloys, rear parking sensors, engine immobiliser and alarm system, while the AWD GXL adds leather trim among other key features.

An AWD Limited grade adds unique 19-inch alloys, while a Limited ZR arrives with exclusive chrome-plated alloys. Both vehicles also receive a power back door with an opening glass hatch for extra convenience.

Building on an already well- specified Limited model, the new Limited ZR adds extra features including Toyota's Active Cruise Control technology which keeps the driver at a safe distance from vehicles in front, as well as Lane Departure Alert and Pre-Crash safety systems including Pre- Crash Brake Assist.

The new Highlander heralds a total re-evaluation of the SUV's exterior design; new bumper, grille and new LED headlights on Limited and Limited ZR models are framed by a unique chrome- plated bar which runs the entire width of the SUV's nose. Along the Highlander's flanks, black trim detailing surrounds each flared wheel arch and blackout pillars give the window line a unified look. At the rear, the new design provides a solid, stable stance.

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Inside, the centre console is organised around a central display screen for the six-speaker audio system, which also features a standard auxiliary USB port and is linked to the Bluetooth system for hands-free calling.

Underlining the improved family-friendly practicality of the seven-seater SUV layout, the new Highlander boasts revised walk- in accessibility to the third row seating. Increased foot space inside the rear doors - there is 70mm more than the previous generation Highlander - makes getting in and out of the rear much easier, as do entry and exit handles which have also been incorporated in the rear quarter panels.

Expanding the cargo space of the Highlander was a key goal in this third generation model's development. The new vehicle's extra length combined with a revised rear suspension design has resulted in a big increase in available space behind the third row of seats - load space length has gone up 155mm, height is up 85mm, and the width has expanded 20mm.

Up front, the Highlander's 3.5-litre petrol V6 continues to offer 201kW of power and 337Nm of torque. Standard across the range is a new six-speed automatic gearbox featuring artificial intelligence shift control, which intuitively alters gear ratio shift patterns in response to road conditions and driver intentions. The driver can also select gear ratios manually through the gearbox's sequential S mode.

The four AWD models feature what is known as Dynamic Torque Control, which controls the distribution of torque to the front and rear wheels in response to driving conditions, helping to ensure predictable handling and stability for all roads and situations.

Nominally split 50:50 between front and rear wheels, the Dynamic Torque Control system can, for example, place greater drive force at the front wheels when cruising, or shift the control emphasis towards the rear wheels when encountering icy or unstable surfaces.

All 2014 Highlanders feature a comprehensive suite of active and passive safety technology as standard, including ABS (Anti- Lock Braking System), EBD (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution) and BA (Brake Assist), as well as TRC (Traction Control) which aids in maintaining traction when moving off on metalled or slippery surfaces, Hill-Start Assist and Downhill Assist Control, which helps when negotiating steep descents where engine braking alone is not sufficient.

All models also feature rear parking sensors and a reversing monitor to help place the vehicle precisely when reversing or parallel parking. Limited and Limited ZR models also feature a blind spot monitoring system.

The Highlander range has achieved five-star crash safety ratings. Three-point ELR (Emergency Locking Retractor) seatbelts are present in all seven seating positions, with two ISOFIX child-seat anchoring points available in the second row. All Highlanders have seven SRS airbags fitted including front, driver's knee airbag, front side airbags and curtain shield airbags.

Whereas the second-generation Highlander range was priced from $55,280 for a 2WD version through to $67,780 for a Limited, this new range begins at $59,990 for the base GX model with all- wheel drive, with the higher- specified 2WD version now costing $61,990. The rest of the range - all of them AWD - then moves upwards in price to top out at $80,990 for the Limited ZR.

- Taranaki Daily News

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