Hawaii’s Big Island is every bit as beautiful as postcards would lead you to believe. Two-hundred-year-old volcanic rock spewed from two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, trickles down to the coast on one side of the island, while lush forests ripe with coffee fields cover the other. But in order to explore all that geo- and biodiversity, you’ll need a vehicle big enough for the whole ohana.
I have the keys to the 2023 Toyota Grand Highlander, which comes with two efficient hybrid powertrains and a spacious, premium cabin with enough room for eight passengers and all their stuff. Positioned snugly between the often-too-small Highlander and the truck-based Sequoia, Toyota has front-runners like the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride in its sights with this newly minted SUV.
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|Quick Stats||2024 Toyota Grand Highlander Limited Hybrid Max|
|Engine:||Turbocharged 2.4-Liter I4 Hybrid|
|Output:||362 Horsepower / 400 Pound-Feet|
|Efficiency:||26 City / 27 Highway / 27 Combined|
|Base Price:||$43,070 + $1,335 Destination|
|On-Sale Date:||Summer 2023|
The Bigger The Bolder
The Grand Highlander is technically the sixth three-row in Toyota’s lineup, and similar to what Jeep did with the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee decades ago, marketing execs believe the Highlander has enough cachet to warrant another entirely different SUV with the same branding. And 3.3 million models sold over a lifetime would certainly back up that thinking. But these two SUVs really couldn’t be more visually different.
The Grand Highlander certainly isn’t the best-looking SUV in the class. It has proportion odds with an unusual amount of visual mass dangling over each axle. There’s a too-huge lower grille that takes up a ton of real estate on the front end, and without the Limited or Platinum model’s 20-inch wheels, the base Grand Highlander’s 18-inchers make it look like a bodybuilder that skipped leg day.
That said, there are a few design cues that I really like. The front and rear light fixtures are sharp, the front bumper has great angles, and there’s a silvery trim piece just above the upper grille that looks like funky futuristic facial hair – like in that episode of Bob’s Burgers where he had a metal Robo-stache.
The interior is mostly excellent. The Platinum model uses high-quality leather plentifully while the base XLE opts for pleather instead. With the former, the seats, door panels, center console, and dash are all covered in the genuine stuff – even higher up where most people won’t usually reach. And Toyota opted for rubberized buttons and controls, which I much prefer to the flimsy chintzy metal dials all too common in other SUVs. The only thing I didn’t like were the interior trim options; Both the faux wood and geometric black plastic look and feel cheap for an otherwise premium cabin.
The seats are soft with solid bolstering, but they’re not very form-fitting. I felt like I was sitting on top of them rather than in them. And why would Toyota not offer extended thigh support? The Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade both have it, and those chairs are already more form-fitting. My lanky 6-foot frame made it feel like it was sliding off the edge of the seats with how short the cushion was.
At least the front chairs are heated across the board (not that I used it while I drove around Hawaii). The Limited adds ventilation up front (as well as 10-way power adjustability) and heating in the second row, while the Platinum goes all in with heating and ventilation in the front and middle rows. The only way to get a panoramic moonroof is on the Platinum grade, but otherwise, the Limited and Platinum are pretty closely matched in terms of features.
Climb into the second row and the captain’s chairs suffer from the same limited support as the front buckets. At least they’re soft. The third row, though, is big enough for two adults to sit back there comfortably for long stretches thanks to above-average headroom and legroom. On top of that, the Grand Highlander boasts the second-best cargo space behind the third row – a healthy 20.6 cubic feet.
|Interior Dimensions:||Headroom, Front/Mid/Rear:||Legroom, Front/Mid/Rear:||Cargo Volume:|
|Toyota Grand Highlander||41.5 / 40.2 / 37.2 Inches||41.7 / 39.5 / 33.5 Inches||20.6 / 57.9 / 97.5 Cubic Feet|
|Ford Explorer||40.7 / 40.5 / 38.9 Inches||43.0 / 39.0 / 32.2 Inches||18.2 / 47.9 / 87.8 Cubic Feet|
|Hyundai Palisade||40.7 / 40.1 / 37.8 Inches||44.1 / 42.4 / 31.4 Inches||18.0 / 45.8 / 86.4 Cubic Feet|
|Jeep Grand Cherokee L||39.8 / 39.9 / 37.3 Inches||41.3 / 39.4 / 30.3 Inches||17.2 / 46.9 / 84.6 Cubic Feet|
|Kia Telluride||40.9 / 40.2 / 38.1 Inches||44.1 / 42.4 / 31.4 Inches||21.0 / 46.0 / 87.0 Cubic Feet|
Every Grand Highlander gets a standard 12.3-inch touchscreen with Toyota’s seamless Audio Multimedia System equipped, the same one found on everything from the new Tacoma to the Lexus RX. The home screen is clean, responses are smartphone-quick, and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto make connecting your own device a breeze. The Grand Highlander even has a “Hey, Toyota” voice command system that responds nicely to commands – but there’s still no quick-access home button, which might drive some people mad.
The Limited and Platinum models boast a bigger 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster as opposed to the base 7.0-inch cluster, but it’s way too busy. Speed, maps, road signs, driving directions, safety systems, and on the Hybrid Max model, power delivery, all clutter up the cluster to an annoying level. The Platinum at least adds a head-up display that helps alleviate some of that visual assault with a few options projected onto the windscreen. And the Platinum also gets a rearview mirror camera that I could take or leave; The projection is clear but the perspective is wonky.
Safety Sense 3.0 is standard across all trims, and that includes a pre-collision warning with pedestrian detection, full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane-tracing, and road-sign assist. The Platinum model even adds a traffic jam assist function, which brings the Grand Highlander all the way down to zero in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Highlander To The Max
Here’s where you really want to spend your money, though: the powertrain. The base Grand Highlander’s turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is probably fine enough if you don’t live anywhere with elevation. But its 265 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque felt like barely enough to keep the 4,500-pound SUV at speed around the Hawaiian hills; acceleration is sluggish, the sound is lawnmower-ish, and I really have to keep my foot buried to keep up with traffic flow. Not that the Telluride or Palisade are particularly speedy either, but the alternative V6 still feels more robust.
The mid-range hybrid with the 2.5-liter engine, meanwhile, is even less powerful than the base four-cylinder delivering just 245 hp by comparison. But it’s also the most efficient of the group returning up to 34 mpg combined compared to the base model’s 33 mpg.
On the flip side, the so-called “Hybrid Max” powertrain might be the best option in the entire class. It combines the same turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder from the base model with a battery pack and motors on each axle, giving this version of the Grand Highlander a healthy 362 hp and 400 lb-ft, although efficiency drops to 27 mpg combined – still better than the Telluride, Palisade, and Ford Explorer.
And the Hybrid Max is surprisingly fast, almost like a RAV4 Prime without the plug. It hustles up those same hilly Hawaiin roads that challenged the base gas model, no problem. Even with a curb weight of nearly 5,000 pounds with the Max powertrain, standard all-wheel drive, and Platinum features, the instant torque from the electric motors and the added oomph from the uptuned engine have no issues moving the massive three-row uphill with decent speed. The Hybrid Max will hit 60 miles per hour in just 6.3 seconds – a full 1.2 seconds faster than the next-best gas model.
The base Grand Highlander uses an unobtrusive eight-speed automatic and the hybrid gets a CVT. Strangely though, the Hybrid Max uses an old-school six-speed auto that definitely feels clunkier than the better eight-speed. At least the transition between the electric motors and the gas engine is seamless. And while Hybrid Max does have a low-speed EV mode that kicks on and off automatically, there is no dedicated EV button.
Even with all that weighty battery power onboard, the Grand Highlander handles well for a three-row. The suspension borders on too stiff when cruising compared to some of the softer SUVs in the segment like the Nissan Pathfinder and Volkswagen Atlas, but it makes up for that slight rigidity with excellent cornering abilities that help shrink the SUV in corners. The perfectly mid-weighted steering delivers just enough road feel while there’s a shockingly minimal amount of body roll – especially for such a big SUV.
Bang for your bucks
The highs and lows of the Toyota Grand Highlander make it hard to instantly recommend in one of the toughest segments anywhere. But there’s certainly something to be said about the Hybrid Max powertrain and the comfortable, well-equipped interior. And obviously, your eyes may paint a different picture than mine when it comes to styling.
One thing that’s indisputable is the price. The 2023 Grand Highlander starts at $44,405 (with the $1,335 destination included), which makes it nearly $10,000 more expensive than the base Telluride, Palisade, or Atlas. The hybrid starts at $46,005 and the Hybrid Max costs at least $55,375, while the Limited Hybrid Max – the one I drove – will set you back $59,460.
Granted, the Grand Highlander doesn’t feel as luxurious as a loaded Hyundai Palisade Calligraphy – which would only cost you about $55,000. But the Toyota has better third-row cargo space, better fuel economy, and a powertrain that delivers more shove than basically any alternative. It’s not perfect, but the 2023 Grand Highlander definitely ticks a number of boxes for swathes of shoppers.
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