2024 Toyota Grand Highlander First Drive Review: A Grand Slam

First Drive / 19 Comments

Customers asked for a bigger Highlander, and Toyota answered.

The 2024 Toyota Grand Highlander is a three-row midsize SUV that sits above the standard Highlander as a new, separate model. By introducing a new crossover above the aforementioned Highlander - but below the body-on-frame Sequoia - Toyota seeks to address a key complaint that exists with both of those models: inferior cargo and passenger room compared to rivals. We noticed the lack of passenger space on the regular Highlander when we tried to fit six adults into it for a bachelor's weekend away. The Grand Highlander tackles this consumer feedback head-on, offering a third row that's finally spacious enough for adults and a trunk that's bigger than any crossover not called the Chevrolet Traverse.

Along with the increased interior volume, the Grand Highlander introduces a turbocharged Hybrid Max powertrain option on top of the Highlander's available gas and standard hybrid setups. The Hybrid Max is the brute of the bunch with 362 horsepower, while the gas and hybrid deliver 265 and 245 hp, respectively.

Toyota has grand expectations for the new Grand Highlander, with plans to sell over 100,000 units per year - which is why CarBuzz was flown all the way to Kona, Hawaii, to drive it. Here's how the Grand Highlander stacks up in a crowded segment:

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Exterior: Bigger, But Bland

Toyota went to great lengths to give the Grand Highlander it's own unique styling; it's not just a stretched Highlander, although it is larger. That being said, the Grand Highlander is six and a half inches longer, 2.3 inches wider, and two inches taller than the standard Highlander.

Up front, the grille features a trapezoidal hammerhead shape, and the side profile features a taller greenhouse. At the back, you can spot a Hybrid Max via its badging and dual exhaust tips. Available colors include Storm Cloud (new), Wind Chill Pearl (optional), Ruby Flare Pearl (optional), Midnight Black Metallic, Blueprint, Coastal Cream (new), and Celestial Silver Metallic. Ruby Flare is by far our favorite.

We only have one major complaint about the Grand Highlander; the styling is pretty bland. Particularly in XLE guise with the base 18-inch wheels, the Grand Highlander doesn't look so grand. Things get a little better on the Limited and Platinum grades, both of which get 20-inch wheels that vary in design based on the powertrain. This model seems ripe for the special edition treatment, perhaps a stealthy Nightshade Edition like on other Toyota products, or a premium Bronze Edition... maybe even a rugged Woodland Edition?

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Interior: Premium Family Bus

Depending on which trim you opt for, the Grand Highlander goes from pretty nice to outright swanky. All trims get a 12.3-inch touchscreen as standard, powered by Toyota's latest infotainment system with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The XLE grade uses a seven-inch Multi-Information Display (MID) gauge cluster, while the Limited and Platinum versions upgrade to a 12.3-inch fully digital display that looks more high-tech. All of the technology in the cabin is clear, concise, and easy to understand at first glance.

Standard features include heated seats, power driver and passenger seats, second-row sunshades, heated mirrors, wireless charging, a power liftgate, and more. The materials are among Toyota's most premium, even in the XLE grade with SofTex, and the Ultrasuede seats with bronze accents (exclusive to the Platinum Hybrid Max) are near-Lexus quality. Available luxuries include heated and ventilated front and second-row seats, a panoramic roof, a head-up display, traffic jam assist, and more.

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Where the Highlander struggles with a mediocre second row and a pitiful third row, the Grand Highlander excels with the most combined legroom of any midsize crossover in its class. With 41.7 inches up front, 39.5 inches in the middle, and 33.5 inches in the back, not even the massive Traverse can compete with the Grand Highlander's leg space. Put in less numeric terms, you can fit grown adults in all three rows comfortably.

Getting into the third row is pretty easy, too, requiring a lever pull to slide the middle seats forward in one motion. There is a large gap to access those rear seats and even a special footwell cutout to make it easier to step up into the vehicle. Buyers can get eight seats on the XLE model, but the Limited and Platinum models are limited to seven seats with captain's chairs and a removable center console.

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Powertrains: Gas, Hybrid, Hybrid Max

Toyota offers three powertrains in the Grand Highlander: gas, hybrid, and Hybrid Max. The gas powertrain is the same as the standard Highlander: a 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder producing 265 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. Output goes to the front wheels or optional all-wheel-drive through an eight-speed automatic transmission. 0-60 takes around 7.5 seconds, and fuel economy is rated at 21/28/24 mpg city/highway/combined with FWD or 21/27/23 with AWD (20/26/22 in Platinum guise).

"Upgrading" to the hybrid actually lowers the output to 245 hp from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and two electric motors. With less power, the hybrid is a bit slower to 60 mph - you'll need around 7.8 seconds. Fuel economy is the trade-off, as the hybrid manages stellar ratings of up to 36/32/34 (35/31/33 in Limited AWD guise). Nothing in this size category even comes close.

The Hybrid Max attempts to combine power and fuel economy into one package. A 2.4-liter turbocharged engine combined with two electric motors to produce 362 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque - or even more on premium fuel. AWD is standard with a six-speed automatic transmission. This is the quickest Grand Highlander, at 6.3 seconds to 60 mph, and fuel economy is 26/27/27, which is better than the Platinum gas with AWD.

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Driving Impressions: Grander Highlander

We had the chance to drive all three powertrains, and the two hybrids came away as our favorites. Toyota's gasoline powertrain is fine, but it lacks the efficiency of the hybrid and the brute force of the Hybrid Max. The lack of power in the hybrid may turn buyers away, but we'd happily trade speed for best-in-class fuel economy. What the hybrid lacks in muscle, it makes up for with responsiveness. The direct drive (eCVT) makes this the most eager powertrain of the bunch since it can instantly change ratios without physically swapping gears in a transmission.

If you can afford the upgrade, the Hybrid Max is the star, bundling reasonable fuel economy with one of the highest outputs in the class. Outside of the V8 Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee L, nothing else compares in terms of power. Acceleration is smooth and effortless, and the engine note is more sporting than the fluid drone from the standard hybrid.

All three powertrains feel quieter than the regular Highlander, thanks to increased sound deadening. Ride comfort is decent, and body control is anything but sloppy. Think of this as a Highlander that bulked up but kept its athleticism.

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Practicality: Massive Space

In the regular Highlander, owners needed to choose between having passengers or cargo. This dilemma no longer exists in the Grand Highlander. Even with the third row in place, the Grand Highlander offers 20.6 cubic feet of space, which Toyota says could fit seven carry-on suitcases stacked to the roof. And don't worry, you can still see out of the back thanks to the rearview camera mirror. Folding the third row opens the trunk to 57.9 cubic feet, which is impressive.

Toyota's method for folding the second row requires two lever pulls, which is a bit difficult to execute with one hand. Other vehicles in the segment make the process easier, but once the seats are down, the Grand Highlander becomes cavernous with 97.5 cubes. Only the Chevy Traverse (98.2 cubic feet) offers more before you get into full-size SUVs.

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Trunk Space
Trunk Space with Third Row Folded

Pricing & Verdict: The Right Highlander

Since the Grand Highlander starts at the XLE grade, which is typically a mid-level trim for Toyota, it has a much higher starting price than the Highlander. The XLE gas starts at $43,070 (add $1,600 for AWD). That's significantly more than a base Highlander, which starts at $36,620, but if you compare apples to apples with a Highlander XLE, upgrading to the Grand Highlander only costs an additional $1,050. Stepping up to the Limited brings the price to $47,860, and the Platinum trim comes with standard AWD for $53,545.

Opting for the hybrid incurs the same $1,600 premium as adding AWD, so the XLE hybrid starts at $44,670. This trim is also available in the Limited grade with AWD for $51,060, but is not offered in Platinum guise.

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Hybrid Max models start at $54,040 for the Limited and $58,125 for Platinum and both include AWD as standard. In our opinion, the Limited is the trim to get since it will save over four grand and only misses out on a few features over the Platinum, some of which can be added optionally. In fact, the Limited Hybrid Max is only $495 more than the Platinum gas and offers more power and better fuel economy.

Toyota set out to build a bigger, better Highlander, and it achieved those goals and more. The Grand Highlander is not only bigger than the Highlander, but it's also one of the most spacious vehicles in its class. While other competitors offer a gas V6 and nothing else, Toyota gives customers three excellent powertrain choices, including the most fuel-efficient option and one of the most powerful outside of an SRT-powered Durango. With the addition of the Grand, the Highlander goes from a vehicle we'd only recommend for fuel economy to perhaps the most compelling package in its segment. Toyota knocked it out of the park with the Grand Highlander.

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