2024 Toyota Grand Highlander Review: Un-minivan

Toyota/Nathan Leach-Proffer

Follow my watch with your eyes. Back and forth. Back and forth. You’re getting sleepy, very sleepy, as you follow my watch and listen to my voice. Your eyelids are getting heavy as you slowly drift into a slumber. When I snap my fingers, you will wake up and desire a three-row midsize SUV.

One day Americans woke and collectively decided minivans were super lame. These practical people movers became a symbol of suburbanites who had given up on their dreams and ambitions, and thus it suffered the same dismissal fate as the once-beloved station wagon. There remained, however, a need to haul kids to school and swim practice.

People turned to SUVs. These midsize utes were less adept at doing family stuff at first, but once manufacturers added third-row seating—paramount if your 1.94 kids want to bring friends along—it was game over for the minivan. So far this year, Americans have purchased close to a million three-row midsize SUVs, with the most popular being the Toyota Highlander. To put that into perspective, only 147,000 minivans have sold in the same time period.

It’s no surprise, then, that Toyota is looking to expand its offerings in the segment. The Highlander, while a perfectly cromulent crossover, is lacking in cargo and passenger space compared to the Sienna minivan. Really—is here any way to comfortably haul the travel soccer team and all their stuff down to Beavercreek without sliding doors? Will I have to *shudder* rent a van?

Toyota’s new salvo in the war on minivans aims to put that conundrum to bed. Enter the Grand Highlander. Toyota took a page out Mopar’s book and used the prefix “Grand” to indicate that this SUV is the long one. Coming in at 201 inches, the Grand Highlander is 6 inches longer than than the regular Highlander. While 6 inches may not sound like a lot, the increased length grants the Grand Highlander 13.2 more cubic feet of cargo space compared to the regular Highlander’s 84.3 cubic feet.

The extra space is noticeable. During a short driving event at Toyota’s Michigan R&D center, I rode around in the back of the Grand Highlander for a 30-minute stint. It wasn’t quite as roomy as the Sienna, but I felt less claustrophobic than the Grand Highlander’s shorter competitors like the Ford Explorer and Kia Telluride. Your 5’11” author even found the third row to be comfortable once the second-row captain’s chairs were moved forward to accommodate my knees. (A bench seat can be optioned on some variants.) Headroom is excellent, even in “the way-back.”

The rest of the interior is well equipped for kid-hauling duties. There are 13 cupholders so the whole soccer team can double-fist Gatorades on the way to the game. And, at least on the base XLE models, the SofTex synthetic leather seats will be easy to clean when one of those kids inevitably spills their Gatorade. Seven USB-C charging ports are placed throughout the three rows, so everyone can play Subway Surfers without worrying about draining their phone’s battery. Upfront, a giant 12.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system is equally useful for navigating to the game and blasting Jock Jams.

Because the Grand Highlander is a such practical vehicle, the styling isn’t particularly sexy. Rakish rooflines and rear headroom don’t go hand-in-hand. It wears the same conservative cooperate headlight and grille treatment as the rest of Toyota’s non-sporting lineup. The color choices, mostly grays and desaturated blues, leave something to be desired.  If you aren’t keen on blending into traffic, the added-cost Ruby Flare Pearl paint paired with 20-inch chrome wheels is the way to go.

The three powertrain options are where the Grand Highlander gets interesting. The base model comes with a four-cylinder, turbocharged 2.4-liter system good for 265 hp and as much as 24 mpg combined. The next rung up is naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with a hybrid system, will net you an 20 fewer horsepower and return 34 mpg combined. At the top of the heap sits a 362-horsepower, 2.4-liter turbocharged hybrid dubbed Hybrid MAX yielding 27 mpg combined. You know, in case those kids need to get to school fast. The regular hybrid and the gas engine can be equipped with either front- or all-wheel drive, and each powertrain gets its own transmission: eight-speed auto for the base engine, CVT for the mid-grade hybrid, and six-speed auto for the Hybrid Max.

Toyota expects the base powertrain (non-hybrid, turbo-four) to be the volume seller. I was able to briefly sample this powertrain in Grand Highlander XLE ($44,465), and I also got some time in a $59,520, fully loaded Platinum with the Hybrid MAX setup.

Let’s start with the MAX, because it was actually kind of fun, if not a bit silly for the vehicle it powers. All Hybrid MAXes come with shift paddles and selectable drive modes, as if anyone is going to use them. I placed the system into Sport mode and stood on the throttle. It’s quick, for sure, with a nice low-end shove courtesy of 400 lb-ft of torque. Confusingly, the hybrid system emitted what sounded like a V-8 grumble. “That has to be fake,” I confided to my journalist driving partner. Sure enough, a Toyota rep later pointed out two speakers in the headliner that pump in synthetic engine noise.

The pure gasser, however, made the struggle-bus groan befitting of a four-cylinder lugging around over two tons. It’s not particularly fast nor even fuel-efficient. Best-case scenario, with the lighter front-wheel-drive model, the gasser can only manage 24 mpg combined. Than again, if you need 5000-pound of towing capacity, the gasser is the only way to go.

At the end of my drive, I couldn’t come up with much that a minivan could do better than the Grand Highlander. Sure the rear doors don’t slide, but ingress and egress is nevertheless easy. You don’t have to climb up to get into the Grand Highlander like you would in a truck-based SUV. Also, all of the rear seats easily fold flat for carrying soccer paraphernalia. With individual USB ports, tablet storage space, and two cup/bottle holders per side, Toyota made sure the third-row passengers were just as well coddled as those in the second row.

The Grand Highlander is a solid vehicle for its intended purpose, but I’m still bothered by SUVs trying to do minivan things. Am I nostalgic for a childhood spent riding in a minivan? Absolutely. However, I’m obviously in the minority; Toyota expects sales of the Grand Highlander to outpace standard model (which already blows Sienna sales figures out of the water). Maybe the SUV hypnotist never snapped to wake me up.

2024 Toyota Grand Highlander

Price: $44,465 XLE gas turbo/ $59,520 Platinum Hybrid MAX

Highs: Spacious third row, Hybrid MAX performance.

Lows: Conservative looks, the base engine is nothing to write home about.

Takeaway: A great vehicle for families who need minivan capability but don’t want a minivan.

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    When we had our second kid, with both kids still needing to use the bulky rear-facing car seats, we decided to replace our 2007 Ford Fusion. We loved the Fusion but my knees in the dashboard wasn’t going to work. My wife was adamant she was not driving a mini-van. We shopped for SUVs for a while, and she zeroed in on an Expedition. The deciding factor though, was when I had her hoist the infant in the carseat up into the Expedition, and then into a nearby minivan. So we bought a 2006 Toyota Sienna. Fastforward to 2020, the minivan ragged with many miles and stains, we start shopping. We landed on a 2010 Highlander. It’s not a real SUV, but she likes it, and feels better in it than the van. But there’s no denying that the Sienna has the Highlander beat in comfort, room, storage space, and cup holders (the driver had easy access to 6 cupholders in that van). Basically the Sienna beats the Highlander in everything but how it looks. There’s just no shaking the soccer mom or Uber vibes of a minivan though. The larger Grand will be nice, since when our third row is up in our 2010 Highlander, there’s only enough room for a few grocery bags at the back.

    Wife wanted a three row so she can host her buddies on trips. Shopped the market and when we stumbled onto the Traverse, that was it, we comparison shopped the Highlander and the Chevy won the decision (more room).
    The Grand Highlander caught my eye, but the four cylinder only is a deal killer for me,

    We have a 2014 Highlander XLE with 3rd row, great car. Tons of 2nd row room. 3rd row is cramped but I’ve ridden back there for an hour here or there, not terrible. I’m sure these are pretty slick rides.

    I’ve got a 2020 Hyundai Palisade Limited and a 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan Sport. The Palisade has more bells, whistles, infotainment options and comfort features. The Grand Caravan does every practical people and cargo moving task better.

    We had 2 kids, and they had friends, sports gear, bikes, appetites for groceries, and we had a mini-van. The kids did grow up and move on, and we no longer needed the mini (which was a fairly poorly made Chrysler product) so we got different vehicles, but during those kid years the mini-van was absolutely the best choice, except that the friends and extended families with their cooler wagons and sedans and pickups were always asking us to drive, because we had the space.

    When you are raising kids and shuttling around on endless errands, get over yourself and get a mini-van. All this power posing is ridiculous. You’re a Mom or a Dad. Isn’t that enough?

    My parents bought a minivan and it was a great car for us when my brother and I were kids. It did the hauling people and stuff thing better than these compromised “not a minivan”‘s do.

    We have 4 vehicles. The 2 SUV’S are an ’04 4 Runner (160k miles) and an ’04 GX470 (140k miles) both of which have proven versatile and super dependable for 17 yrs. As long as the current ones look like they do, I’ll remain in no hurry to replace them with Toyotas and certainly not one with a front end like this Highlander.

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