Toyota Highlander aims for top spot
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Toyota has turned to Lexus for inspiration in this machine
If New Zealand's top four car companies thought 2013 was a hard-fought battle then they had better sign up for the motoring equivalent of boot camp and have a clairvoyant on speed dial because this year is set to be epic.
Most car companies are predicting we'll hit 120,000 new sales this year, thanks in part to the steady economy, the Christchurch rebuild and Fonterra payouts.
And while the motoring companies will be happy to see more customers in their car yards, most are hoping the struggle with supplying vehicles to those dealerships will ease up. All the big players last year faced three-month waits for popular models, so having that seer on standby may help them predict how their factories will cope in 2014 with producing the goods.
It also looks as if the battle to be number one in segments will continue, so car companies need to be fighting fit.
Ford New Zealand pushed hard to have its Ranger knock Toyota's Hilux off its 32-year position as the top light truck (known to you and me as a ute) but the Japanese company kept its title.
And now the battle moves in to the customer favourite segment, the mid-sized SUV, with Toyota reintroducing the Highlander to our market, targeting Ford's Territory and Hyundai's Santa Fe.
The Territory prices start at $49,990 with the Titanium AWD at $69,990, while the entry level Santa Fe is $57,990 and tops out at $79,990 for the Limited.
The seven-seater third generation Highlander, built in the United States at Toyota's Indiana plant, starts at $55,280 for the 2WD GX and ends with the $80,990 Limited ZR.
"Highlander will be the number one SUV this year in New Zealand," Toyota New Zealand's general manager of product planning, Neeraj Lala, told motoring journalists at last week's press conference.
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And to do that the company is keeping it simple with only a 3.5-litre petrol engine with a six-speed auto but gives customers the choice of five models.
The Japanese company is hoping that a complete redesign externally and internally plus a long list of standard features will draw SUV customers to the Highlander.
It sits longer, lower and wider than the previous Highlander and its looks are sharper with gen two taking stylish cues from the large SUV, Prado, while Toyota signed up Lexus chief designer Kenji Gondo to create this latest version.
The Lexus look is strong, especially with the front grille with the Toyota badge merging with the headlines to create a menacing look.
The integrated roof rails give it an urban appeal rather than rugged off-roader - and more importantly, you can fit this Highlander in your garage without worrying you'll hit the roof with the SUV now 1730mm high, losing 30mm.
Gondo's job description for the Highlander was to improve fuel economy, give it a car-like handling, provide it with "superior utility and functionality" and improve the interior packaging.
Gondo gets to tick the fuel economy box, with figures now down from 11-11.6l/100km to 10.2-10.6 while it has more cargo capacity. With all seats up you have 269 litres, up from 195l, and if you fold down all the passenger seats you have 1872l, over the 1171 litres.
The entry level GX is aimed straight at the rental and fleet market and is available only as a 2WD while the GXL has keyless entry, leather seats and can come as a 2WD or all-wheel drive.
The Limited is AWD with Toyota adding specs that will attract the rental industry plus "user-choosers" - business people who can pick their work vehicle. It comes jam packed with gadgets to keep the kids and rich tourists happy, such as Blu-Ray players for the second row, 19in alloys up from 18in, and blind spot monitoring.
The Limited ZR is the family favourite and is chocka with safety features such as pre-crash warning, dynamic radar cruise control and lane departure warning.
"The Limited ZR will attract new customers [to the brand] and is the stepping stone to the Lexus products," says Toyota NZ's general manager of sales, Steve Pragnell.
Testing two of the models at the press launch - the 2WD GXL and the all-wheel-drive Limited - the V6 engine was the hero of the day, showing it's capable of both city-motorway driving and tearing through the country roads. But the addition of the AWD was the significant player for the Highlander - showing it can take the rough roads with ease and comfort.
A standout feature across the Highlander range is the introduction of the Suma, a navigation system via the FM frequency that is updated every few minutes to alert drivers of any traffic woes.