WAIMEA, Hawai’i — The three-row SUV segment is one of the most hotly contested in the industry, and it’s growing in more ways than one. Not only is the number of entries increasing, so too is the number of size offerings: we’re seeing a split between smaller three-rows and larger ones. Toyota’s sole entry, the Highlander, has been on the smaller side of that divide through multiple generations, and although Toyota has said that was just fine for its loyal customers, clearly there was room (pardon the pun) for something bigger. That something would be the 2024 Toyota Grand Highlander.
Despite the name, the addition of “Grand” doesn’t just signify some added inches tacked on behind the rear wheels of a regular Highlander like an old Grand Caravan or the Lexus RX L. It uses the same TNGA-K platform, but it’s lengthened and widened for Grand Highlander duty. It’s about 6.5 inches longer overall and 2 inches wider and taller.. The entire design is unique, including an exterior that looks more like an extra-large RAV4 due to its straight edges and hard creases. The Grand Highlander is also more refined and offers an excellent, exclusive powertrain that makes the SUV arguably even better than the standard model and a strong contender among the growing group of large three-rows.
Importantly, the Grand Highlander’s additional exterior size translates to the interior, cargo space being the most obvious improvement over the standard Highlander. Behind the third row, there’s 4.6 more cubic feet of space at 20.6, which on paper at least, represents the difference between one of the smallest and biggest volumes. Behind the second row, there’s 57.9, an increase of 9.5 cubes. With all the rear seats down, total space reaches 97.5 cubic feet, amounting to a 13.2 cubic-foot increase.
Passenger space improves, too, mostly for the third row. It’s still not huge, but now adults can occupy every row without the risk of the rear passengers launching a revolution against the bourgeois front passengers. Third-row access is also impressively easy with the sliding seats and a lowered floor that extends behind the second row for easy step-in. In fact, every position is easy to access, particularly the driver and front passenger seats with the low floor and tall roof. Plenty of space in every direction and generally plush seats keep the front two rows quite comfy, though the tall, wide center console and front wheel well intrude into the front row’s knee- and foot room. Still, it’s not a major problem, just a little odd for such an otherwise spacious SUV.
Besides the extra space, the Grand Highlander has a revised interior design. It’s a little more conventional, but still has trademark Toyota features like the shelves in the dash and up-to-date touchscreen infotainment system. For better or for worse, there isn’t a huge difference in interior quality from the base models to the highly specified versions. They’re all put together well and have soft, quality plastics. Higher trims have attractive leather options and some upholstered dash panels, but some of the painted plastics and faux wood trim don’t feel nice enough to justify the pricing, particularly when several competitors rival entry-level luxury SUVs.
The powertrains are another big selling point for the Grand Highlander with three choices. Most competitors offer one, maybe two. The first two are familiar, as they’re shared with the regular Highlander. The standard engine is a turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder making 265 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, and it’s paired with an eight-speed automatic and either front- or all-wheel-drive. Maximum towing capacity is 5,000 pounds. While we recommend skipping it on the small Highlander in favor of the hybrid, we find the opposite is true, here, assuming that you’re not looking for maximum fuel economy. Toyota seems to have done something, possibly additional noise insulation, that significantly reduces the coarse thrashing of the four-cylinder. With that reduced, the healthy torque and responsive transmission shine. Combined fuel economy is the lowest for this powertrain at 24 mpg with front-wheel drive, and 22-23 mpg with all-wheel drive, depending on the trim level.
The Grand Highlander’s basic hybrid, which is the same naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder, e-CVT setup with front- or all-wheel drive, is much less enjoyable. Its 245 hp is reaching its limits with 4,455 to 4,710 pounds of curb weight to haul around. Combined with the hybrid powertrain’s electronically controlled CVT, it moves slow and sounds strained, the same as it is in our long-term Toyota Sienna. Towing capacity is also reduced at 3,500 pounds maximum. But, like with our Sienna, the fuel economy is just so gosh-darn impressive that you might be able to forgive it. It has a combined fuel economy of 34 mpg with front-drive and 33 with all-wheel drive, greatly surpassing the fuel economy of its gas-only competitors. The regular Highlander Hybrid is only slightly better at 35-36 mpg combined depending on drivetrain and trim level.
Unique to the Grand Highlander is the Hybrid Max powertrain. This one is closely related to the one in the Toyota Crown, differing only in tuning. It combines that turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder with bigger electric motors, particularly in the rear, than the regular hybrid, as well as a six-speed automatic transmission. The result is 362 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque, eclipsing many of the segment’s V6s in output. It also features the same 5,000-pound tow rating as the gas-powered model. It’s not as efficient as the regular hybrid — a sacrifice in the name of output — but at 27 mpg combined, it still beats most V6s. It even matches the hybrid Ford Explorer’s efficiency, but with more power, more torque and standard all-wheel drive. It’s a sweetheart of a powertrain, with a meaty torque band that allows for smooth, easy acceleration, and the six-speed means it isn’t constantly interrupted by shifts or hunting for gears. It’s a surprisingly growly powertrain, helped in part by judicious application of the seamless artificial sound enhancement. And with the full-time all-wheel drive and beefier rear motor, the power split is more evenly distributed. This results in less-pronounced understeer when powering through corners. This all makes the Hybrid Max far and away the most enjoyable powertrain, and we wish Toyota would offer a detuned, more efficient version to supplant the regular hybrid.
While there are significant differences in powertrains, ride and handling are pretty much the same across the line. Up front is a MacPherson strut setup with a multi-link independent arrangement at the rear, and the shocks are non-adjustable. Each Grand Highlander does have different driving modes, but they mainly adjust throttle and transmission response — even the steering seemed unaffected. The tuning is definitely toward comfort and control. It glides over bumps, and stays steady. Handling isn’t quite as eager as a result, what with the softness and body roll. The cabin is also impressively quiet. So as long as you’re not looking to hustle your practical hauler, you’ll be pleased with the Grand Highlander.
To get a Grand Highlander, you’ll be paying a premium. The base model starts at $44,405, which is around $7,000 more than the base Honda Pilot or Kia Telluride, among others. The Grand Highlander does offer a couple extra niceties that will bring the costs closer, such as power heated memory front seats and wireless device charging, but even more comparably equipped, the Toyota is more expensive. The regular Highlander is priced closer to its three-row competitors, but it’s also smaller inside. The regular hybrid starts at $46,005, and the Hybrid Max at $55,375. Those compare favorably against the Explorer Hybrid, about the only competitor in this size bracket, with advantages in fuel economy or power, depending on the version.
While expensive, the Toyota Grand Highlander is a better Highlander in a number of key aspects, particularly refinement and space, and its powertrain options make it a strong option, particularly if you’re looking to save fuel. That being said, that price premium can’t be ignored, and options from Honda, Kia and Hyundai can offer much of the same refinement and space with better handling, style and off-road capability.