2008-2013 Toyota Highlander: problems, fuel economy, driving experience, interior photos

Updated: February 26, 2020

The Toyota Highlander is one of the best road trip vehicles and offers 8 inches of ground clearance for occasional off-roading. It is a roomy mid-size SUV available as a 5- or 7-seater. The Highlander is known for its comfortable driving experience and quiet ride.

2013 Toyota Highlander
2013 Toyota Highlander.

It rides on a car-based platform and is offered with front- or all-wheel drive. Engine choices include a 2.7L 4-cylinder (FWD only) or 3.5L V6 engine. A fuel-efficient hybrid version with a 3.3L V6 is also available.

The interior is spacious and practical. With rear seats folded, you can get up to 95.4 cubic feet of cargo space. The V6 Highlander can tow up to 5,000 pounds if equipped with the Towing Package. The reliability is above average, but there are a few problems to watch out for.

Toyota Highlander problems: Problems with u-joints in the intermediate steering shaft can cause various issues with the steering, including rattling noises, looseness or occasional stiffness. Replacing an intermediate shaft costs from $380 to $640; it's not a very difficult job.
The Toyota service bulletin (TSB) 0348-09 for the 2008-2009 Highlander mentions the problem where a faulty neutral start switch can cause the engine to start in Neutral but not in Park. A revised neutral start switch assembly is available to solve this problem, according to the bulletin.

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The TSB-0184-09 describes an issue with the throttle body that can cause the code P0505 in the 2GR-FE engine. According to the bulletin, the PCV hose connections and air induction system must be inspected for leaks. If no leaks are found, the throttle body must be replaced.
The oil cooler pipes may seep oil in the 2008–2011 Highlander with the 2GR-FE engine. The oil cooler pipe assembly must be replaced. Google 'Warranty Enhancement Program – ZE2 ' for more information on warranty coverage. If out of warranty, the repair may cost from $250 to $350.

2013 Toyota Highlander interior
2013 Toyota Highlander interior.

A faulty hood latch switch can cause the alarm to go off sporadically, although the hood switch is not the only possible cause of this problem. We found this YouTube video describing the problem with the hood switch.
There were some issues with leaking water pumps in earlier models. Replacing a water pump costs $320-$580 in a 4-cylinder engine and $750-$1,100 in a V6, as reported by Highlander owners.
Since various oil and coolant leaks are mentioned, it's a good idea to keep all the fluids topped up and check the vehicle for leaks regularly. Drops of oil on the driveway are an early sign.

Engines: The most common engine choice is a 270-hp 3.5L V6, model 2GR-FE; it's one of the best V6 engines on the market. A 187-hp 2.7L 4-cylinder engine, model 1AR-FE is available only with front wheel drive. Both are solid, reliable engines. The 2008-2010 Highlander Hybrid comes with a 3.3L V6, model 3MZ-FE mated to a hybrid drive. The 2011-plus Highlander Hybrid has a 3.5L V6.

Toyota Highlander EPA Fuel Economy: mpg
city/hwy
L/100 km
city/hwy
2011-2013 3.5L V6 AWD hybrid 28/28 8.4/8.4
2008-2010 3.3L V6 AWD hybrid 27/25 8.7/9.4
2009-2010 4-cyl FWD 20/27 11.8/8.7
2011-2013 4-cyl FWD 20/25 11.8/9.4
2008-2013 3.5L V6 FWD 18/24 13.1/9.8
2008-2010 3.5L V6 AWD 17/23 13.8/10.2
2011-2013 3.5L V6 AWD 17/22 13.8/10.7

Fuel Economy: The 2008-2010 V6 all-wheel drive Highlander gets 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway (13.8/10.2 L/100 km). The 2011-2013 V6 AWD Highlander is rated at 17/22 mpg (13.8/10.7 L/100 km) on regular gasoline. In our test drive, the 2013 V6 AWD Highlander got 20.5 mpg combined (11.5 L/100 km) in mostly highway use. See EPA ratings in the table.

Timing belt or chain: Both the 2.7L 4-cylinder 1AR-FE and the 3.5L V6 2GR-FE engines have a timing chain; however, the 3MZ-FE engine in the 2008-2010 Highlander Hybrid does have a timing belt. According to the Warranty and Maintenance Guide for the 2010 Highlander Hybrid, a timing belt must be replaced every 90,000 miles or 108 months.

Handling and Ride: The Highlander is a pleasure to take on a long road trip; the ride is smooth and quiet.

Toyota Highlander third-row seats
Third-row seats.

The soft suspension soaks bumps and road imperfections well. The steering feels light. Overall, it's a very comfortable vehicle to drive, whether around town, or on the highway.

Pros: Reliable, strong V6 engine, roomy interior, easy to use controls, comfortable ride, good visibility, available third-row seating, liftgate glass opens separately, cargo capacity, ground clearance, towing capacity.

Cons: Interior materials, 3.5L V6 is thirsty, limited cargo space with the third-row seat up, the second-row middle seat is small and not very comfortable.

Overall: The Toyota Highlander is not only comfortable to drive, but is one of the most reliable SUVs. As of February 2020, Consumer Reports marks all model years of the 2008-2013 Highlander as 'Recommended'. We also looked through hundreds of Toyota Highlander owner reviews, and the majority are positive. Many owners praise roominess, second-row space and car-like handling. Nearly all mentioned a comfortable and quiet ride. Complaints include things like real-world mpg, material quality (some interior plastics feel hard) and cargo space with the third-row in use.

Competitors: The 2009-2012 Honda Pilot is good. The Pilot seats eight and is also reliable. The 2012 Pilot is rated at 17/24 mpg. The seven-seater Mazda CX-9 is more sporty but not as quiet. The 2012 AWD Mazda CX-9 gets 16/22 mpg city/highway. The Chevrolet Traverse, as well as its siblings the GMC Acadia and the Buick Enclave, are very roomy and can seat up to eight adults, however, their reliability is not as good. The 2012 AWD Chevrolet Traverse is rated at 16/23 mpg. The Subaru Tribeca handles well and has a good all-wheel drive system, but the second- and third-row space is limited. The truck-based 2005-2012 Nissan Pathfinder is thirsty and not reliable. The Acura MDX is more upscale and handles better, but it needs premium gasoline and is more expensive to maintain. The EPA rates the 2012 AWD Acura MDX at 15/20 mpg.

Interior: In a 7-seat configuration, the 40/20/40 split second-row seat has a small "Center Stow" middle seat that can be removed and stored in the driver's centre console. The third-row is more suitable for kids. The liftgate glass opens separately in all but base models; a power liftgate is available in top trims.

Toyota Highlander liftgate glass Toyota Highlander interior Toyota Highlander seats folded Toyota Highlander interior Toyota Highlander  Instrument panel Toyota Highlander second-row seat Toyota Highlander removable middle seat Toyota Highlander interior Toyota Highlander engine


What to look for when buying a used Toyota Highlander: It might be a good idea to opt for a 2009 or newer Highlander, as first-year models always have more issues. Avoid the car if the engine rattles when started cold.

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Watch out for coolant/oil leaks in the engine compartment and under the car. Check if all the windows go up and down smoothly. Test the rear-passenger climate controls to see if the rear heater and air conditioner work properly. There should be no clunks or rattle felt in the steering when driving over bumps. During the test drive, watch out for drivetrain noises; see if the transmission shifts smoothly. Have the vehicle properly inspected by an independent mechanic or used car inspector before buying; it can save you a lot of money.

AWD System Maintenance: The Highlander AWD system has two major components: the transfer case and the rear differential. We checked the maintenance schedule for the 2013 non-hybrid Highlander and it recommends inspecting the fluids in the transfer case and rear differential every 15,000 miles, but changing the fluids for normal driving conditions is not mentioned. However, when "Driving while towing, using a car-top carrier, or heavy vehicle loading" the fluids must be changed every 15,000 miles, according to the schedule. We would recommend changing the rear differential and transfer case fluids at least every 60,000 miles, even when driving in normal conditions. These components also need to be inspected regularly for leaks. Using only the same-size tires and having them inflated to the recommended pressure is also important for the AWD system's health. By Samarins.com Staff


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Resources:
Safety Recalls - NHTSA - check for recalls.
Transport Canada - Motor Vehicle Safety Recalls - check for recalls in Canada.
Toyota Owners - maintenance schedules, electronic owner's manual and how-to videos.