While car magazines and enthusiasts may wax poetic about fast sports cars or off-roading trucks, it is the mid-size family vehicles that form the core of today’s automotive market. These are the cars that people use on their daily commutes, when dropping kids off at school, or taking a vacation.
The Toyota Highlander has consistently been one of the top choices in this segment. It is well-sized, with enough room to seat up to eight, carry cargo, but still navigate easily through winding suburban roads. The current generation of the Highlander dates back to 2014, but it saw a significant upgrade in terms of both styling and equipment last year. The 2018 Toyota Highlander is pretty much the same model as the updated 2017 version.
The 2018 Highlander comes in six different trim levels, ranging from the fully-functional LE to the sporty SE and the near-luxury Limited Platinum. While the 2017 refresh did not change the trim levels substantially, the car now comes with a much greater range of standard equipment on all models, as well as a new, more efficient V-6 engine.
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Compare the 2018 Highlander LE vs LE Plus Trims. What is the difference?
Unlike many entry-level vehicles, the Highlander’s LE is designed to be a fully functional vehicle rather than a compromise one. It comes with a slightly higher list price than similar entries from its competitors, but many buyers will find that it has almost all of the key features that they are looking for among its standard equipment. It has alloy wheels, a power driver’s seat and plenty of screens. There is both a 6.1-inch infotainment screen with Bluetooth and a smaller 4.2-inch digital display in the instrument cluster. More impressively, it also includes nearly the entire suite of Toyota’s active safety features.
All Highlanders come equipped with a standard forward collision warning and dynamic cruise control system that can automatically activate the brakes in case of a possible collision with a pedestrian or another vehicle. Also included is a lane departure warning with lane keep assist and an automatic high beam system.
The Highlander LE is the only Highlander than can be equipped with the last-generation four-cylinder engine. At just 185 horsepower and no all-wheel drive option, it is primarily a budget option. The car feels very underpowered with it, and actually gets lower fuel economy numbers than with the optional V-6. The LE equipped with the new V-6 engine gets 110 more horsepower and 3 more highway miles per gallon, as well as being available in both front-wheel and all-wheel drive. Aside from the choice of engine and drive type, there are no other major package options for the LE.
The LE Plus has a very descriptive name, as it is basically just the LE trim with a few extras that some drivers may find missing in the LE. The LE Plus offers slightly more power adjustments for the driver’s seat, an automatic climate control system with three temperature zones, a power liftgate, and an upgraded infotainment system.
The LE Plus system has a larger 8-inch touchscreen and supports satellite and HD radio. It can also connect to the GPS functionality on your phone, allowing you to use it as a navigation system through the car. To top it all off, the LE Plus has its seats covered in premium cloth upholstery with SofTex leatherette trim and a leather-covered steering wheel. Unlike the LE, the LE Plus is V-6 only, though it also comes in both front-wheel and all-wheel drivetrains.
In general, the LE offers a very good value compared to most other lower level trim lines. The standard safety features and the inclusion of common must-haves like power seating makes it a good choice for many shoppers. Its only major non-premium omissions are blind spot monitors, which only become available on the mid-range XLE model, and touchscreen infotainment, which is included on the LE Plus.
Compare the 2018 Toyota Highlander LE Plus vs XLE Trim Levels. What is the difference?
Where the two LE trim levels cover most of the basics for a three-row SUV, the XLE incorporates the more premium features. The big ticket items found on this trim level are leather seating surfaces for the first two rows - the third row is SofTex vinyl, a moonroof, and push-button start. The XLE also includes the last pieces of the Toyota active safety technology: a blind spot monitoring system with rear cross traffic alert functionality.
In addition to those, there is also front-seat heating on the XLE, and the infotainment system gets a built-in navigation unit as well as limited smartphone app support. It is also the first model that offers you a choice between a second-row bench, as on the LE and LE Plus, or captain’s chairs, which provide much more comfort at the expense of one maximum passenger.
The XLE also makes life a little easier for second- and third-row passengers by adding a microphone and speaker system that subtly amplifies the voices of the driver and the passenger, making communicating across rows much easier.
The XLE is the Highlander’s leather model. For drivers who find leather seating surfaces to be a must-have, this is the perfect option. The rest of the added features on the XLE either serve as complements to the leather upholstery, such as the seat heating, or just serve to round out the trim level. Aside from that, the blind spot monitors make highway driving much easier, which can make them a must-have for some.
Compare the Highlander XLE vs SE Trims. What is the difference?
The SE is the Highlander’s sport trim level, though its impact on performance is relatively limited given the crossover’s large size and the fact that it uses the same V-6 engine as the rest of the lineup. It does come with larger 19-inch wheels and a slightly stiffer suspension, but those do not do much to alter the driving feel of this model.
The majority of the changes offered by the SE fall into the visual category. It has its own roof rails and comes with a darker headlight housing design, as well as a number of other smaller sport-influenced styling bits. It does lose the XLE’s standard moonroof, however, and is a available exclusively in the six-seat configuration. A rear seat entertainment package is one of the only available options on the model.For most drivers, the SE offers little that is not available on a lower trim level, and in some cases even offers less. With no moonroof or a bench seat option, it can actually be a downgrade for some. If you do enjoy its looks or want to avoid the standard moonroof on the XLE though, it is only a roughly $1,000 upgrade. It is also the least-expensive model that can come equipped with the factory rear-seat entertainment system, so if you that is a must-have item for you, you can save by choosing the SE. The lack of the second-row bench does limit the potential usefulness of the option though.
Compare the Highlander XLE vs Limited Trim Levels. What is the difference?
The Highlander Limited is one of the two high-end trim level options, and it shows through the added conveniences that this model brings. The leather seats are made from a more upscale material with perforation, and the front ones have both heating and cooling functions. The Limited also comes with larger 19-inch wheels and a premium JBL audio system. Both seven-seat and eight-seat models are available, and either can be equipped with a rear-seat entertainment package. Another available option on the Limited is even more premium Saddle Tan leather upholstery.The Limited does not do anything that the XLE model of the Highlander does not, but it does most of those things better. Either of the leather options both look and feel nicer than the XLE variety, and the stereo system sounds crisper and clearer. However, unless either of those options are must-haves, then you will likely not miss them should you opt for the cheaper XLE instead. That said, the Limited is the only model that can be optioned with both rear-seat entertainment and a second row bench. If that is a must-have for you, then so is the Limited.
Compare the 2018 Toyota Highlander Limited vs Limited Platinum Trims. What is the difference?
As the stepping stone between the high end of the Toyota model range and the start of the Lexus SUV line, the Limited Platinum is the pinnacle of what the Toyota Highlander has to offer in terms of comfort and convenience features. It takes many of the features of the Limited and adds a little extra style or utility to them. The leather steering-wheel gets a hand warming function, the moonroof grows from a standard one to a dual-pane panoramic, and the rear parking sensors are joined by front ones.
The Limited Platinum also features a 360-degree bird’s eye view camera to make parking easier and comes with an emergency notification feature that will automatically contact the authorities if the car is involved in a serious accident. In the seven-seat version, the second-row chairs are heated, and both the second row bench and the Saddle Tan leather are both available options. Unlike the Limited, however, there is no option for rear-seat entertainment on the Limited Platinum.The Limited Platinum is not really designed to compete against other Highlander models, but instead serves as an alternative to entry-level luxury SUVs. At only a relatively incremental upgrade over the Limited, it is rather pricey, and so can’t really be thought of as a good value option. It is not much more luxurious than the Limited, and its features are not likely to be on anyone’s must-have list. But if you want the best you can get in the Highlander and don’t mind spending a little extra, this is the model for it.
Which Trim Level to Choose?
The Highlander offers several good options, aimed at both value and premium buyers. Even the entry-level Highlander LE is suitably well equipped, and the mid-range selection of trims comes loaded out with some appealing technology and trim.
The higher-end models of the Highlander spectrum tend to be a little more underwhelming, with the comfort and technology improvements not quite in step with the price increases on those models. In terms of getting the most features for the money spent, buyers would not go wrong with the XLE model. It includes all of the Highlander safety features and comes with leather, advanced infotainment and a moonroof.
The base LE is also a strong choice, as long as one opts for the model with the better V-6 engine.
• Why buy a 2018 Toyota Highlander? w/ pros vs cons