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Old 12-31-2008, 09:50 PM
Location: Still in Portland, Oregon, for some reason
890 posts, read 3,401,388 times
Reputation: 742


Every six to eight months or so I'll rent a car for the weekend just to shake things up. My last vehicle of choice was a 2008 Toyota Highlander Sport I rented from the local Toyota dealer. I had always admired the car's exterior looks and interior features and was anxious to compare it to my 2004 Hyundai Santa Fe. Apples and oranges, I know...but honestly, I was quite disappointed in the Highlander. Having owned a '93 Toyota, I can say their magic touch certainly needs a tune-up.

While quicker than my car and smoother in acceleration and off-the-line grunt, I found the Highlander's transmission a bit absent-minded. It never seemed to know what gear it wanted to be in until it was too late. I found the seats comfortable albeit a bit flat and lacking support. A major dent in Toyota's armor of build quality beyond repute was the fact that the interior rattled like a 1970s Pontiac. And this was with only 12,000 on the odo. My Santy, being five years old with 106,000 miles rattles less than the Highlander did. While the Highlander interior materials quality were generally superior to those of my Santa Fe, the general feel was that it was a bit more cobbled together. I could press on a gap or seam in the Highlander and hear it creak. Not in the Santa Fe. The Highlander's ergonomics are wonderful; everything is well marked and very clear. Knobs turn with quality and authority and everything is well thought out.

The Highlander's HVAC fan was extremely weak, even on the highest blower setting it struggled to warm the cabin and the stereo was nothing fabulous. I also found the trip computer display was never the correct brightness; too dim during the day and distractingly bright at night. The same could be said for the clock on my Santa Fe; it does not dim much at all at night.

As far as equipment goes, the Highlander satisfies and disappoints. $31K to start and no heated mirrors? What gives? Some very cool features were the glasses case-slash-conversation mirror and the hide-a-middle-seat in the second row. Open the glasses case to remove your specs and if you push it halfway closed, it latches there revealing a convex mirror allowing the driver to view the entire rear cabin. While the hiding center seat in the second row is a neat trick in the commercials, it is actually rather infuriating to operate in real life, requiring constant referrals to the instructions on the seat. I'm sure those who live with the car year-round won't have any trouble getting it down but novices will need to up their blood pressure meds.

On the road, the Highlander is a champ. It's suspension is comfortable but firm and loves to be thrown into corners. In the same course of action, the Santa Fe wallows and leans like a beached whale attempting to get out of an uncomfortable situation. Scan ahead; quick direction changes may require undergarment changes. The Highlander has fabulous forward visibility while some feel they wear the Santa Fe's angled 'gun-slit' windshield. I found the Highlander's rearward visibility leaving much to be desired, hence the great rear view camera. It has one of the crispest images I've seen and greatly aids parallel parking. In terms of low-speed maneuvers (such as parking lots), the Santa Fe trumps the Highlander which turns about as lithely as an aircraft carrier. Plan tight downtown parking jobs with foresight.

Then there is the subject of style. The Highlander is crisp and clean with great lines but certainly doesn't stand out enough to get you a spot out front at Ruth's Chris. The Santa Fe suffers from a similar ailment; styled in an era of unprecedented Hyundai quirkiness, the SF has nary a straight line on its creases and has its fans and detractors.

Overall I found the Highlander to be a nice car but certainly not something I'd be willing to pony up +$30K for when a new Santa Fe can be had for in the mid-20s and better equipped. And I would not even think of trading my SF in for one.


Pros -
Surely bulletproof Toyota engine and transmission, athletic handling, great headlights, very quiet on the road, fabulous ergonomics.
Cons - Whoa, there! turning radius, pedestrian styling, weak HVAC system, seats lacking lateral support, rattles out the wazoo, lacks some key features.

Santa Fe:
Pros -
Reliable engine and transmission, full menu of standard features, comfortable seating and good ergonomics, decent mid-range passing punch, engine quiet around town, vast cargo space, versatile tailgate/flip glass.
Cons - Some cheap dash plastics, rhinoceros-inspired styling, incessant road noise, engine doesn't like to be rushed, wallows in corners, high-speed avoidance maneuvers don't inspire confidence.
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Old 01-01-2009, 12:58 PM
Location: Eastern NC
20,871 posts, read 21,060,433 times
Reputation: 18766
Just remember that most rental vehicles are abused so i would compare a new one with a new Santa Fe to get better and more accurate results.
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Old 01-01-2009, 01:17 PM
28,751 posts, read 44,174,748 times
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We rented a Highlander in Las Vegas last November and agree with the given assessment with the exception of rattling. Ours was tight and quiet. Took it off road at Red Rock (well, what passes for OR there) and it jounced and bounced more than I expected. Noisy 4 cyl engine, but plenty of go.
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Old 01-01-2009, 02:25 PM
Location: Eastern NC
20,871 posts, read 21,060,433 times
Reputation: 18766
Umm Highlanders are not off road vehicles.
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