This summer we found ourselves in the market to replace our 2009 Mitsubishi Outlander. It’s been a great SUV, and I’d recommend it in a heartbeat. But the miles were starting to add up, several things were needing maintenance, and we were looking for more cargo space and passenger room.
My husband has a separate vehicle for his commute to work. This new one would be for me to run errands with baby L and for family use on the weekends; space and safety were the main focus. The one thing my husband insisted on, “NO minivans.” That narrowed down the field a little, but there are an astonishing number of mid-sized SUVs out there. A great place to start is Edmunds.com. I’ve found it to be one of the best sites for comparing vehicles of all makes and models.
(clicking on name will bring up websites with photos and additional information, these are in no particular order)
- Chevrolet Traverse
- Toyota Highlander
- Ford Explorer
- Dodge Journey
- Ford Flex
- GMC Acadia
- Mazda CX9
- Honda Pilot
- Dodge Durango
Although we loved our previous Mitsubishi Outlander and really enjoy the look of the new one, we didn’t have it in the running because the dimensions were a bit small for us with a growing family. We wanted more leg room in the middle seat, a usable 3rd row option, and more cargo space.
Features We Wanted:
(also, in no particular order)
- budget friendly with insurance, fuel, maintenance (oil changes, tires, type of gas, etc.)
- high safety ratings
- roomy middle seat and usable 3rd row option
- lots of head and leg room for driver and passenger
- quiet and comfortable ride
- low mileage
- fits inside our smaller 2-car garage (this mainly limited length)
- keyless entry and start
- leather seats, heated and cooled preferred
- light-colored interior (an absolute for me after having dark gray leather seats in a dark gray car previously; it was an oven in the summer)
- power liftgate
- captain’s chairs in the middle row (a tough request when you eliminate minivans)
- adapt for our changing family, currently only one child, but probably more in the future
- storage and cargo room
- nice sound system, MP3/AUX compatible
- hands-free bluetooth
- clean and aesthetically pleasing
- DVD for passengers
- air vents for middle and back row passengers
- backup camera
- blind spot indicators
- easy to fold seats and to get in and out
- something we enjoy driving and can be proud to own
Yes, I am well aware this is quite the list. Clearly not all of these are deal-breakers, many are bonus features. Nevertheless, these are what guided our search. After literally months of research and dozens of weekends dedicated to test driving, one finally came out on top, the Toyota Highlander. Once we knew what we wanted, it took a few more weeks of searching, but we soon found a pre-owned 2012 Limited with low miles and in great condition that fit our budget.
The Highlander checked off almost every item on our list, including a few additional ones. I really enjoy the way it handles. The turning radius is outstanding for the size of the vehicle. It does not feel like you are driving a big truck; it rides like a car and maneuvers extremely well. Visibility is wonderful thanks to the large windows and mirrors. The body design is sleek and stylish, and the interior is comfortable and beautiful at the same time.
One the greatest qualities is the amount of cabin room. The makers at Toyota did an outstanding job optimizing every inch. Even with the driver’s seat all the way back, we still have more than enough room in the middle seat for passengers and L’s rear-facing car seat. This was not the case with many of the other vehicles, including our Mitsubishi Outlander. Much to our surprise, it was even easy to access and comfortable to ride in the 3rd row.
It met my husband’s requirements of, #1 not being a minivan, but also for price, safety, and reliability. It also met and surpassed my expectation for appearance, design, ease of use, and extra features. I was happy to find that I didn’t feel out of place when driving the Highlander. Some of the other vehicles felt like they would take a lot of getting use to; I felt awkward or not completely in control when driving. From the moment I got in for the test drive, I immediately felt at ease behind the wheel of the Highlander.
Here are a few of my other favorite features (remember I’m a female and a mom).
- 8 cup holders with an additional 4 (one in each door) for bottles
- Simply designed navigation, sound system, and climate controls
- Conversation mirror
- Roomy seats, easy to get children in and out
- Power lift gate, open cargo area, with easy-fold seats that lay flat
- Beautiful Shoreline Blue color
- And the pièce de résistance, the ability to change the middle row from a bench seat to 2 captain chairs. I had never seen this option before, and the ease with which it is accomplished is fantastic. The center seat of the middle row can be removed and stored under the front center console. This makes the switch extremely easy, and the convenience of always having the seat with you in case you need to quickly switch back is the icing on the cake.
Like anything, there were some compromises we had to make.
A few things it lacks:
It does not have DVD players in the rear. At this point our daughter is too young for them, and we can always get a portable one later. So that was not a problem for us. (You can get the DVD entertainment system in Highlanders, ours just did not come with it.)
It does have a backup camera, but it would be nice to have the added audible notification or a graph on the screen to help you judge distance.
The leather seats are heated but not cooled. With that said, we had several very hot days this summer (over 100), but since the interior is light-colored and seats are perforated, it wasn’t an issue.
As mentioned, the large windows and mirrors greatly increase the driver’s visibility, but it could still benefit from an audible blind spot indicator and/or notification on the side view mirrors. (I feel extremely snooty and even a little nauseated from just typing those. I’m really not complaining here. I’m so thankful to even have a nice vehicle; I’m really having to search for negatives.)
My biggest hang up with the Highlander is the fuel economy. For a vehicle of this size it is right in contention with the others though. I just have delusions of grandeur thanks to my first car. I could literally get 40mpg with my 1990 Manual Ford Festiva. Of course the Festiva could also be confused for a golf cart. With the Highlander, which is 4 feet longer and over 3,000 pounds more, I average around 19 or 20mpg.
So why didn’t we go with one of the other 8 on the list?
To their credit, all of the vehicles were great in their own way. A person would probably be satisfied with any one of them. But we wanted one that fit our lifestyle as well as our personalities.
If we did not need to accommodate children and backseat passengers we would have went with the new Ford Explorer. The re-design of the vehicle and amazing technology, made it hard to pass up. The integration of SYNC and MyFord Touch coupled with a dual-panel moon roof were right up our alley. We were so enamored with all of the bells and whistles we almost convinced ourselves the front seat passenger could ride with their knees in the dash because that’s the only way we could get our rear-facing car seat to fit in the back. It was also way too close for comfort in our garage. We couldn’t quite figure out how it had less interior room than many others, yet took up so much space.
Another honorable mention goes to the Honda Pilot. This was right up there in the running for us. For the same amount of money, however, we were able to get more features in the Highlander, and the Pilot had much more of a truck-like handling. Here’s a quick breakdown of why we didn’t go with the remaining 6.
Chevrolet Traverse – too long, basically a minivan without the sliding doors, lower MPG
Dodge Journey – wouldn’t gain any size over what we had in the Mitsubishi Outlander
Ford Flex– too long, more expensive to get added features, boxy frame
GMC Acadia – too large, more expensive to get added features
Mazda CX9 – navigation screen extremely small, no overhead air vents in the rear for passengers (This was a deal breaker for us because it did not allow for air flow to our daughter in her rear-facing car seat; during the summer months she gets very hot and uncomfortable.)
Dodge Durango – too large, more expensive, limited stock in our area
Car Seat Friendly
I really appreciate how easy it is to load L in her car seat and still have plenty of room for all her stuff in the Highlander. For those of you who are curious, the seat I keep referring to is the Recaro ProRide Convertible Car Seat. We love all of the safety features, the way it accommodates a wide range of heights and weights, and it’s comfortable for L. The belts and 5-point harness are simple to adjust, the head support can be raised and lowered by just turning a knob, and best of all it was easy to install. It can convert from rear to forward-facing to accommodate children up to 70 pounds, and it has top safety ratings. With over 100 years of experience and history creating seats for race cars, Recaro produces outstanding car seats.
All in all I have been extremely happy with our Toyota Highlander.
My husband also approves and even prefers it over his Land Rover LR2. If you have any questions or comments about our search for the perfect “non-minivan” family vehicle, please feel free to chime in below or shoot me an email. These are just my personal opinions, and hopefully some of the information can help steer you in the right direction as you find the best vehicle for your situation. Happy Test Driving!