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Review: A big SUV with a clean conscience

The current boom in SUVs has given Toyota the confidence to bring one of its big American success stories over the pond, to tentatively offer it to UK buyers.

It’s called the Highlander, and it’s big. Think of it as a Rav4 on all kinds of experimental steroids and you’d be in the right ballpark.

It has seven seats, which explains its huge length, and that high, bold nose is typical of the ostentatious design they like out there in the states.

But don’t be fooled by the stature of the thing, this is a Toyota of the new school. There’s not a whiff of stateside gas guzzler about this, because it comes bundled in with Toyota’s excellent hybrid system.

That means you’ve got a 2.5-litre Atkinson Cycle four-cylinder petrol engine, a CVT gearbox, and then electric motors front and rear, giving that all-important all-wheel drive.

It adds up to a perfectly acceptable 246bhp which, even when its surge is tempered by that gearbox, it whisks you along quite nicely.

The hybrid system doesn’t feel out of its depth either. Sure, as it’s not a plug-in system, you’ll manage a few miles at best from the battery, but it’s nice to have the EV option in town.

All this adds up to a quoted 40mpg and I even managed to get closer to 50mpg on one rural run, so it will perform as well as some of the diesel rivals on economy and, obviously, there are tax benefits for choosing a petrol car these days.

On the subject of tax, a post-£50,000 entry price and CO2 emissions of 163g/km won’t win it many fans in the company car sector, but private buyers with sufficiently deep pockets might still be interested.

And the best thing about it is its sheer practicality. A true seven-seater, the rear seats are big enough for adults, if only for relatively short trips, the middle seats move back and forth – although in a slightly cumbersome way – and there’s a pretty good boot behind the rear row.

Drop the reclinable rear bench down and the boot is, obviously, cavernous. Drop the middle down and it’s even bigger. With the middle seats up, they can be pushed right back for vast amounts of legroom.

It’s comfortable in the front, too. A panoramic roof makes it feel light and airy, and the materials feel top-notch. This is Toyota at its best, and its interiors have been superb just recently.

It’s great, for example, to see physical buttons; rotary dials for the climate control, and a conventional, no-nonsense gear selector.

The 8″ touch screen feels a bit small in such a large cabin, and it’s still one of the marque’s weak points, but it does the job and Apple Car Play and Android Auto are part of the package.

And that package is another big plus point. The 2022 model has arrived on our shores in two trim levels, Excel and Excel Premium. The latter bringing a few more goodies, such as ventilated seats and a head-up display, but actually both offer a vast array of equipment thrown in. So yes, it’s expensive, but you certainly get a lot for your money.

Overall there’s a lot to like about the Highlander. But its biggest problem will be tempting buyers away from the obvious German rivals. For this money there are more frugal cars, there are more luxurious cars and there are quicker, more dynamic, or more off-road capable cars.

So it’s a bold move for Toyota, bringing it over here into a polluted but admittedly popular market. Barring my test model, I’ve actually not seen any on the road yet. And that’s a pity, I quite like it.