What To Look For When Buying A Used Toyota Highlander


The Toyota Highlander is a decent SUV no matter how you slice it. It’s not at the top of the list, but it is far from the worst option out there. And if you’re looking to buy a used model, what should you be on the lookout for?

Toyota Highlander owners complain about the technical difficulties with the air conditioning, power tailgate, third row, and how the ride isn’t very “fun.” The best generation of used Toyota Highlanders to buy is probably the second generation; they are the safest generation with the best features.

But why is the second generation is the best? What about the other generations? Don’t worry; keep reading and we’ll explain everything, and when you find a used Toyota Highlander retailer, you’ll know exactly what to ask.

First Generation (2000-2007)

The first Toyota Highlander was first announced in 2000, to be released in Japan in 2000, and in January 2001 in North America. The creator designed the Highlander to be a larger version of a Toyota Camry in SUV form (without encroaching on minivan territory). These sold really well and there weren’t many complaints until people started noticing how the hybrid models couldn’t handle any off-road driving. The 2001 and 2006 models also had a problem where oil sludge would build up in the engine and cause it to overheat.

The designers introduced the Highlander’s third-row really early, in the 2004 model, but it was hardly big enough to fit children, so even though the capacity was technically up to seven people, it couldn’t feasibly fit seven adults.

But if you buy a used Toyota Highlander from this generation, it might be the cheapest option, but it will also have the most miles and you might end up with one of the recalled versions. Not to mention, you would not want to have to deal with the oil problems. And if you plan to go off-road, the hybrid first-gen model is not for you.

Second Generation (2008-2013)

Second-generation Toyota Highlanders are the models from 2008-2013. While these are the best options when it comes to buying a used Toyota Highlander, be careful when buying a model from 2008-2010.

During those years, Toyota had to do a massive recall and reinstall a new accelerator pedal. They didn’t know exactly why, but there were massive incidents/car crashes caused by the Toyota Highlanders due to acceleration issues. Once the new pedal was installed, the problem was solved, but when buying a used model from 2008-2010 make sure that the car had the new pedal installed.

Aside from that recall, the second-gen introduced a bunch of new and improved features to the car, including:

  • Air Conditioning
  • Removable Second-Row Seat
  • Electric Windows
  • Power Mirrors
  • Automated Locks

These features seem commonplace now, but they’re important when it comes to buying a used car. Can you imagine buying a 2004 Toyota Highlander, and then realizing after you paid for it that it’s missing air conditioning? With the second generation, you don’t have to worry about that. And, as the years went on, second-gen started introducing more and more features, such as Bluetooth, an electric sunroof, a power liftgate, and navigation.

The hybrid still from second-gen has issues with off-road travel. And old second-gen Highlanders might have a steering shaft issue (characterized by the popping sound when turning the wheel) which can be repaired for just under $1000. But other than that, these cars have been pretty decent.

Third Generation (2014-2019)

These, unsurprisingly, are the most advanced and sleeker versions of the Toyota Highlander (at least, when compared to second-gen). These have most of the advanced features that are lacking in some of the second-gen, and these models are larger, so the third-row won’t be as cramped.

The only reason these aren’t the best option when buying used cars is that they will be a lot more expensive than the second-gen options. A model from 2017 costs around $30,000, while a model from 2012 costs around $10,000. That’s a pretty huge price difference, and unless you’ve budgeted for a more expensive car, you may want to get a cheaper one that still has good features.

Fourth Generation (2020-Now)

These models were redesigned for 2020, but the main thing that changed is the outward appearance. The third-row seats somehow got more cramped, but aside from that, there aren’t very many issues.

There’s not a lot of information about this gen, as it just debuted in 2020, but getting a used model from 2020 is the most expensive used-car option you can find. Try waiting three years and the price should go down drastically.

Common Complaints

Air Conditioning

When the Toyota Highlander finally got air conditioning, it didn’t work perfectly right away. The AC had a tendency to stink like a pile of moldy socks, which is not what you want to smell for hours on a road trip…or ever. Toyota themselves recommended switching off the air recirculation, to make the AC take air from the outside and keep it from reusing the same nasty air.

Broken Tailgates

Some of the earlier models that still used tailgates instead of power liftgates had a problem of sticking. Either they wouldn’t open, or they would open and then get stuck, refusing to close. However, this problem is under warranty, and if you buy a used Highlander with this problem, Toyota will replace the power back door actuators that are causing the problem.

Third-Row Seating

Despite the fact that the Toyota Highlander has had almost twenty years to fix the cramped seating, the 2021 Toyota Highlander still suffers from cramped seats in the third row, making the passengers suffer as well. This isn’t really something that can be fixed, but when you see the used car you’re looking for, you can tell if those seats are gonna be big enough for anyone to fit in. The 2018 model probably has more room than other models when it comes to the third-row seats (but it’s still not great).

Less-Exciting Ride

People often complain that driving the Highlander isn’t as fun, and all they mean is that the control and acceleration might be a little sluggish when compared to competitors. It still drives fine, but it won’t be as sleek as driving a Ford Escape or Honda Accord.

Will Turner

Will has an absolute passion for 4x4s and loves discovering all of the small details about each model. Will joined the Four Wheel Trends team in early 2021 and has been a valuable contributor ever since!

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