Toyota Highlanders Problems: 3 Known Issues (Explained)

The Toyota Highlander is a favorite of auto shoppers worldwide because of its comfy interior, decent gas mileage, and general reliability.

No vehicle is perfect, and the Highlander has its fair share of problems.

Check also our list of the best and worst years for Toyota Highlander to make the best choice. There are some years to avoid.

In this article, we will review some of the most common problems among Toyota Highlander models.

Engine Oil Leaks

One of the most common and severe issues that have plagued Highlanders in the past is the leaky engine problem.

According to owners of the 2008-2013 models, the oil levels are always low, and the “check engine oil” light comes up repeatedly.

Some owners reportedly traced the problem to a defective oil cooler pipe/hose which causes the oil to leak in copious amounts.

In severe cases, the entire engine is drained of all the oil and users have to refill the engine repeatedly.

Some problems associated with leaky engines in Highlanders include:

Smoke Pouring out of the Car

Oil lubricates the moving parts of the engine. Without engine oil, the metal parts will create friction and heat which will increase the temperature of the engine area.

Higher temperatures can cause smoke to pour out from the engine area or cause the vehicle to catch fire.

Owners of the Highlander have reported cases of smoke pouring out from their cars and their cars catching fire on highways.

The Vehicle will Stall Prematurely

The engine oil cools the engine, allowing it to run smoothly for extended periods. The absence of oil in the engine may cause the motor to malfunction and switch off mid-transit.

This can cause the car to stall without warning, causing potentially severe collisions and accidents.

Damaged Engine

In extreme cases where the engine has been running without oil for a while, low oil levels will cause irreplaceable damage to the engine. This can cause the engine to malfunction and can affect the performance of the car.

If your car is leaking oil, this is not something to ignore.

Besides leaving blotches on the pavement, an oil leak can pose a fire risk for your car’s engine. If you see any signs of leaking, you want to fix it asap.

Possible Causes

  • Damaged Oil Filter: Most times, the cause of the oil leakage can be traced to a damaged or faulty oil filter. If you discover signs of your engine leaking oil, you want to check that the oil filter is properly aligned or fitted.
  • Faulty Oil Drain Plug: The oil drain plug is located under the oil pan and is often exposed to running debris on the road. A worn-out or damaged oil drain plug may be responsible for oil leaks. So you want to check the drain plug when you see signs of an oil leak.
  • Bad Valve Cover Gasket: Valve covers are present on top of the engine cylinder head and act as a seal to prevent oil from escaping. The valve cover gaskets wear after some time allowing the oil to drip.
  • Dented Oil Pan: The oil pan is located on the under-body of the engine. Because of its position, it gets exposed to several running debris such as rocks and metal. Over time, the debris can dent the oil pan causing the seal to become loose and leak oil.
  • Faulty Main Seal: The main seal is the component that prevents oil from escaping via the front of the crankshaft when the car is moving. It is located behind the main pulley. You will need to remove the main pulley to diagnose the problem.

Steering Problems

This seems to be a general problem affecting many Highlander models, especially those released during 2008 and 2013. After multiple diagnoses, the problem was traced to the defective intermediate steering shaft.

Toyota released a Technical Service Bulletin (TSB 0034-13) acknowledging the problem. It also developed a new intermediate steering shaft to solve the problem.

Below are some steering issues consumers have reported in the past:

The Steering Wheel Is Hard To Turn

A steering wheel system comprises the intermediate shaft, steering wheel, and steering gearbox. The intermediate shaft connects the steering gearbox and wheels.

If the intermediate shaft is bad, the entire steering wheel system will not function smoothly. Highlander drivers complain that they have to exert pressure on the steering to turn the vehicle.

This situation is even worse when the car is approaching tight corners. The steering wheel may go into a bind that prevents the driver from turning the car properly.

Users have reported near-collisions that happened because of this problem.

Weird Noises When Turning Steering Wheel

Owners of the Highlander report hearing strange noises when trying to turn the vehicle from left to right. The noises range from popping sounds and knocking noises to significant clunks and thuds.

These sounds start mildly but become more audible and annoying as time progresses.

Automatic Transmission Problems

Consumers have reported various issues with the transmission system of some Highlander models.

Problems they reported include:

Grinding Gears

#1 Vehicle Shakes and Lurches During Gear Shifts:

Drivers have reported that the Highlander vehicle often shakes or lurches when they try to change gears. Sometimes, the shaking is so pronounced that users have to stop the vehicle and have it towed away.

The problem was traced to the faulty transmission which makes changing gears rough and difficult.

#2 Delayed Engagement/Gear Slippage:

Owners of the Highlander have complained that the Highlander’s gears do not engage as quickly as they should. The problem is more pronounced when users are trying to move the car from the Park mode to Drive mode.

The engine’s RPM will increase when drivers apply pressure to the acceleration pedal but the car won’t move. Also, the tires feel as if they are slipping on an icy surface and the gears often slip in and out.

#3 Weird Noises from the Transmission:

The transmission failure causes the changing of gears to be difficult.

It creates weird noises when users try to switch gears.

Users have reported hearing thudding, clunking, and whining noises when trying to change gears.

Possible Causes & Solutions

While it is advisable to approach a trained mechanic when you discover transmission problems, some DIY tips can save you a lot of money on repair costs.

Here are some DIY tips for solving the Highlander’s transmission problem:

  • Check transmission fluid level.
  • Check for signs that the transmission fluid is leaking.
  • Examine the transmission fluid. If it is black or brown, instead of red, you need to change it.
  • Replace gears if needed.
  • Check and replace the torque converter.

General Pros And Cons Of The Toyota Highlander


Stellar Safety Features:

The Toyota Highlander is big on driver/passenger safety. It has a plethora of active technologies designed to ensure the safety of the car’s occupants. Some of these safety technologies include:

  • Automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Automatic high-beam headlights (these come up immediately your low-beam headlights fail).
  • Active Lane Control

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the 2019 Highlander a Top Safety Pick+ Award.

Also, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Highlander a five-star rating in its safety test.

Family-Friendly And Spacious Cabin:

There is plenty of space for a growing family to fit within the 2019 Toyota Highlander. Although the third row may feel cramped for adults, it is suitable for kids and teens.

The first and second rows have a considerable head, shoulder, and legroom which ensures the comfort of occupants. And the cabin is quiet, stylish, and comfortable.

The cargo space is low, especially when compared to some Highlander rivals. However, you can fold the rear seats to increase the cargo space.

Decent Fuel Economy:

Big SUVs are not known for being fuel-efficient but the Toyota Highlander gives some good numbers. The LE version returns a combined mpg of 22 (city: 20/highway: 24).

The V-6 engine version doesn’t do so bad too with a combined mpg of 23. Even the AWD is still more fuel-efficient than some of its rivals.

You can check here how much each Toyota Highlander can tow (sorted by year)


These are the common problems with the Highlander:

  • Severe Engine Oil Leak Problem
  • Steering Wheel Issues
  • Automatic Transmission Problems

What do the Reviews Say?

The Toyota Highlander is a very popular vehicle with a wide fan-base.

Even with their common problems we’ve discussed, these vehicles still get great reviews!

“The Toyota Highlander is one of the most popular three-row midsize SUVs available today. A spacious cabin, a long list of standard safety equipment, and a strong record for reliability make the Highlander a great choice for families or anyone who needs the extra space and utility provided by an SUV.”


“The [2019] Toyota Highlander is a family crossover SUV with three rows of seats and space for up to eight occupants. It has morphed from mid- to nearly full-size over the years and has become one of our favorite versatile family cars for its spacious interior, impressive safety record, and strong, reliable V-6 engine option.”


What Is The Resale Value Of The Toyota Highlander

The resale value of a Toyota Highlander depends on a variety of factors, but we’ve gathered the prices for several different vehicles and displayed them below.

Year Mileage (Miles) Price ($)
2006 100,872 6,990
2007 90,955 7,648
2008 107,224 8,794
2009 95,395 12,997
2011 86,503 11,949
2012 88,040 12,692
2013 55,402 15,299
2015 84,628 21,767
2016 55,065 15,567

Please note that these prices are estimates and the resale value of an aluminum boat will vary based on make, model, location, and other factors.

Go Back: Problems for each Toyota model.

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ⓘ  The information in this article is based on data from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recall reports, consumer complaints submitted to the NHTSA, reliability ratings from J.D. Power, auto review and rating sites such as Edmunds, specialist forums, etc. We analyzed this data to provide insights into the best and worst years for these vehicle models.