Toyota Expands its SUV Stable And Highlander makes five ... SANTA FE, NM - I'm duly impressed. As expected, the ABS with brake assist works fine, thank you.

Slightly unexpected early snows in the mountains of northern New Mexico make for a dicey test for Toyota's all-new Highlander midsize sport/utility vehicle (SUV). The twisty-turn roads here make for a fun ride in dry weather - add a little snow and the proposition tends to turn the knuckles just slightly whiter.

But, of course, given a package with Vehicle Stability Control, one wants to put the techy gadgetry through its paces as we first climb, then descend Mt. Baldy. The performance is mostly impressive.

But one must always remember that no matter how high the tech, you can't violate the laws of physics - even at 10 mph or so. A downhill slope with a tight left hand curve with just the proper lack of adhesion renders the Highlander's VSC, traction control - and of course, 4-wheel drive - virtually worthless.

Apply the brakes, and the vehicle holds a course straight for the edge of a cliff. The right combination of an earlier vague sprinkling of sand by road maintenance workers, a snow bank and a never-say-die ABS system brings us to a suck-in-your-breath stop a full 3 ft. shy of the edge.

It's easy to see how a driver can be lulled into a false sense of security and rely too much on admittedly innovative safety and handling features and not enough on common sense.

Toyota has borrowed heavily from its widely successful Lexus RX300 SUV - the best selling vehicle in the luxury marque's lineup - for the Highlander mechanicals, including its V-6 engine, and offers up a more affordable iteration for the slightly less affluent. The RX300's distinctive styling, unfortunately, was discarded for the Toyota version. The ho-hum look of Highlander is functional, but not inviting.

Engine choices include an all-new aluminum 2.4L DOHC 4-cyl. with VVT-i "related" to the 2.2L in the RAV4, producing 155 hp at 5,600 rpm and 163 lb.-ft. (221 Nm) of torque at 4,000 rpm. Innovations include 130,000-mile sparkplugs, an aluminum lower crank case, a plastic intake manifold and a crankshaft that's offset by 10 mm to reduce friction and side force. The lightweight powerplant actually weighs in 10 lbs. (4.5 kg) less than Toyota's 2.2L engine. A smaller and lighter 6-phase alternator also offers up 130 Watts of power, vs. 100 Watts from the previous 3-phase unit.

The 3L V-6 comes straight from the Lexus RX300 and is a DOHC, 24-valve package with VVT-i that puts out 220 hp at 5,800 rpm and 222 lb.-ft. (301 Nm) of torque at 4,400 rpm. Toytota engineers have put out a tidily refined V-6 here, including nifty features like active-control liquid-filled engine mounts to offset natural engine vibrations.

Both engines only come with 4-speed automatic transmissions.

Stopping power, which most definitely can keep you from creeping over the edge of a cliff, comes from the antilock brakes with brake assist - an innovative system that automatically summons maximum brake pressure in "panic" situations.

The layout offers independent McPherson struts at all four corners to offer a smoother, more car-like ride. Both engines come with a 4-wheel drive option. The wheelbase is 106.9 ins. (272 cm), a meaningful 3.9 ins. (9.9 cm) longer than the RX300. Overall length is 184.4 ins.

Highlander will be built alongside the RX300 at Toyota's Kyushu, Japan, plant, ranked by J.D. Power and Associates as the world's top production facility for initial quality.

Toyota expects the SUV market for 2001 to hit 3.5 million vehicles. The midsize segment, where Highlander sits - along with market leading Explorer and Jeep Cherokee - will make up about 55% of that market, or more than 1.9 million vehicles.

Price point for the Highlander will be between the RAV4 and the 4Runner. Toyota eyes 70,000 Highlander sales in calendar 2001.

Standard amenities for Highlander, which went on sale in January, include air, power windows and locks, premium 6-speaker audio and antilock brakes. Options include VSC skid control, limited slip differential, side air bags, towing package and 16-in. alloy wheels. Toyota expects the product mix will be 90% V-6 powered and 60% with 4-wheel-drive.

Highlander is not exactly fuel-efficient, by the way, offering 22/27 mpg in the 2wd 4-cyl. and chugging down 18/22 mpg in the 4wd V-6.