A week spent in the redesigned midsize crossover SUV from Toyota
More third row room
Larger cargo space
Increased road noise
Steering still lacks feedback
Harsher overall ride
2014 Toyota Highlander
Although it seems the model known in Japan as the "Kluger" has been around for nearly forever in Toyota's lineup, this Camry-based crossover Ute is one of the newer nameplates, having been around only since 2001.
Assembled in the same Princeton, Indiana manufacturing facility that builds the larger body-on-frame Sequoia SUV, the Highlander is a three-row crossover that offers a choice between four-cylinder and V6 engines with either front-wheel drive or a new on-demand all-wheel drive powertrain configuration. Alll-new for 2014, the latest Highlander represents the third generation of the model.
Outside, the 2014 Highlander sports an edgier look that's not only more distinctive, it also has a tendency to stand out in suburban parking lots jammed with look-alike full-sized SUVs.
Up front, the trapezoidal grille is larger and more aggressive, while the lower air intake below the full-width bumper is both wider and narrower. Flanking the grille are narrower headlamp enclosures that extend further back along the front fenders.
Both the front and rear wheel arches are more pronounced and now feature wide lip moldings for added side protection. Along the lower sides there's now a deep lower swage line while a pronounced shoulder line begins just forward of the C-pillar.
In back, the swage line continues across the rear fascia, just above a pair of large, clear, protruding tail lamp lenses and also features a nice touch carried over from the previous model: the rear window opens independently allowing access to the rear storage area making the loading small parcels easier without having to open the massive tailgate.
One of our biggest gripes about the previous model was its outdated interior. For the 2014 model, that issue has been corrected in a big way. The new Highlander features its own version of Toyota's current horizontal-themed dashboard layout. And while many of the previous easy-to-us oversize buttons and knobs have been 86'd in favor of a new 8-inch touch screen, it features a large font size, the icons are large and the system is one of the most intuitive we've used. But like many of the knobs in the previous version, it can be a bit of a stretch reaching for the screen.
Overall fit and finish is excellent and, like its Lexus platform-mate, the upper dash is comprised of a slick one-piece cover. Front seat passengers enjoy a generous amount of head, shoulder and leg room. The steering wheel both tilts and telescopes and the leather-swathed and heated front seats are both firm and supportive with just the right amount of side bolstering.
Of particular note: the10-way driver's seat on our Limited (the passengers is also 10-way) featured a power adjustable thigh support, a feature not typically found on vehicles in this class. Despite its large size, the view out the front and sides is very good. And while the view out the back and three quarters is limited despite a small window between the C- and D-pillars, all Highlander models now come with a standard backup camera.
Center seat occupants will also find plenty of head, shoulder and hip room in the reclining captain's chairs, both with inboard arm rests and fore-aft adjustment.
Since the new Highlander is 2.75 inches longer and 0.6 inches wider, the third row is also more accommodating for adults with 3.3 inches of additional hip space – although for longer trips it's still more suited for children. Cargo volume behind third seat has been expanded from the previous generation's 10.3 cubic feet to a more generous 13.8 cubic feet.
On the road
At over 4,500 pounds the Highlander's handling can hardly be described as sporty. But when compared to the previous model, the new one feels firmer with less body lean in corners. Feedback through the steering wheel is much better and there's no longer a dead spot on-center. Most road imperfections are soaked up by the suspension, but the new firmer setup means the ride's not as cushy as it once was.
On the freeways, the Highlander feels well planted and it's hardly affected by crosswinds. With its improved steering, fewer corrections need to be made and you get a much better sense of where it is on the road. On the other hand, the cabin of the latest-generation Highlander seems a bit louder than the old model, although having said that it's still relatively quiet, even at highway speeds. The brakes offer plenty of feedback through the pedal and they're easy to modulate. They also bring the over-two-ton Highlander to a halt pretty quickly.
Under the hood
The Highlander comes with a choice of 2 engines. Standard on the base LE is a 2.7-liter four that generates 185 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque. All other models get a 3.5-liter V6 which produces a smooth 270 horsepower and 248 lb.-ft. of torque.
Toyota has improved the fuel economy in the V6 for 2014 from 17/22/19 to an EPA estimated 18/24/20 city/highway/combined. Our own observed fuel economy was 17.9 mpg in some rather aggressive city driving – certainly not bad for a people hauler this size.
Equipment and pricing
New car prices for the 2014 Toyota Highlander lineup ranges from $30,075 for a base LE with FWD to over $53,000 for a fully-optioned hybrid model. Our Limited tester was close to the top for a non-hybrid with a base price of $43,590 that featured the platinum package. That includes Safety Connect, a pre-collision warning system with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane Departure Alert with automatic high beam headlights, panoramic moonroof, heated steering wheel, and heated perforated leather second-row captain's chairs.
Our Alumina Jade Metallic tester also came equipped with remote engine start ($499), a glass breakage sensor ($299), a tow hitch and wiring harness ($699) and a set of body side moldings ($209).
Those extras, plus an $860 delivery, processing and handling fee, brought the as-tested price to an MSRP of $46,156.
The Bottom Line
There's even more to like about the Highlander with the latest generation model. The handling is more controlled, the third row is roomier and there's more cargo room. and its fuel economy has been improved.
On the flip side, the ride is not as cushy and it seems as if there's a little more road noise inside the cabin.
But better fuel economy, a ride that's still fairly quiet and a comfortable, spacious interior far outweigh those negatives so that buyers seeking Toyota's legendary quality and reliability in a large people mover now have even more reasons to choose a Highlander.