2014 Toyota Highlander - Driven

The venerable Highlander has been a strong seller for Toyota since its debut back in 2001, when it helped usher in the era of uni-body crossovers. Back then, the Highlander represented a solid alternative to the mundane four-door sedan with its higher ground clearance, upright view of the road and tidy dimensions. Five passengers and a decent amount of cargo could trudge though snow or down wooded paths with more confidence than in a Camry , thanks to the available all-wheel drive. The little CUV That Could embodied the premise of the whole crossover craze; combining the on-road manners of a car with SUV -like capabilities in a smart package.

The Highlander moved into its second generation in 2008, and received a mid-life refresh in 2010. Those changes helped it stay competitive, but the time has come for the next generation. Enter: the all-new 2014 Highlander.

Everything inside and out has a new look. Sharper, crisper lines make the CUV more manly and rugged, while its overall look still labels it as civilized. It rides on the same wheelbase but has grown some three inches, giving more rear passenger legroom.

An eight-passenger configuration is available on mid-level trims, and a powerful 3.5-liter V-6 can send power to all four wheels when the right option boxes are checked. Both the four-cylinder and hybrid models return for 2014, but with improved fuel economy.

I had the chance to drive the Highlander through the “snowpocalypse of 2014” along the icy streets of Charleston, South Carolina, as the town suffered its first snowfall in years.

Click past the jump for our 2014 Toyota Highlander review

Exterior

Toyota Highlander - Driven
Toyota Highlander - Driven
Toyota Highlander - Driven

The exterior has really grown up for the third generation with a more mature stance. The large front grille leads the bolder design by looking somewhat similar to the Tundra’s grille. Around the side, nicely sculpted fender arches and black wheel well trim keep the rugged look. Out back, the rear taillights jut outward of the body and act as an aerodynamic feature to improve high-speed stability and to maintain the CUV’s broad-shoulder appearance.

Those taillights aren’t the only aerodynamic feature built into the bodywork, as an air diffuser resides below the rear bumper, while a spoiler is perched above the rear window. Wheel spats deflect air around all four wheels, and small fins integrated into the side mirrors move air around for stability and reduced wind noise.

Toyota Highlander - Driven

Available on the range-topping Limited trim, a huge panoramic moonroof really opens up the cabin. A power sun shade slides from back to front to offer a break from the hot sun. I didn’t have that problem during my time with the Highlander, as the outside temps hovered just above freezing. Even with the shade retracted, the glass felt surprisingly insulated and didn’t make the cabin feel cold or drafty.

Standard Exterior Features

LE

  • Projector-beam halogen headlights with auto on/off feature
  • Daytime Running Lights (DRL) with on/off feature
  • Color-keyed heated power outside mirrors with turn signal indicators and folding feature
  • Color-keyed outside door handles
  • 18-inch split five-spoke alloy wheels with P245/60 R18 105S tires
  • Black front and rear mudguards (AWD only)
  • Washer-linked variable intermittent windshield wipers and intermittent rear wiper
  • Windshield wiper de-icer
  • UV reduction glass on all windows
  • High Solar Energy-Absorbing (HSEA) glass on front and rear side windows -Privacy glass on rear side, quarter, and liftgate windows
  • Color-keyed rear spoiler with LED center high-mount stop lamp
  • Remote keyless entry system with remote illuminated entry
  • Rear liftgate window defogger

LE Plus (In addition to or in place of LE standard features)

  • 18-inch split five-spoke machined-face alloy wheels with P245/60R18 105S tires
  • Flip-up rear hatch window
  • Adjustable Power liftgate with jam protection
  • Integrated fog lights

XLE (In addition to or in place of LE Plus standard features)

  • Power tilt/slide moonroof with sunshade and jam protection
  • Chromtec roof rails
  • Smart Key System of front doors and liftgate with Push Button Start and remote keyless entry system with illuminated entry

Limited (In addition to or in place of XLE standard features)

  • Projector-beam halogen smoked-chrome accent headlights with auto on/off feature
  • LED Daytime Running Lights (DRL) with on/off feature
  • Color-keyed heated power outside mirrors with memory, turn signal and blind spot warning indicators, puddle lamps and folding features
  • 19-inch five spoke Chromtec alloy wheels with P245/55R19 105S tires

Interior

Toyota Highlander - Driven

Heated first and second row seats kept me warm while driving down the historic cobblestone streets of Charleston. The streets were rough, but Toyota has done a great job of isolating the cabin from any noise or weird vibrations. Overall NHV levels are way down for 2014, as Toyota made good use of new sound-deadening materials.

Fit and finish on the newly styled dash are first class, and soft-touch materials around the injection-molded parts looks good. An eight-inch, HD infotainment screen navigation is now available on XLE and higher models, and a 4.2-inch TFT screen sits between the analog gauges in the instrument cluster, displaying everything from detailed redundant turn-by-turn directions to fuel economy and even torque split between each wheel in the AWD models.

Toyota Highlander - Driven

Toyota ’s latest Entune audio system is a breeze to use. Its split screen allows audio information and GPS maps to be simultaneously displayed while on the move. Voice activation and redundant steering wheel controls make simple work of switching songs or rerouting the destination. The suite of apps like iHearRadio, Pandora, Facebook Places, Yelp and others means always being connected. The optional JBL audio system in my Limited tester was good enough to induce an all-windows-down, moonroof open jam session despite the 30-degree weather. The onset of frostbite was the limiting factor in the fun.

Toyota Highlander - Driven

Second row passengers are either sitting on a three-seat bench in the LE, LE Plus, and XLE models, or two captain’s chairs on Limited and Hybrid models. Both setups are comfortable, but the Capitan’s chairs are the smart choice for extended driving. In the rear is the three-person third row. It’s plenty big enough for kids and adults under 5’7". The third-row seats are made more comfortable with reclining seatbacks. (Just like the second row).

Toyota Highlander - Driven

Toyota realizes kids are the most likely passengers of the third row, so they’ve made it for the driver to scream… err… communicate with them. The new “Driver Easy Speak” is a one-way intercom system that projects the driver’s voice through the audio speakers in the back seats. The fact they can’t talk back is likely a benefit to many family relationships — maybe a glass partition is on the options list too.

But perhaps the handiest feature is the built-in shelf cut into the lower dashboard. It has room for cell phones, papers, sunglasses, or whatever else usually crowds the front cup holders. It features a clever cutout for USB and power cords to run unobtrusively down to the USB and AUX ports placed low and forward in the center console. It’s just a smart addition that adds tons of everyday usability to for the front two occupants. Adding to the front seat storage is a huge center console large enough to swallow a lady’s handbag or (according to Toyota) 58 juice boxes.

Overall the interior is a great place to spend time and has plenty of features to keep everyone happy. The only complaint I have is with the number of USB ports — there’s just one. Second row passengers are blessed with a 120-volt power outlet for charging electronics, but it obviously requires a two-prong wall charger.

Standard Interior Features

LE

  • Front and rear air conditioning with air filter and second- and third-row vents
  • Integrated backup camera with projected path
  • 3.5-inch LCD Multi-information Display in meter cluster with odometer, current/average fuel economy, cruising range, and ECO driving indicator
  • Seating for eight -Fabric-trimmed front and second-row seats; six-way adjustable driver’s seat, four-way adjustable front passenger seat; 60/40 split sliding & reclining fold-flat second-row seats
  • Fabric-trimmed 60/40 split fold-flat third-row seat with sliding headrests and recline function
  • Cruise control
  • Tilt/telescopic three-spoke steering wheel with metallic accents and audio, Multi-Information Display, Bluetooth® hands-free phone, voice command, and cruise controls
  • Optitron instrumentation with blue-illuminated speedometer and tachometer
  • Soft-touch upper door trim with metallic accent, fabric-covered armrest area with black interior door handles -Power windows with driver and front passenger auto up/down and jam protection
  • Power door locks with shift-linked automatic lock/unlock feature
  • Day/night rearview mirror
  • Overhead console with maplights, sunglasses storage, and conversation mirror
  • 24.5-liter soft-touch roll-top center console with removable utility tray
  • Soft-touch in-dash shelf with easy cable management
  • Eight cup holders and four bottle holders -Dual sun visors with sliding function and illuminated vanity mirrors
  • Three 12V auxiliary power outlets (two front and one second-row area)
  • Four cargo area tie-down cargo hooks -Cargo area lights
  • Front and second-row seat reading lights -Digital clock

LE Plus (in addition to or in place of LE standard features)

  • Three-zone automatic climate control with air filter, separate second-row control panel, individual temperature settings for driver, front passenger and rear-seat passengers and second- and third-row vents
  • Fabric & SofTex-trimmed front and second-row seats; eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat including power thigh support, lumbar support, four-way adjustable front passenger seat, 60/40 split sliding & reclining fold-flat second-row seats
  • Fabric & SofTex-trimmed 60/40 split fold-flat third-row seat with sliding headrests and recline function -Leather-trimmed tilt/telescopic three-spoke steering wheel with metallic accents and audio, Multi- Information Display, Bluetooth® hands-free phone, voice command, and cruise controls
  • Soft-touch upper door trim with metallic accent, leatherette-trimmed door armrest area with black interior door handle

XLE (In addition to or in place of LE Plus standard features)

  • 4.2-inch color LCD Multi-Information Display in meter cluster with odometer, current/average fuel economy, cruising range, average speed, AWD torque distribution (AWD models only), cruise control guide, navigation with turn-by-turn directions, audio status, hands-free incoming call notices, telephone information, Eco driving indicator
  • Leather-trimmed front and second-row seats; eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat including power thigh support, lumbar support, four-way adjustable front passenger seat; and 60/40 split sliding & reclining fold-flat second-row seats
  • SofTex-trimmed 60/40 split fold-flat third-row seat with sliding headrests and recline function
  • Leather-trimmed tilt/telescopic three-spoke steering wheel with metallic accents and audio, Multi- Information Display, Bluetooth hands-free phone, voice command, cruise control, and multi-media information controls
  • Optitron instrumentation with blue-illuminated speedometer and tachometer
  • Soft-touch upper door trim with metallic accent, leatherette-trimmed door armrest area with satin chrome interior door handles
  • Auto-dimming rearview mirror -Overhead console with maplights, sunglasses storage, conversation mirror, and Homelink® universal transceiver
  • One 120V auxiliary AC power outlet (second-row area) -Second-row retractable window sunshades
  • Driver Easy Speak – driver voice amplification

Limited (In addition to or in place of XLE standard features)

  • Integrated Backup camera with dynamic gridlines
  • Seating for seven
  • Perforated leather-trimmed front and second-row seats, heated and ventilated front row seats, eight-way power-adjustable memory driver’s seat including power thigh support and lumbar support, four-way power adjustable front passenger seat, and second-row captain’s chairs with side table
  • Soft-touch upper door trim with wood-grain accent, leatherette-trimmed door armrest area with satin chrome interior door handles
  • Blue LED ambient lighting on interior of front and rear doors and in-dash shelf
  • Power windows with auto up/down and jam protection in all positions

Drivetrain

Toyota Highlander - Driven

Three different drivetrains are available. The base LE gets a 2.7-liter four cylinder with 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. It’s only available in FWD, but does a decent job of moving the Highlander around town. The range-topping hybrid model comes only in Limited trim and is powered by a 3.5-liter, V-6 producing 280 horsepower when combined with the connected three electric Permanent Magnet Synchronous Motors. Two reside up front and one out back to power the rear wheels. The volume engine will be the standard 3.5-liter, V-6 available in all trim levels above the base LE. It kicks out 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. All three engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

In my time with the 3.5-liter Limited AWD model, I was impressed with its acceleration and handling. The AWD system with 50:50 torque split works well at eliminating torque steer that’s way more apparent on the FWD model. To the Highlander’s credit, the FWD’s torque steer wasn’t apparent until the throttle was buried.

Toyota Highlander - Driven

Likewise, It’s only then when any harsh engine noise is noticeable. When accelerating up a steep on ramp, the engine was audible, but cruising around town or sitting at a red light, the engine is almost silent.

Fuel economy is also improved for the Highlander’s third generation. The base 2.7-liter I-4 with FWD is rated at 20 mpg city, 25 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined. The volume-leading 3.5-liter with FWD comes in at 19 mpg city, 25 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined, while opting up for AWD drops each category by one mpg to 18/24/20. The hybrid is only available in AWD and makes a respectable 27/28/28

Suspension and Brakes

Toyota Highlander - Driven

Toyota has worked hard to smooth out the Highlander’s ride. Up front, the MacPherson struts get returned coil springs and low-friction material inside the shocks provides better dampening when cornering or braking. Out back, an all-new double wishbone suspension features front and rear stabilizer bars to keep things on the straight and narrow. The main added benefit of the new setup being a reduced interior intrusion from tall shock towers – giving the third row an added chair. (The 2013 Highlander had a two-person third row)

Vented 12.9-inch rotors up front and 12.2-inch rotors out back bring the 4,134- to 4,861-pound CUV to a stop. A drum-style parking brake resides within the rear brake rotors.

Price

Toyota Highlander - Driven

The highlander comes in five trim levels: LE, LE Plus, XLE, Limited, and Hybrid Limited. Things range from spartan people mover to luxury limo. Staring price for the base LE is $29,215 and jumps to $49,790 for the Hybrid Platinum trim. Toyota is expecting the XLE and Limited models to be their bread and butter. Entry prices are competitive in the market place, with the XLE starting at $36,040 and $39,640 for the Limited. Adding AWD to either trim level costs an additional $1,460.

Trim Base MSRP
LE$29,215
XLE$36,040
Limited$39,640
Hybrid Platinum$49,790

Competition

2014 Hyundai Santa Fe

Hyundai Santa Fe

The Hyundai Santa Fe is a strong competitor with seating for six, a stout 3.3-liter V-6 making 290 horsepower and getting 18/25/21 mpg city/highway/combined. Like the Highlander, it can tow 5,000 pounds and is available with AWD. And like every Hyundai, The Santa Fe comes with the famous 10 year/100,000 mile warranty.

The Santa Fe is a good handler on twisty roads, but does suffer from serious understeer when over-exerted, but normal driving is thankfully unhindered. Starting price for the base GLS trim is $29,900 and grows close to $37,000 for an AWD in Limited trim.

2014 Nissan Pathfinder

Nissan Pathfinder - Driven

The Nissan Pathfinder isn’t the same boy-on-frame Pathfinder we remember from the 1980s and ’90s. No, this Pathfinder is all about luxury, seating capacity and high-tech wizardry. We affectionately call it the "Mallfinder." It’s powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 making 260 horsepower that it sends to the front wheels through a CVT. AWD is optional.

The Pathfinder seats seven people in great comfort with a truly modular second row. It folds, reclines, and adjusts fore and aft. Rear legroom is pretty generous with the second row scooted a touch forward.

Starting price for the Pathfinder is $28,950. Moving up to the AWD Platinum Premium pushes the price to $45,000, but gets you a panoramic sun room and Nissan’s Tri-Zone entertainment system with three video screens for the rear passengers.

2014 Chevrolet Traverse

Chevrolet Traverse

The newly refreshed 2014 Traverse is Chevy ’s crossover version of its popular Suburban . It features seating for seven or eight passengers (depending on seating options) and is quite comfortable on the highway. Power comes way of GM’s ubiquitous 3.6-liter V-6, and in this application, lays down 281 horsepower. Despite a six-speed transmission, the Traverse is only rated for 17city/24 highway. It slightly makes up for that by out-towing its nearest competitor by 200 pounds - 5,200 pounds in total.

Starting price runs $30,795 and escalates to a competitive $45,000 for a four-wheel-drive LTZ model.

Conclusion

Toyota Highlander - Driven

The 2014 Highlander is a solid step forward for Toyota’s midsized crossover with plenty of amenities, updated styling, improved fuel economy, and reduced NHV levels. It offers room for seven to eight people and has the capability to haul large amounts of cargo with the rear seats folded. Toyota’s solid reliability is also a considering factor with the Highlander. All in all, it’s a great choice for expanding families who need the room of a minivan but the extra ground clearance and foul weather traction an AWD sport utility provides. It is, for all intents and purposes, the definition of what a crossover vehicle should be.

There are, however, better choices with fewer compromises. The Toyota Sienna minivan is a much better people mover with generous amounts of headroom and cargo room. It gets roughly the same gas mileage, but is much cheaper to purchase. The Toyota 4Runner Toyota 4Runner , on the other hand, is a much better SUV. It’s got the right mechanics for hard-core off-roading, towing and trudging through deep snow, but it lacks the interior volume and seating capacity the Highlander has. The Highlander lands in that perfect sweet spot capturing the largest part of today’s consumers. I think Toyota won’t have a problem moving the more than 140,000 units it’s counting on for 2014.

LOVE IT
  • Plenty of seating for everyone
  • Comfortable ride and good handling
  • Some good pop from the V-6
LEAVE IT
  • Only one USB port
  • Only marginal off the beaten path
  • The price may scare away some buyers

What is your take?

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