With the minivan out of favor with buyers and flatlining in sales, large families have mostly turned instead toward midsize crossover SUVs. The Toyota Highlander has always led this segment in refinement and family-friendly features, and with a complete redesign arriving early next year as a 2014 model, it looks like this smooth-riding minivan replacement will remain at the top of the heap.
Gone are the days when SUVs needed big V8 engines, huge towing capacities and off-road chops to be considered relevant. The majority of today's buyers instead seek fuel efficiency, comfort, refinement and interior space as top virtues. Three powertrain choices essentially carry over from the 2013 model: a 187-horsepower 2.7-liter four-cylinder, a 3.5-liter V6 with 270 horsepower, and a gas-electric Hybrid Synergy Drive model outputting 280 peak horsepower while expected to achieve more than 30 combined mpg. All engines will come mated to 6-speed automatic transmissions.
While none of these engines are particularly cutting-edge - all feature older port injection tech rather than fuel-saving direct injection - the powertrain choices have served Toyota well in recent years, offering strong durability and decent efficiency. Once again, the four-cylinder will be FWD only, while V6 and Hybrid models will offer available AWD.
The new Highlander moves forward in passenger space, especially in the third row, while also adding to cargo capacity. Seven-passenger midsizes are notorious for offering tiny cargo holds when all seats are in place, so it's nice to see that Toyota has increased usable space here by 34%. Thanks to the increase in length and width (wheelbase remains the same), total passenger volume is up, and the reclining third row now features 60/40 split-folding function for added utility.
The Highlander will feature a full complement of interior technology and active driving aid technologies, including Toyota's newly enhanced Entune infotainment and telematics system, plus interior ambient lighting, more soft-touch surfaces and enhanced ergonomics.
You still have a little while to wait for a test drive, as the Highlander is expected to hit showrooms in January or February of 2014. Pricing will rise ever so slightly, with the base model expected to start at approximately $30,000. The Hybrid will once again top the range, with pricing starting from about $40k.