The Toyota Highlander is completely redesigned for the 2014 model year. A three-row crossover sport-utility vehicle, Highlander has seats for seven or eight assuming at least a couple are kids, decent cargo space and variety of versions from base four-cylinder frugal to a Limited Platinum Hybrid.
Outside, the 2014 Toyota Highlander is longer, wider and lower than pre-2014 models; inside, it is redesigned. The 2014 Highlander features familiar engines and a 6-speed automatic transmission for the V6 models. Most components underneath have been notably updated for the 2014 model year.
Toyota family resemblance is found on the nose and tail, more masculine than the cars and vans, not as macho as the trucks and 4Runner. The new cabin gets the layer-cake dash of recent Toyotas and a three-child third-row seat; some offer a three-person middle row, some a two-seat arrangement; Highlander XLE offers the choice of each. All rear seats fold in sections. Cargo area is up slightly for model year 2014.
A four-cylinder front-wheel-drive model is the base 2014 Highlander. A 2014 Highlander Hybrid all-wheel-drive model is the other extreme, which rates an EPA-estimated 27/28 miles per gallon City/Highway. In between, the 2014 Highlander LE, LE Plus, XLE, and Limited all use a 270-horsepower V6 engine and offer the choice of front- or all-wheel drive. When equipped with the V6 towing package a Highlander is rated to tow 5000 pounds.
The top models are loaded with features but even base models come with front and rear air conditioning, alloy wheels, Bluetooth, USB, iPod connectivity, reclining second- and third-row seats, driver knee airbag, and a rearview camera. However, the latest safety features such blind-spot warning, rear park assist, lane departure warning and dynamic radar cruise control with collision mitigation braking require upgrading to the top models.
When the Highlander originally debuted, competitors such as the Ford Explorer and Dodge Durango were based on trucks while others had not yet appeared. Today, the Toyota Highlander competes with Explorer and Durango, Kia Sorento, Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Pathfinder, Chevy Traverse, Honda Pilot, GMC Acadia, Mazda CX-9, ad infinitum. If driving dynamics are a priority we recommending leaning to the Mazda CX-9 or Dodge Durango, for speed the Durango Hemi and Explorer 3.5 turbo, for efficiency the Honda Pilot or Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid. Only the Pilot and GM twins offer seating for eight. Alternatively, if people and cargo space are more important than looks, a loaded Toyota Sienna van gives up one mpg to the Highlander (Sienna offers all-wheel drive but no hybrid), but brings much more passenger room, twice the cargo capacity and doesn't cost any more when similarly equipped, and Sienna has some options even a Highlander doesn't.
Highlander LE ($29,215) comes with a 185-hp 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine; Highlander LE V6 ($30,250) comes with a 270-hp 3.5-liter V6 engine. Both include cloth upholstery, front and rear air conditioning, power windows/locks, 60/40 reclining and fold-flat second-row and third-row seats (with sliding second row), 3.5-inch information display, 18-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, Entune audio (6.1-inch touch-screen, AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA/USB 2.0/iPod, voice recognition, Bluetooth hands-free and streaming, six speakers, rear camera), heated power mirrors with signals, 18-inch alloy wheels, wiper de-icers, remote keyless entry, sliding visors with illuminated mirrors, front/middle-row reading lights, and body-color door handles, rear spoiler and mirrors.
Highlander LE Plus ($32,740) upgrades to SofTex/cloth upholstery, three-zone climate control, eight-way/four-way power front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, flip-up hatch window, power liftgate, fog lights and Entune Plus audio (Entune plus SiriusXM with HD radio, traffic and weather with 90-day trial).
Highlander XLE ($36,040) upgrades to leather upholstery (front- and second-row seats), moonroof, second-row window shades, 4.2-inch color info display, 110-volt AC outlet, antitheft alarm, auto-dimming mirror, Chromtec roof rails and pushbutton entry/start. The Entune Premium system adds navigation and app suite with HD predictive traffic and Doppler weather overlay, AM/FM cache radio and Gracenotes. XLE also offers optional rear-seat Blu-Ray DVD entertainment system with nine-inch display and heated front seats and second-row captain's chairs with side table.
Highlander Limited ($39,640) has perforated leather front- and second-row upholstery, heated/ventilated front seats, second-row captain's chairs, blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alert, rear parking sensors, woodgrain trim, auto up/down rear windows, LED ambient cabin lighting, smoked chrome headlight trim, driver memory, puddle lamp mirrors, 19-inch alloy wheels and a JBL 12-speaker sound system driven by the Entune Premium system. A Limited may be further upgraded with the rear entertainment system ($1,810); a Technology package ($1,400) that includes Safety Connect with emergency assistance, stolen vehicle locator, roadside assistance, automatic collision notification, pre-collision system with dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with automatic high beam headlights; or a Platinum package ($2,490) that includes the Technology package plus panoramic moonroof, heated steering wheel, and heated second-row seats.
Highlander Hybrid Limited ($47,300) employs a 231-hp gasoline V6 and electric motors for a total 280 horsepower, continuously variable transmission and all-wheel drive. Features and options parallel the Limited.
Safety features standard on all models include dual front, dual front side and all-row roll-sensing side curtain airbags, driver knee airbag, passenger seat cushion airbag, 3 LATCH child-seat anchors, and electronic stability control with smart stop. Optional all-wheel drive can improve handling stability in slippery conditions. Other optional safety features: blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alert, rear parking sensors, Safety Connect (emergency assistance, stolen vehicle locator, roadside assistance and automatic collision notification), dynamic radar cruise control with pre-collision system, lane departure alert, automatic high-beam headlights.
Mix the arched upper grille line of a Toyota car with the hefty horizontal aspects of a Tundra or 4Runner and you get the Highlander. It's more blunt and imposing than the last Highlander but not blunt enough to offend returning buyers. High-line models get LED running lights below the fog lights, while all have substantial painted surfaces under the headlights sure to attract bugs.
From directly astern the truck-oriented theme continues, though the massive bumper that flares into the rear wheel opening appears 110-percent scale compared to the svelte body lines above it. There is essentially no bumper protrusion to scratch while loading, nor to stand on for cleaning or loading the roof.
The rear spoiler and roof section are heavily sculpted and the roof rail cross bars sit on the body so there is nothing to tie a kayak, the odd mattress or a Christmas tree to. Roof rail cross bars are an option, with fixed mounting points. The hatch glass (which opens separately on some versions) has a few fasteners on it that appear dated in this age of concealed hardware, and the spoiler edges don't integrate as cleanly as we'd expect.
The side view is basic wagon with black-plastic framed wheel openings to portend Highlander's off-road prowess. The longer rear door improves third-row access, though the lower roofline does not. If you cut off the ends and removed the badges, the Highlander could be any number of crossovers or SUVs, easily mistaken for a Kia Sorento, Ford Explorer, Jeep, Nissan, Hyundai or Mazda.
Measured dimensions of the 2014 Highlander are all an inch or less bigger or smaller than the last generation with two exceptions: third-row hiproom is up 3.3 inches, third-row legroom is down by 2.2 inches. Thinner seatbacks, a new dash and longer exterior have added six inches to the cargo floor behind the rear-most seats.
The front seats proved comfortable and easy to get in and out of. They are powered on upper trims, but none of the passenger seat options is adjustable for height and some riders found themselves a bit too tall. Spirited driving surpassed the limits of lateral support but we think the seat comfort/egress/support balance is correct.
The 2014 Highlander offers improved forward over pre-2014 Highlander models because the A-pillars are thinner and more raked. Rearward visibility is about the same as before and most dependent on how many people are on board. A rearview camera is standard, warnings and sensors available.
Second-row seats slide fore and aft, recline, fold and are split 60/40, and now offer third-row access from both sides. We found it odd with a flat floor and three-across seating that the center console has a bin at the bottom rather than more toe room for the rear-center passenger. Also, the middle-row, middle-seat shoulder belt drops from the roof over the third row and spoils the view both directions.
Instead of a second-row bench seat, Limited and Hybrid models come with sliding and reclining captain's chairs and what is called a side table, essentially two cupholders and a depression for a smart phone, which take away walk-through space for kids.
Third-row seats are wider and have three seating positions, but that is kids-only proposition. Side entry space is better than before but not full-size. You might fit a pair of small adults in the back too. There are vents, cupholders and lights back there, also.
Trim varies with model, but there's a welcome limit to glare-inducing chrome. Matte-finish silver serves as highlights, with the dash bin and door pull wraparounds done in blue or brown contrasting colors: Perhaps not as fancy as a similarly toned Grand Cherokee, but not $60,000 either.
The tilt steering wheel could use a bit more telescope-function range but the controls on it are logical and afford a good view of the gauges. Most ancillary switches are on the lower-left dash. Chassis (and Hybrid EV mode) controls are ahead of the console. Climate controls are a simple row above the equally simple shifter, and audio/nav controls are above that. The various Entune audio and nav apps and systems did what we wanted, but the panel is offset to the passenger side leaving some controls another steering-wheel diameter away. Use voice controls whenever you can.
The dual-opening deep center console capacity was listed by Toyota as 58 juice boxes, though why you'd want that in a car full of kids is beyond us. There's a handy tray along the center-right dash, with cable slots, ideal for containing your phone or players. A small bin left of the driver is good for tolls and cards, and the door pockets hold more beverages.
One of the new gadgets is Driver Easy Speak which uses the hands-free mic and audio system to amplify the driver's voice throughout the car. Based on cabin size it's needed only for truly annoying kids or those wearing headphones.
Cargo space is larger (the spare tire is underneath the car). Third and second-row seats fold to a flat but not horizontal floor, and with the captain's chairs interior it's a discontinuous cargo floor. There is a small bin space beneath the back, small tie-down rings, and very smart seatbelt clips that secure the belt and the latch point from rattling. Cargo capacity is 13.8 cubic feet behind the third row, 42.3 cubic feet behind the second row with third row folded, 78.6 cubic feet behind front row with second and third rows folded.
The Toyota Highlander is easy to drive, much more like a car than a sport-utility. The badges rightly say all-wheel drive now rather than four-wheel drive, and you should consider it a traction aid and not an invitation to off-road travel.
Most Highlander models are powered by a 3.5-liter V6 Toyota uses in many cars. Its 270 horsepower are more than sufficient, generally smooth and quiet. EPA says 19/25 mpg City/Highway with front-wheel drive, 18/24 mpg with all-wheel drive. A 6-speed automatic transmission helps with decent fuel economy but don't expect car-like mileage from a two-plus-ton wagon.
Base models use a 185- horsepower 2.7-liter four-cylinder truck engine (also found in Tacoma and Venza), which is surprisingly adept in the front-wheel-drive Highlander. EPA estimates are 20/25 mpg City/Highway, giving the four-cylinder just a one-mpg advantage over a front-drive V6.
Hybrid models use a different 3.5-liter V6 and electric motors for a 280-hp system. It didn't feel quite as quiet or smooth (the brake pedal regeneration trigger effect requires more attention for smooth braking) as a gas-only Limited. Also, the Hybrid's fuel economy advantage is primarily urban, as it rates 27/28 mpg City/Highway. For road trippers, the gas-only probably makes more sense. On a golf course we did try the EV-only mode and couldn't quite reach 25 mph in it.
The 2014 Highlander has more steering effort than before if not more feedback, but we suspect most owners will like the smooth, go-where-you-point it steering that isolates front-wheel impacts. The suspension has been buttoned up some: It now feels like the suspension is absorbing the bumps, not a bunch of rubbery isolation joints, and as a result is generally nicer to drive. We couldn't find enough volunteers to test the ride fully loaded.
18-inch aluminum wheels are standard, with 19-inch wheels on the Limited. Although tires on our samples were from Michelin, Toyo, and Bridgestone, we thought the 18s offered just a little less road noise and impact harshness but the 19s are the only way to get all the options.
All-new for 2014, Toyota Highlander does everything the old one did, but it offers better fuel economy, more features and more seats. If you just need a wagon to simplify your life as the occasional designated school-pool driver, some may offer more performance or more features but as a complete package the Highlander is hard to beat.
G.R. Whale filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of multiple versions of the 2014 Toyota Highlander.