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2014 Toyota Highlander isn’t sporty but it is quite capable

The family-friendly SUV stands tall in the mainstream midsized SUV segment

Last updated: January 29, 2014 03:30 PM

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Over its first two generations, the Toyota Highlander could best be described by one word: pleasant. Easy-going and accommodating, the Highlander has long provided no-stress family transportation. Those qualities won the Highlander repeated appearances on Consumer Reports’ Top Pick list. So why mess with success?

The new Highlander continues to be one of the most carlike midsized SUVs on the market. This redesign focused on improving the Highlander’s driving dynamics and providing a larger third-row seat, increasing maximum seating capacity to eight—all the better to square off against the Highlander’s main rival, the Honda Pilot.

We bought a 2014 XLE all-wheel-drive version for testing. With heated leather seats, a moonroof, and standard navigation, the XLE has almost every feature you’d want, all for a reasonable $38,941. But there’s an unfortunate oversight: You can only get blind-spot monitoring on the top-trim Limited model. That’s a very handy safety feature on a big SUV like this that, like the trim name states, limits its availability. Other key high-tech gear, such as forward-collision warning, are also only available on the Limited. At least all Highlanders come with a standard backup camera. (Read our just in post: "Redesigned 2014 Toyota Highlander faces a tough challenge.")

Driving impressions: As Toyota tries to instill more excitement into its product lineup, recent redesigns have sacrificed ride quality for marginal improvements in handling. But piloting the Highlander makes us think that the company might just be getting the hang of balancing those two attributes. Steering is direct and well weighted, lacking the lightness and numbness of previous iterations. The ride remains comfortable with the 18-inch wheels and tires.  It’s also pretty quiet inside, with only a touch of wind noise noticeable around the driver’s window.

Three powertrains are available. You can get a 2.4-liter, 185-hp four-cylinder with the front-wheel-drive model, but most Highlanders will have Toyota’s ubiquitous 3.5-liter, 270-hp V6 mated to a six-speed automatic. As always, this combination provides smooth and ready power. Our test car has the optional all-wheel-drive and the V6. So far we’re seeing about 21 mpg in mixed driving—about par for this class. It will be interesting to see how the Highlander does in our formal fuel economy testing, especially given the lack of fuel-economy enhancing gear such as a continuously-variable transmission or an eight-speed automatic.

Of course, if it’s fuel economy you really want, you can choose the Highlander Hybrid, with its 3.5-liter V6 and hybrid drive system providing a total 280 hp. Our previous-generation Hybrid got a very impressive 28 mpg overall; we expect this version to meet or beat that number. But you’ll pay for the fuel savings upfront as the Hybrid is only available in top-level Limited trim, with a starting price around $48,000.

The Highlander has no off-roading pretentions whatsoever; consider it suited for snowy pavement and muddy dirt roads only. While the V6 model is rated for towing 5,000 pounds, setting it up for that takes more work than setting up rivals such as a Dodge Durango or Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia, which require simply checking the box for the factory towing package.

Inside the cabin: Toyota spiffed things up inside the Highlander’s cabin. Stitching details run across the dash and chocolate-brown accents break up the dashboard’s blackness. Some plastics are a bit too conspicuous in their shiny hardness, though.

Wide and well padded, the front seats are accommodating. But maybe the better seats are in the second row, especially with our car’s $275 captain’s chairs. This option sacrifices the eight seating positions, but it gives two well-spaced seats, perfect for keeping sparring kids apart. Push those seats fully back and it feels a lot like a minivan, thanks to abundant floor space. Even though the third-row seat is wider this time around, it still remains a place that adults should avoid.

Controls are simple with big buttons. Toyota couldn’t resist sprinkling in some touch-sensitive capacitive buttons surrounding the radio. Usually supremely annoying, they work OK in this iteration, but their only value is high-tech vanity.  It’s easy to navigate the large touch screen and Toyota’s Entune system provides a high level of connectivity.

CR’s take: Highly practical yet appealing, the Highlander has a good chance of again being a standout in the vital midsized SUV segment. Thus far in our evaluations, the new Highlander makes the soon-to-be-redesigned Honda Pilot look crude and dowdy, and it’s more manageable to drive than the larger Chevrolet Traverse and Dodge Durango. Drivers looking for a budget BMW X5 or Porsche Cayenne should look somewhere else for excitement. But aiming for the mainstream, the Highlander aces the basics for pleasant family transportation.      

—Tom Mutchler

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