Just In: Redesigned 2014 Toyota Highlander faces a tough challenge

Buying the next-generation of a popular midsized SUV

Published: January 20, 2014 09:00 AM

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It’s pretty easy to boil the Toyota Highlander down to some key strengths: Excellent reliability, owner satisfaction, and safety performance. And over the years, the Highlander has always offered more of just about everything than its competitors, including gas and hybrid powertrains, seating for seven, and a roomy and comfortable cabin. With these attributes wrapped in an appealing, high-scoring crossover package, it is no wonder that buyers keep coming back.

Toyota faced a tough challenge to redesign the Highlander, a segment leader with much at stake. The company knows it needs to stay ahead of the competition by innovating, but it can’t go so far as to alienate its core constituency. Could Toyota pull this off, when it has had mixed results with other recent models? There is one way to find out: Buy one.

The new 2014 Highlander is rolling into dealership now. It uses the same 2.7-liter four-cylinder and 3.5-liter V6 engines as the last-generation, but the standard transmission is now a six-speed automatic. This new tranny improves the EPA fuel economy rating for the V6 all-wheel-drive model to 20 mpg overall. (We got 18 mpg overall in our tests on the previous V6 Highlander.)

A mere 10 days after it went on sale, we picked up an AWD XLE version with an MSRP of $38,941. This included the optional second-row captain’s chairs, floor mats, and wheel locks.

One new feature of the 2014 model is the ability to carry eight people with the second-row bench seat. While we initially wanted to test an XLE with the second-row bench, we discovered that most XLE trims in our area came with the optional captain’s chairs. The second-row bench is standard on the lower trim LE Plus, but that would mean we would give up features such as leather, an eight-inch touch-screen display with navigation system, and a moonroof.

Fortunately, a backup camera is standard on all trim levels. But advanced safety systems such as blind-spot monitoring, standard on the Limited and Hybrid, aren’t even optional on the lower trims.

The new Highlander had grown longer and slightly wider. Inside it feels almost minivanlike, given the commanding view out provided by the large front windshield and the broad expanse of dash. The huge storage box between the front passenger’s and the second-row captain’s chairs, with a built-in folding cup-holder tray, contribute to that family-hauler feel. One advantage to the more comfortable captain’s chairs is the wide tunnel for easy access to the third row.

The interior has a more upscale feel with nice stitching on the leather seats and surfaces. But like the previous-generation Highlander, the controls are spread out across the dash. Some controls on the right side were well out of my reach from the driver's seat, as were some of the functions on the wide, stylish eight-inch screen. Needless to say, I focused on driving when I picked it up, and, after finding my favorite XM station, left the audio system alone. One nice feature: The screen displays artist and song information with large labels and a picture of the artists.

On first blush, the redesigned Highlander retains its quiet cabin, smooth powertrain, and comfortable ride. I think it won’t be a problem racking up quick break-in miles before formal testing begins.

—Anita Lam

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