2014 Toyota Highlander review
By Kirk Bell of MSN Autos
Toyota took a chance when it introduced the Highlander in 2001. As one of the first "crossover" car-based SUVs, it didn't have the bold, muscular styling or off-road capability of popular truck-based SUVs of the time. However, customers realized they didn't need all the off-road capability, and they liked the Highlander's carlike ride and reasonable fuel economy. Late in the decade many competitors acknowledged the success of the Highlander and switched to crossovers. That left the Highlander a bit behind the curve, since many rivals are now bigger and more luxurious. For 2014, Toyota is remedying that issue with a larger Highlander outfitted with upscale materials. Does the new model stack up?
The LE standard equipment includes cloth upholstery, a rearview camera, a 3.5-inch LCD multi-information display, Bluetooth connectivity and eight airbags, including driver knee airbag and front passenger seat cushion airbag.
Some of the LE Plus additional equipment includes a flip-up rear hatch window, adjustable power liftgate, three-zone automatic climate control with air filter, an 8-way power-adjustable driver's seat and satellite radio.
The XLE gets a sunroof, roof rails, keyless access and starting, leather upholstery with vinyl third-row seat, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, universal garage-door opener, second-row window sunshades, Driver Easy Speak voice amplification, and Entune Premium Audio with the Navigation and App Suite.
The Limited's plethora of equipment includes perforated leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front row seats, second-row captain's chairs, blue LED ambient lighting, Entune Premium JBL Audio with 8-inch touch screen and 12 speakers, rear park assist and blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert.
An available Driver Technology package includes Toyota's Safety Connect service, a precollision system with dynamic radar cruise control, and lane departure alert with automatic high-beam headlights. A Platinum package has these features plus a panoramic sunroof, a heated steering wheel, and heated perforated leather second-row captain's chairs. A rear DVD entertainment system is also offered.
Under the hood
Toyota also offers a hybrid powertrain that teams the 3.5-liter V6 engine with three electric motors to make 280 horses. The transmission is a continuously variable automatic that constantly adjusts gearing ratios instead of changing gears. The hybrid powertrain is rated at 27 mpg city/28 mpg highway, and it has all-wheel drive.
The Highlander's new all-wheel-drive system sends 100 percent of the power to the front wheels during normal cruising, but can apportion up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels when it detects slip. It also comes with a center locking differential to lock in a 50-50 split. Depending on the model and equipment, the Highlander can tow 1,500, 2,000 or 5,000 pounds.
The dash features touch-sensitive audio and phone controls, and it comes standard with various versions of Toyota's Entune infotainment system. We usually don't prefer touch controls as they can be hard to hit just right, but these worked every time. Entune is a hub for the communications, entertainment, and navigation functions, and it provides a gateway to apps through owners' smartphones.
There is one more unique feature of note. Toyota calls it Driver Easy Speak. The driver simply hits a virtual button on the center screen and his/her voice is broadcast through the speaker system. While this initially seems like a good way to yell at the kids, it's better used to include backseat passengers in the conversation. Not a bad idea for a family vehicle.
Speaking of families, the Highlander competes against some large family trucksters, including the Durango and Chevrolet Traverse, so it was in Toyota's best interest to make the Highlander bigger for 2014. While the new model is longer, has more interior space, and can seat up to eight instead of seven, it's still much smaller than those rivals. What matters, however, is how well that interior space is utilized and Toyota does a fine job of making passengers comfortable.
Three-row seating is standard. Front passengers sit on comfortable seats with a good view of the road, but the driver's seat doesn't have enough adjustments and range of motion for an ideal seating position. The second-row is offered as a bench or a pair of captain's chairs.
The third-row seat is now wider, allowing space for a third passenger — provided they are all kids. A pair of adults will fit back there, too, but they will sit with their knees at their chins. Both the second- and third-row seats also recline to let occupants adjust the seatbacks for optimum comfort.
Highlander trails the competition in rear cargo space. With all the seats up, it has 13.8 cubic feet of cargo volume, and with the second- and third-row seats down that expands to 83.7 cubic feet. The Durango offers 17.2 cubic feet behind the third row and 84.5 cubic feet of max volume, and those numbers are 24.4 and a whopping 116.3 for the Traverse. The good news is all of the Highlander's seats fold down easily to create a fairly flat load floor.
On the road
The base 4-cylinder engine isn't up to snuff compared to the V6s offered by both Toyota and the competition. It lacks power and doesn't offer much fuel economy benefit. A full-out zero-to-60 mph sprint takes a leisurely 9.7 seconds. Add a full load of kids and groceries, and the 4-cylinder will likely struggle to get out ahead of traffic.
The 3.5-liter V6 engine, on the other hand, is a pleasure, propelling front-drive Highlanders from zero to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds and all-wheel-drive models in 8.2 seconds. The 3.5 V6 is also buttery smooth, and its new 6-speed automatic transmission is right-now responsive. Considering that there is only a one mpg penalty for choosing the V6, we think it is the obvious choice.
The Hybrid carries a premium of roughly $5,000 for another eight mpg, and it is also slightly quicker, taking 7.7 seconds to get from zero to 60 mph. The Hybrid powertrain is more responsive off the line, where the immediate torque of electric motors helps most. However, the CVT never shifts, creating a somewhat numb feel during acceleration. Turn the key, and the Hybrid's gas engine usually doesn't start until you get on the throttle. The gas engine also shuts off at stoplights, but it starts up again and gets you moving as soon as you step on the accelerator.
Right for you?
(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitatethis report.)
Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, andcurrently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.