2014 Toyota Highlander

2014 Toyota Highlander Review

Safe as it ever was.

By: Tim Healey

Web2Carz Contributing Writer

Published: February 14th, 2014

Automakers love to talk about safety, especially as it pertains to family-oriented cars like the 2014 Toyota Highlander. But "safe" can also mean "conservative," and that describes what Toyota has done with the redesigned Highlander, no matter what they might say to the contrary.

Toyota folks will tell you that the Highlander's styling has been masculinized and that the Highlander is sportier to drive, but after spending several hours behind the wheel over the course of two days, we'd say that despite the attempts at change, the Highlander remains what it always has been - a family-hauler that doesn't draw attention to itself.

  • On the Road

    Toyota claimed to add sportiness to the driving experience, but really, all the company did was add weight to the steering and stiffness to the ride. It's better than the willowy softness of Toyotas past, but just because there's improvement doesn't mean the Highlander is suddenly the enthusiast's choice in this segment (not that many enthusiasts are intentionally shopping this segment, but hey, gearheads have families and dogs and cargo just like most people).

    There are two gas engine choices - a 2.7-liter four-cylinder (available only in base LE trim) or a 3.5-liter V-6. A hybrid is also available - we'll get to that in a moment. Front-wheel or all-wheel drive are available.

    We didn't get a chance to sample the four, but we found the V-6 to have plenty of passing punch (especially in the lighter front-drive models). It also sounded pretty boss, which is weird in a family SUV. Considering there's more than two tons of weight to be moved, and considering that the Highlander seats up to eight, consider us impressed. We did, however, find the brakes on both models to be more than a little on the mushy side.

    Step into the Hybrid and you'll notice that the system is a bit clunky to click on when accelerating from a dead stop, but it's otherwise smooth enough, and it has enough force for around-town acceleration. Otherwise, the driving experience is similar to the gas models, except for the now-familiar hybrid habit of the system switching from all-electric mode to gas mode.

    As noted above, the ride is a bit stiff at times, and the extra weight to the steering does give the Highlander a little bit more of a sporting feel. However, it still lacks feedback, though its accuracy is adequate in urban environs. Perhaps the Highlander's most amazing trick is that it feels much smaller than it is while in traffic.

    Wind and tire noise are a little louder than we'd like, but only truly noticeable with the audio systems switched off.

  • Exterior

    Toyota wants more men to buy the Highlander, since 56 percent of buyers are currently women, but we don't see the "more aggressive" styling that Toyota promised. Actually, we do, but it's subtle, which means to most eyes it will continue to look like the plain-jane people mover it is. And that's almost certainly OK by Toyota, since function tends to trump form when it comes to hauling kids and cargo.

    Flared fenders and sweeping lines along the tops of body panels do lend the Highlander a clean look, but most bystanders will forget this SUV before it's even passed them.

  • Interior

    This is where the Highlander shines. Parents and non-parents alike want storage space inside an SUV like this one, and they get it. Toyota claims the center console can hold up to 38 soda cans or 58 juice boxes, and there's a neat little shelf below the center stack that holds cell phones and other miscellaneous items in place - and keeps them from sliding (we tried it; our iPhone stayed moored even after a hard corner). That shelf also offers a neat pass through for USB cables.

    App geeks should note that Toyota's EnTune app suite is available on the Highlander, and it allows for things like checking sports scores. More important to us was the decision to move the driver's info screen from the center stack to the gauge cluster - a logical decision that helps keep eyes closer to the road.

    Speaking of those gauges, we found them clear and easy to read, and the same goes for the info in the center-stack screen. Most switchgear was also logically placed and easy to use, although the infotainment system occasionally required extra unnecessary steps to perform a simple command.

    Our biggest beef was some hard surfaces (mainly the dash) that weren't masked by the materials laid on top.

    While we found the front seats roomy and comfy enough, the second-row seats will be a tad tight for taller adults. And forget about the third-row, that's kids only. Our six-foot-one author stuffed himself back there without backup assistance, and while he fit (barely), he's lucky he's not still stuck there - getting out required a feat of limberness that's not often associated with slightly out-of-shape thirty-somethings.

    Safety advocates will like the standard (even on base LE) rearview camera, and every trim but the base LE trim offers tri-zone climate control.

    One final note: Toyota has added a one-way speaker system that will allow parents to get the attention of wayward rugrats in the third-row without allowing for talk back. That alone might sway some buyers.

  • Final Thoughts

    It all comes down to packaging and pricing. We're impressed with former, but not so sure about the latter. The $29K price of entry for an LE sounds good, until you realize that most LEs will be sold to places named Hertz and Enterprise. Electing for an LE Plus puts you over $30 grand, and you're in the mid-thirties when you step up to a well-equipped XLE. The luxury Limited, which is the only trim to include blind-spot monitoring, comes close to $40,000. If you feel like pitching to save the planet, the Hybrid is available only in Limited trim, at about $47K.

    That's a tad steep for a Hybrid, but the pricing for the gas engines is within range of that of the Highlander's main rival, the Honda Pilot. Fuel economy is similar, too.

    We like the Highlander's interior - it's roomy enough, comfortable enough, and well thought out. We also applaud the company for at least attempting to add some pizzazz to the driving dynamic, even if the effort falls a tad short. And snoozy styling won't be a problem in this class.

    Add that all up, and what do you get? A new Highlander that's a lot like the old one. Given that average sticker prices for mid-size SUVs are up by $4,000 since 2008, according to Toyota, and given that the company sold six percent more Highlanders in 2013 than it did in 2012, we'd say playing it safe will work out just fine for Toyota.

  • Specs, Features, & Prices

    Engine: 2.7-liter four-cylinder, 3.5-liter V-6, or a 3.5-liter V-6 gas/electric hybrid

    Transmission: Six-speed automatic (four-cylinder and V-6), CVT (hybrid)

    Drive Wheels: Front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive

    Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city/25mpg highway (FWD 2.7), 19/25 (FWD 3.5), 18/24 (AWD 3.5), 27/28 (Hybrid)

    Base Price: $29,215 (excludes $860 destination fee)

    Available Features: USB port, navigation, heated and cooled front seats, tri-zone climate control, Toyota EnTune app suite, heated steering wheel, satellite radio

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