Toyota has its authentic SUVs--the 4Runner and the Land Cruiser. But let's face it, not everyone's going rock-crawling or going on safari. For families that need the SUV space but not the SUV gear, Toyota has the Highlander.
It's new this year, and it's changed a lot. So how does this latest 2014 Toyota Highlander stack up against crossovers like the Dodge Durango and Nissan Pathfinder?
MORE: Read our 2014 Toyota Highlander review
Let's start with the inside story. It's big. That may not be news, but the Highlander's new and better-looking cabin is. The cabin has spent some time at the spa, and it's way better for it. The big gauges and climate-control knobs are a welcome sight, and a large touchscreen comes with the Highlander's optional navigation system. The dash is reshaped, and has a rich look and feel--and a handy shelf for small items.
There's plenty of room in the front seats. If we had a choice, we'd put the base Highlander's cloth seats in the higher-end models. The leather ones don't have as much support, but they do get ventilation, something we depend on in summer.
Behind the front seats the Highlander will haul five or six people based on how you configure it. The second row is either a three-person split-bench seat with a recline feature, or a pair of captain’s chairs. We like that recline feature, and the sliding second-row function.
The third row? It's still for kids or tweenagers, or maybe guests who've stayed a few days too long.
But behind the third row, there's more storage space, almost 14 cubic feet. Fold away the second and third row seats, and there's as much space as a Ford Flex or a Mercedes GL.
Safety gets a makeover in the Highlander too. With eight airbags and a standard rearview camera, the Highlander earns some of the best crash-test scores of all. And now, you can order blind-spot monitors, a lane-departure warning system, and parking sensors.
With the same powertrains it had last year, the Highlander actually performs better, thanks to improved ride and handling. There's a four-cylinder engine on base models. It makes 185 horsepower and if it sounds like a price leader, it's actually better than that. It'll just be tough to find in showrooms.
There's also a Highlander Hybrid, with 280 net horsepower and a CVT, but it's an expensive way to get better gas mileage. It's rated at 28 miles per gallon combined, but we've observed less in previous Hybrids. The four-cylinder will get 22 combined.
Most Highlanders will come with a 270-horsepower V-6 with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. This version's not the quickest crossover we know, but it'll get the job done, while turning in 21 miles per gallon on average and towing up to 5000 pounds.
The V-6 Highlander's the most versatile performer, but across the board, this crossover has better road manners than before. The suspension has been reworked, and there's less body motion and a better controlled ride. It's not too firm, though we'd avoid the optional 19-inch wheels. It's not as quiet or as cushy as the outgoing model, but this new Highlander doesn't feel nearly as clumsy as it once did.
For about $30,000, the Highlander comes standard with Bluetooth, power features, and a nicely composed cabin. On the options list there's a power driver seat, satellite radio, and a power tailgate, as well as navigation and blind-spot monitors.
Load it up and you’re at about $45,000 for a gas-powered Highlander and $50,000 for a Hybrid model.
So what's the bottom line? The 2014 Toyota Highlander covers familiar family territory, without straying too far into Adventure Land.