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The Toyota Highlander has been a handy fallback for the Japanese carmaker. When real SUVs like its own 4Runner were falling out of favor, the plus-sized crossover took up the slack. In two generations, the Highlander took over a lot of jobs, from affordable family wagon to statement-making hybrid.
This year, the 2014 Highlander renews its lease on that space with what Toyota promises is more refinement and strength--and what we sense is some subtle repositioning. For one, Toyota calls the car-based Highlander an SUV, and for two, from the outside, it's made it look more like one than ever.
The Highlander's been reimagined before, from its spartan wagon roots into the current, girthy, second edition. For its third take, the big utility vehicle adopts a new look that owes some of its cues to a slew of competitive vehicles that occupy the grey area between crossovers and SUVs. We see some Durango and X5 in the side view--and oddly enough, lots of Mitsubishi in the maw of its deep new grille and in the exaggerations around its wheel wells and at the sills. It's a shift toward a 4Runner-ish, SUV-ish style that runs exactly opposite to the trend in most other big crossovers--Santa Fe, Flex, Traverse. That switchup works better than it did on the Honda Pilot, but it also makes us wonder exactly what the 4Runner delivers that the Highlander does not.
The cabin skips that ambiguity--it's all car, and it's directly inspired by the cockpit in the current RAV4. There's some Teutonic-themed dash action, and a pleasing jumble of lines and textures. The lines may sweep away from driver to passenger, but the focus is clearly on the left side passenger--big gauges and big climate-control knobs are a welcome sight. We'll have to examine it more closely before we call it fit for fashion: on the RAV4, the soft-touch mashup comes across a little less coherently in person than in pictures.
Four, or more cylinders
As was the case with the RAV4, the Highlander's powertrains are carried over from the previous generation. One's an overlap: the 2.7-liter four-cylinder in base models is the only engine found in the smaller RAV4. Coupled to a six-speed automatic and offered only with front-wheel drive, the engine turned in 187 horsepower in the last Highlander--power outputs haven't been disclosed yet for the new model.
Two V-6 models return, both based on the same 3.5-liter design. The standard version--which produced 270 hp last year--teams up with a six-speed automatic and a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. The Hybrid (280 hp net last year) pairs with an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (eCVT) and through-the-road all-wheel drive, which means the gas power goes to the front wheels, while electric power passes only to the rear wheels.
The Highlander's driving dynamics were long overdue for attention, and Toyota says the front-strut and independent-rear suspension have been reworked for better handling. With luck, some of the Highlander's substantial body lean has been tuned out. The body structure's said to be stiffer, which should help. Electric power steering is now standard, and the all-wheel-drive system can ship around torque from front to rear when the vehicle's yaw sensors detect a more engaged driver. Eighteen-inch and 19-inch wheels will be on the order sheet, for those more adventurous types.
The Highlander also can be rated to tow up to 5,000 pounds, so long as the V-6 engine is installed.
Seven, or eight passengers
At 191.1 inches long, on a 109.8-inch wheelbase, the Highlander's stretched by three inches over the prior version, but none of it comes between the wheels. There's a half-inch more width, in what was already a fairly large vehicle--though one that's still noticeably smaller than competitors like the new Nissan Pathfinder.
The Highlander can seat up to eight passengers. Behind the front buckets, separated by a tambour-covered console, the Highlander totes five or six. The second row's either a three-person split-bench seat with a recline feature, or a pair of captain's chairs. There's no mention of the "Center Stow" seat Toyota has offered in the past--the one with a seat section that tucked away into the console. The second-row bench seat does now slide to expand access to the reclining third-row seat, which has 4.3 inches more width for better comfort. Toyota's also carved out more space behind the third-row bench for cargo.
Toyota also says the Highlander's cabin is much quieter and calmer than before. Thicker acoustic glass damps powertrain noise, and insulation in the floor blots out vibrations, suspension chatter, and tire squawk.
The 2014 Highlander will boost its standard safety equipment with a total of eight airbags and a newly standard rearview camera. Hill-start assist is also included.
Among the new safety options are blind-spot monitors, a lane-departure warning system, and parking sensors. Visibility is better, Toyota claims, thanks to repositioned pillars and bigger rear-quarter windows.
2014 Toyota Highlander features and pricing
Toyota says all versions will have premium cloth interiors, an Entune connectivity kit, and Bluetooth to go with the usual power features and conveniences.
Among the options: automatic high-beam headlights; heated and ventilated front seats; heated second-row captain's chairs; a JBL audio system; a navigation system; a power tailgate with a programmable lift height; and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with gaming inputs.
The redesigned 2014 Highlander goes on sale in early 2014, and pricing hasn't been released yet. Stay tuned for those details and for a first drive.
- Four-cylinder, six-cylinder, or hybrid
- Second-row flexibility
- Better connectivity features
- Better third-row access
- Powertrains running in place
- Will hybrid's real-world mileage vary?
- Dash can look busy
- New design is better, but by how much?