The redesigned 2014 Toyota Highlander has one tough act to follow. Although the previous Highlander was a little long in the tooth, it remained one of our favorite 3-row crossovers, delivering versatility, value and pleasant Camry-like handling. We even called it a must-drive in last year's review. If the 2014 Highlander's going to raise the bar, it has its work cut out.
Does it succeed? In many respects, yes. Most notably, its interior design and quality are vastly improved. We called out the "so-so interior quality" in last year's review, but the new cabin is top-notch. It's also easier to access the 2014 model's third row, and thanks to added width, there are now three seats back there instead of two. This makes the Highlander one of the few 8-passenger crossovers in the midsize segment. Furthermore, we appreciate the extra cog in the V6's automatic transmission, which aids both acceleration and fuel economy.
On the other hand, last year's Highlander V6 already had plenty of pep, and its fuel economy was only 1 mile per gallon worse. Last year's Hybrid, meanwhile, achieved the same 28-mpg rating as the new one. If you can live with the economy-grade materials inside, the outgoing Highlander is potentially a smart choice.
But there's no doubt that the 2014 Highlander is a classier vehicle, and its additional interior space could be the clincher for many families. The bar has indeed been raised -- Toyota has another must-drive crossover.
What's New for 2014?
The Highlander is fully redesigned this year, boasting more space, standard 8-passenger seating, better cabin materials, bolder styling and a 6-speed transmission for the V6.
What We Like
Standard 3-row seating; smooth, quiet ride; outstanding V6 engine; classy cabin; impressive Hybrid fuel economy
What We Don't
Base 4-cylinder engine is barely more fuel-efficient than the V6; Hybrid costs as much as a Lexus
The Highlander's entry-level engine remains a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder with 185 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. Front-wheel drive is mandatory with this engine. Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy estimates are 20 mpg city/25 mpg hwy.
Most 2014 Highlanders are powered by a carryover 3.5-liter V6 rated at 270 hp and 248 lb-ft. Remarkably, the V6 isn't much worse than the 4-cylinder on gas despite its huge output advantage, checking in at 19 mpg city/25 mpg hwy with front-wheel drive and 18 mpg city/24 mpg hwy with all-wheel drive. It can tow up to 5,000 pounds, too.
As for the Highlander Hybrid, it's all-wheel drive only and features a 3.5-liter V6 that teams up with an electric motor and a battery pack to produce 280 net hp. This system is also carried over from the previous Highlander generation. The Hybrid's transmission is a continuously variable automatic (CVT), meaning you won't feel it shift because it doesn't have discrete gears. Fuel economy is 27 mpg city/28 mpg hwy.
Standard Features & Options
The regular 2014 Toyota Highlander is offered in five trim levels: LE, LE Plus, XLE, Limited and Limited Platinum. The Highlander Hybrid comes in either Limited or Limited Platinum trim.
The Highlander LE ($30,075) starts with the 4-cylinder engine, 18-in alloy wheels, heated side mirrors with turn signal indicators, a rearview camera, a 3.5-in monochromatic driver information display, manual front seats, a nifty roll-top center console, 8-passenger seating (with 60/40 split, flat-folding rear seats), Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, a 6.1-in touchscreen infotainment display and a handy in-dash shelf with pass-through access to the power and USB ports below.
The LE Plus ($33,600) steps up to the V6 engine (optional on LE), fog lights, a height-adjustable power lift gate with a flip-up window, an 8-way power driver seat with adjustable lumbar support, an upgraded audio package with satellite and HD radio, tri-zone automatic climate control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.
The XLE ($36,900) adds roof rails, a sunroof, a universal garage door opener, keyless entry/ignition, leather upholstery, heated front seats, second-row integrated sun shades and an 8-in touchscreen display with a navigation system and Toyota's Entune mobile-app integration. Optional on XLE are second-row captain's chairs (yielding 7-passenger seating overall).
The Highlander Limited ($40,500) boasts 19-in alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, a blind spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert, rear parking sensors, standard second-row captain's chairs, perforated leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, driver memory settings, a 4-way power passenger seat and JBL premium audio.
Both the XLE and Limited are eligible for a rear-seat Blu-ray DVD entertainment system. The Limited is additionally eligible for the Driver Technology Package, which adds Safety Connect (subscription-based; includes emergency roadside assistance and stolen vehicle location), automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control, a collision-mitigation system with automatic braking and lane-departure alert.
Finally, the Limited Platinum ($42,990) tacks on a panoramic sunroof, a heated steering wheel, heated second-row captain's chairs and the contents of the Driver Technology Package.
The Hybrid Limited ($48,160) and Hybrid Limited Platinum ($50,650) feature the hybrid drivetrain along with hybrid-specific instrumentation and display screens, but they're otherwise comparably equipped to their non-hybrid siblings.
Cargo space behind the Highlander's third-row seat has improved slightly for 2014, measuring just under 14 cu ft versus 10 cu ft before. That's enough for some groceries, at least. There's a much more useful 42 cu ft available behind the second row. Oddly, maximum cargo capacity (with both rear-seating rows folded flat) has dropped to about 83 cu ft, whereas the previous Highlander could hold up to 95 cu ft of stuff.
The 2014 Highlander comes with standard stability control, active head restraints, hill-start assist and eight airbags. The optional Driver Technology Package (see above) adds numerous electronic driving aids, but it's only offered from the XLE on up.
The new Highlander has not yet been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Behind the Wheel
In our interior evaluation, we gave the 2014 Highlander high marks for dashboard design and materials quality, especially compared to the previous model. Toyota clearly sweated the details this time around, and the result is a palpably premium environment, even in the lower trim levels. The gap between Toyota and Lexus has narrowed considerably here, which is good, because the Highlander actually costs as much as a Lexus if you want all the fixings.
In back, the second-row seats slide forward farther than before, making third-row access appreciably easier. It's still pretty cramped back there for adults, but the new 3-across bench means you can carry an extra kid, if necessary.
Under the hood, the base 4-cylinder engine delivers acceptable thrust, but since its fuel economy is barely better than that of the V6, we don't really see the point. Most Highlander buyers opt for the six, and we can see why: It's one of the best V6s in the world, pumping out serious passing power when you need it. The Hybrid may have a few more horses, but there's a noticeable delay when you step on it, whereas the regular Highlander V6 downshifts immediately and leaps forward with impressive pace. Unless you do a lot of city driving, it's hard to justify the Hybrid's hefty price premium.
On the road, the Highlander feels significantly wider than it used to, reminding us more of the Ford Explorer than the tall Camry wagon it fundamentally is. But it's surprisingly solid in corners, taking a confident set with less body roll than we expected. Credit the new double-wishbone rear suspension, which harks back to performance cars from Japan's glory days in the 1990s. Of course, the main purpose of the Highlander is to take bumps and freeway expansion joints in stride -- and here it excels, providing near-Lexus levels of refinement.
Other Cars to Consider
Hyundai Santa Fe -- The stylish 3-row Santa Fe boasts standard V6 power and an attractive interior layout for less coin.
Mazda CX-9 -- It's not the freshest face in this segment, but the CX-9 remains the most rewarding 3-row crossover to drive.
Kia Sorento -- The Sorento is technically one class down, but it still has an available third-row seat (kids only, please) and strong engine choices.
Start with the V6 and find a Highlander that fits your budget. Thanks to an improved roster of standard features for 2014, you really can't go wrong with this model lineup.