Nearly 15 years ago, Toyota introduced the Highlander, and it has been a hit with American families ever since. Now, a redesigned, third-generation 2014 Toyota Highlander is on sale, giving consumers a fresh option to consider when cross-shopping models in the popular midsize crossover SUV class.

If you find yourself at the local Toyota dealer investigating the new 2014 Highlander and you decide it might be better to save some money by choosing a discounted 2013 model, or even a certified pre-owned example of the previous version, it helps to know the difference between the old Highlander and the redesigned 2014 Highlander. We'll explain what's changed in the sections that follow.

     

Exterior

Continuing as a midsize crossover SUV, the 2014 Toyota Highlander rides on the same wheelbase as before but is almost three inches longer and more than half-an-inch wider than the model it replaces. Ground clearance is unchanged at 8 inches, but the 2014 Highlander's approach angle is shallower, so watch the front end if you decide to try off-roading.

The most obvious departure in styling is the flared grille design and the high-mounted wraparound headlights, which are enhanced with LED running lights on the Highlander Limited model. Around back, the new Highlander's protruding taillights and trapezoidal styling themes recall the smaller RAV4. Additionally, the rear lift gate now features height adjustment, and the optional power lift gate can be programmed to open to varying heights so that it doesn't hit lower garage ceilings or other obstructions.

    

Interior

If the new 2014 Highlander's exterior styling appears to be cut from the same general cloth as other midsize crossover SUVs, the interior gets a dramatic upgrade over the old Highlander in materials and design. In fact, Toyota claims the new Highlander's cabin "will raise the bar in its segment."

To raise the bar, the 2014 Highlander features soft-touch dashboard and upper-door panel materials, a new premium headliner, and standard front and rear air conditioning. A new center console serves double-duty as an armrest and as a storage spot large enough to conceal a large purse, and Toyota has also made numerous changes to make the 2014 Highlander's cabin quieter.

The Highlander's second-row seat drops its 40/20/40 split design with its Center Stow seat and Center Stow console in favor of a more traditional 60/40 split arrangement. New second-row captain's chairs are standard for the Limited, separated by a side table in the middle.

To enhance access to the third-row seat, Toyota installs a one-step, second-row sliding seat function that adds three additional inches of clearance for more graceful entry and exit. Additionally, the new Highlander enjoys a 3.3-inch gain in third-row hip room, while shoulder room is unchanged, and both legroom and headroom see slight reductions compared to last year. Nevertheless, Toyota says the third-row seat now holds three people, giving the SUV an 8-passenger maximum capacity rating. The third-row seat also switches from a 50/50 split design to a 60/40 split design in the new Highlander.

Cargo space behind the third-row seat has improved, now measuring 13.8 cu ft. Space behind the second-row seat is unchanged at 42.3 cu ft, but the old Highlander could carry 95.4 cu ft of cargo with all the seats folded down. The new one can handle no more than 83.7 cu ft of your stuff.

    

Mechanicals

The 2014 Highlander's powertrains are essentially the same as last year, except for two main differences. The first is that the optional 3.5-liter V6 is now paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission rather than the previous model's 5-speed automatic. As a result, fuel economy improves from 20 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving to 21 mpg for the 2014 Highlander with front-wheel drive, and from 19 mpg in the old Highlander to 20 mpg in the new one when equipped with all-wheel drive.

Speaking of all-wheel drive, the second change is the new Dynamic Torque Control AWD system that is available with the V6 engine. Under normal driving conditions, it sends all the engine power to the SUV's front wheels. When accelerating, or when the front wheels slip, the AWD system engages, continuously varying power distribution up to a 50:50 front-to-rear split. The driver can also push an AWD Lock button to lock the power split evenly between the front and rear wheels. Toyota says the system relies on sensors that monitor vehicle speed, accelerator pedal angle, steering angle, driver steering inputs and the Highlander's yaw rate to distribute power most effectively among the SUV's four wheels.

All Highlanders get a new double-wishbone rear suspension design, quicker steering and larger standard wheels. The SUV can still tow up to 5,000 pounds when properly equipped, but the maximum payload rating drops from 1,755 pounds for the old model to 1,455 pounds for the new model.

    

 

Features

Last year, the old Highlander was offered in base, Plus, SE, Limited, Hybrid and Hybrid Limited trim levels. For 2014, the lineup changes to LE, LE Plus, XLE, Limited and Hybrid Limited models.

A Platinum Package for the Limited models adds a new panoramic sunroof, a new heated steering wheel, new heated second-row captain's chairs and several safety-related technologies. Other new features for the 2014 Highlander include second-row window sunshades (XLE), LED ambient lighting (Limited) and ventilated front seats (Limited). Triple-zone automatic climate control, formerly reserved for the Limited model, is offered on all but the base LE variant.

     

Technology

As is common when vehicles are completely redesigned, the new 2014 Toyota Highlander offers a greater array of technologies than the previous-generation model. Standard equipment now includes a multi-information display for the gauge cluster, a USB 2.0 port and an advanced voice-recognition system. Upgrade to the LE Plus trim level for HD Radio, as well as for HD Traffic and HD Weather reports.

The Highlander XLE is equipped with a new, larger 8-in split-display touchscreen infotainment system featuring navigation, Entune AppSuite technology and a Driver Easy Speak voice amplification system. The system displays Gracenotes album art, predictive HD Traffic and a Doppler radar weather overlay for the map. Toyota also includes its Smart Key entry system for the XLE model, and offers a new Blu-Ray rear-seat DVD entertainment system as an option.

A new 12-speaker JBL Greenedge premium sound system is exclusively offered for the 2014 Highlander Limited model.

    

Safety

One area where the previous-generation Highlander came up short, aside from interior materials quality, was with safety technology. That's not an issue for the 2014 Highlander, which is equipped with a new front passenger's seat cushion airbag and a reversing camera as standard equipment, and adds rear parking-assist sensors and a Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert on the Limited model.

The problem is that Toyota reserves most of the safety technology for the most expensive version of the 2014 Highlander, and then makes much of it optional in a Driver Technology Package that costs an extra $1,400. This upgrade installs Automatic High Beam Headlights, Lane Departure Alert, a Pre-collision System with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and subscription-based Safety Connect technology, providing Automatic Collision Notification and Emergency Assistance service, among other features.

Conclusions

Though the 2014 Toyota Highlander is about the same size as before and equipped with the same engines as last year, it is a much more sophisticated vehicle than the SUV it replaces. Unless reductions in maximum cargo volume and payload capacity concern you, the 2014 Highlander is worth serious consideration over the old model.

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Christian Wardlaw is passionate about the cars, trucks, and SUVs people actually buy, not the models about which they fantasize. An industry veteran and former editor-in-chief of Edmunds.com, this father of 4 loves to inform and entertain everyday car buyers.

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