How do you redesign one of the most popular crossovers in the country? Carefully -- very carefully. The 2014 Toyota Highlander's styling is fresh, of course, and it gets improvements where they're needed most, but it also retains the traditional virtues that Highlander fans expect. We spent a lot of time behind the new Highlander's wheel, and we've got five reasons why you should keep those expectations high.

Reinvented Cabin

If there's one thing that held the previous Highlander back, it was lackluster interior quality. The panels were all hard plastic, and it just didn't have that upscale feel. Meanwhile, rivals from Dodge, Ford and Hyundai were going upscale with supple surfaces inside. But in the new Highlander, soft-touch materials are everywhere, and there's even fancy accent stitching on the dashboard. It's a premium environment that justifies the price. In fact, it's almost as nice as what you'll find in the related Lexus RX.

Seating for Eight

The old Highlander only had two seats in the third row, but the new one's a little wider, so now there's enough space for a 3-person bench in the way back. That makes the Highlander one of the few midsize crossovers with a standard 8-passenger capacity. Even with the optional second-row captain's chairs, there's still room for seven. Not many crossovers are genuine minivan substitutes, but the new Highlander's part of that select group.

Same V6, Sharper Transmission

The Highlander continues to employ Toyota's 3.5-liter V6, and that's great news. It's smooth, it's quiet, but man, is it fast when you give it the spurs. Helping matters is the responsive new 6-speed automatic transmission, which replaces the previous 5-speed. You can really feel the extra snap when you pull out to pass; even though it has the same engine as before, the Highlander feels like a faster vehicle this time around.

Impressive Fuel Economy

Although the Highlander is available with a cheaper 4-cylinder engine, Toyota expects almost every model to have the V6. Why? Because the much stronger V6 gets 25 miles per gallon on the highway with front-wheel drive, and that's the exact same highway rating as the much weaker four. If you want all-wheel drive with your V6, by the way, it gets 24 mpg hwy, so there's barely a penalty. That's remarkable fuel economy for a 270-horsepower, 8-passenger crossover.

Composed Ride and Handling

The Highlander may look like a big wagon on stilts, but it feels surprisingly buttoned-down from behind the wheel. Toyota has redesigned the suspension with double wishbones in the rear, and the result is less body roll and more composure in corners. As for the ride quality, it's creamier than ever. On the road, the Highlander's got all the moves.

AutoTrader Says

With all of these improvements, is the 2014 Toyota Highlander the best midsize crossover that you can buy? Stop by your Toyota dealer and tell us what you think.

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Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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