The All-New Toyota Highlander Acts Like a Minivan But Looks Like SUV

The model-year 2014 Highlander is the best crossover for you if you want a family wagon that looks like an SUV but acts a lot like a minivan.

This popular crossover gets its first significant updates since model-year 2008. Its styling is more masculine, yet there’s enough extra room inside to squeeze in another seating position, increasing capacity to eight.

Two gas engines and a hybrid version return, and there are a lot more features. But has Highlander gone far enough to catch rivals like the Ford Explorer and stay ahead of the Honda Pilot?

Less intimidating than a genuine SUV but tougher-looking than a minivan, Highlander is again the car-based alternative to the rugged, body-on-frame 4Runner in Toyota’s midsize-SUV line. In an effort to put more men behind the wheel, the styling for model-year 2014 adopts the automaker’s latest truck and SUV themes with a bolder grille, buffed hood and badder headlamps. The body sides are more chiseled and the fenders more blistered. Prominent new taillamps also help to project a wider stance.

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Overall, the body is almost three inches longer than before, though it’s still significantly shorter than the typical crossover with three rows of seats. That’s an advantage in your garage and navigating tight spaces.

You still get a pair of front buckets and a choice of two buckets or a three-person bench in the second row. But the third-row is now just wide enough to accommodate three passengers, thanks to a more compact rear-suspension design. The second row again slides fore and aft, and its buckets are divided by a new collapsible tray with cupholders. The rear seatbacks recline, and both rear seating rows split and fold flat. The cargo volume was already among the most generous in its competitive set—and it expands a bit for model-year 2014.

The dashboard design is more gracefully horizontal. A multi-information screen is standard, as is a new roll-top front center console with a sliding-door armrest that opens to a bin big enough to hold a large handbag.

A base model returns with front-wheel-drive and a 185-horsepower four-cylinder engine. It’s in the lineup mostly as a fleet vehicle. It rates 22 mpg city/highway combined, same as last year.

A 270-horsepower V-6 will again power about 90 percent of all Highlanders. It’s available with a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. LE versions are the most affordable V-6 models, but three out of four buyers will go for the fancier XLE and top-line Limited grades, reflecting the brand’s traditionally upscale demographics.

Toyota finally pairs the V-6 with a six-speed automatic transmission instead of an outdated five-speed, and the result is better throttle response and a one mpg gain in fuel economy, to 21 city/highway combined with front-wheel drive and 20 with AWS.

The Hybrid again combines the gas V-6 with two electric motors for a net 280 horsepower. One electric motor helps the gas engine power the front wheels, a second in back provides AWD as needed. This isn’t a plug-in hybrid—it recharges by harnessing energy otherwise wasted during braking and coasting. It does rate 28 mpg combined, the best fuel-economy of any midsize crossover and among the best for an SUV of any size.

The model-year 2014 interior is more stylish than in the past. It’s got higher-quality materials throughout, and Toyota added a very cool parcel shelf. About the only problem are the flimsy and difficult-to-use climate-control knobs.

The carmaker also got a little too aggressive reducing control clutter. For example, there’s no dedicated button to quickly summon the map display and no handy “go back” tab to reverse a menu selection.

The front seats would benefit from more lateral support in turns. Buckets or bench, the second row is roomy and comfortable. But the hard, cramped third row really is unfit for adults.

Second-row sunshades are now included with XLE and Limited models. And the Limited is available with the brand’s first panoramic moonroof. Unfortunately, the most expensive Highlander is the only version available with adaptive cruise control or the added safety of blind-spot, lane-departure and cross-traffic alert systems.

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The four-cylinder is a bench player in a vehicle this size. The V-6 is a capable veteran even more impressive now that it’s hooked to the six-speed automatic, although some early production models we tested suffered annoying gear hunt during acceleration. That’s not an issue with the Hybrid, which uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT) for a smooth delivery of surprisingly robust power.

In any Highlander, steering feel and precision are much improved with this redesign. Handling in daily driving is commendable, especially with the extra grip the AWD system can provide even on dry roads.

But brisk changes of direction trigger a top-heavy manner that’s a good reminder to slow down. And over bumps, the suspension still has trouble finding a balance of comfort and composure. Toyota’s efforts to make the vehicle quieter pay off in a welcome reduction of road noise. But at highway speeds, the wind still whistles around those outside mirrors.

Pricing remains very competitive with similarly configured rivals. The base model with the four-cylinder engine starts at around $30,000, and the least expensive V-6 with AWD starts at around $33,000. Most buyers choose AWD, and 75 percent go for one of the top two trim levels. That means their looking at a starting price of $38,360 for an XLE and $41,960 for a Limited. Both come with navigation and leather upholstery—and on the Limited really nice perforated leather bathed in ambient lighting. Hybrids are available as a $48,160 Limited model and as the fully equipped Limited Platinum that’ll set you back $50,650.

Highlander is marketed to a style-conscious audience willing to sacrifice the greater utility of a minivan for the hipper image of an SUV. When a crossover is this accommodating, though, it’s really not much of a sacrifice.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]