Carmel, California — Fifty-eight juice boxes can fit into the center console of the 2014 Toyota Highlander. If you filled every seat of the eight-passenger SUV, everyone could have seven drinks, with a couple left over. Would we try such an experiment? Of course not, but Toyota performed this juice-jamming exercise to underscore that the Highlander will remain true to its mission as a comfortable, versatile, and spacious family hauler.
“We set out to create a vehicle without compromise for young families,” says deputy chief engineer Takashi Goto.
He’s an expert in that field. During a three-year stint at Toyota’s technical center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he used a Sienna minivan to chauffeur his wife, two sons, and their dog around town. It was also often filled with golfing and camping gear.
“This is how I know how important it is to have plenty of space,” Goto says.
Not everyone likes minivans, and that’s where the Highlander comes in, offering form and function for families on the go. Though wrapped in new sheetmetal, the most significant changes are inside the SUV. The Highlander is 2.75 inches longer and 0.6 inches wider than the last generation, which makes the cabin roomier. The seat placement has been adjusted to add slightly more leg and hip room in the first two rows. The biggest gain is in the third row, where 3.3 inches of additional hip space allow Toyota to wedge in another passenger. The 2014 Highlander seats eight, one more than in 2013. We maneuvered our five-foot, nine-inch frame back there, and the third row is indeed tolerable even for an adult, though for longer trips this row should be limited to younger children.
The expanded size also adds more room in the cargo hold, which now measures 13.8 cubic feet, about one-third more volume than previously. The cargo area is 6.1 inches longer, making for easier transport of things like strollers and golf clubs.
Up front, the dashboard has been considerably upgraded from the 2013 model’s, making the old one look dated, even cheap. The 2014 Highlander makes extensive use of soft-touch materials—which look and feel much more upscale—and it has a new three-spoke steering wheel and a classier, more informative gauge cluster. Toyota also added a clever little shelf below the dash, perfect for smartphones, loose change and keys.
The infotainment system is modestly improved. The basic touchscreen is 6.1 inches (as in 2013), and an eight-inch screen comes with the up-level trims. They are flanked by “capacitive touch” buttons, which are a nice blend between traditional switches and button-less touch spots like the ones on Cadillac’s CUE. Still, the Toyota interface sometimes requires multiple touches to get the system to do what you want; once you adjust, it’s easy to toggle through the screens for tasks like setting the navigation system. There are also plenty of old-fashioned, easy-to-use knobs for things like temperature control. All models are now equipped with a back-up camera, and a new generation Entune audio system has better voice recognition that Toyota claims can adapt to the way the driver speaks.
The new Highlander is big on communication, introducing a feature called Easy Speak, which projects the driver’s voice from a microphone in front through the back speakers. Think about that: you can referee toddlers or teenagers without raising you voice. It works reasonably well, though on one occasion we did experience a bit of microphone reverb.
In keeping with the family-oriented nature of the SUV, Toyota added a range of safety options, including parking aids, blind-spot detection, a lane departure warning system with automatic high beam headlights, and a radar-based pre-collision detecting system.
“We like to call this technology for families’ sake,” says Bill Fay, Toyota vice president and general manager.
While the interior is indeed a place of change, Toyota redesigned the exterior as well, in a bid to attract more male customers. There is a new trapezoidal grille outlined and bisected in chrome. The front bumper is more prominent and protrudes more noticeably, and the headlights are elongated and more elegant. The sides are more attractive, with chiseled cuts low in the door panels, and the look is capped with new, bulging taillights.
All of these changes do make for a nicer, more premium-feeling SUV. Once behind the wheel, however, the 2014 Highlander feels much like its predecessor. It gets a new six-speed automatic (replacing the old five-speed), while the engines are carry-over; the 2.7-liter in-line four-cylinder, rated 185 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque and the 3.5-liter V-6, rated 270 hp and 248 lb-ft. The four-cylinder comes strictly with front-wheel drive, while the V-6 has an all-wheel drive option. The AWD unit is new to the Highlander (it debuted on the 2013 RAV4), and it is an on-demand system, replacing the previous full-time setup. There is also a hybrid model, which teams the V-6 engine with three generators powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack to produce 280 hp, while achieving a combined rating of 28 mpg.
We sampled all three models on the winding, twisty roads around Carmel, California. We selected a high-end XLE model for our first drive, which took place under clear, blue skies, perfect weather for a family vacation. Rather than use the center console for juice boxes, we drop a chicken, egg, and cheese breakfast burrito into the center console, and set off. We maneuver though Carmel out to the famous California Highway 1, and soon we’re cruising along the coast, the Pacific Ocean lapping to our right. Though the Highlander has respectable acceleration—which paid off when we had to cut into traffic in town—it’s most at home driving in a relaxed manner. It has the elevated road view of an SUV, while still maintaining the comfortable driving character of a car. That makes sense, since the Highlander was one of the original unibody SUVs, and the new generation uses a modified version of the Camry’s architecture. The rear suspension is new, with a double-wishbone configuration in place of the old multilink setup. It’s said to track better around corners, though only the most astute of test drivers could truly detect major differences. The Highlander maintains its composure even during the occasional aggressive turn or maneuver, and it conveys a buttoned-down sense of security at all times.
We had similar thoughts when driving the four-cylinder model, which provides ample power despite being charged with the task of propelling a beefy SUV. The four-cylinder didn’t even wheeze when we ascended into the hills around Carmel and Monterey, passing near Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The chassis again impressed, and despite the challenging nature of the roads—more demanding than most family errands or vacations would require—the Highlander remained unfazed. A drive in the hybrid model cemented the Highlander’s image as a solid family product. Once again piloting up Highway 1, the hybrid motored along serenely, achieving about 30 mpg, according to the instantaneous reading from the dash. We even coasted along in all-electric mode once back inside the hotel compound, which is possible if you light-foot it under 20 mph.
The 2014 Highlander is a modest evolution, an enhancement or refinement of a product that already works well in the marketplace. Toyota hopes the changes result in a 10-percent sales increase next year, which is reasonable though the SUV market has never been more competitive. With a range of price points, starting at $30,075 for the base model and stretching up to the hybrid, (starting at $48,160), the Highlander faces off against the Nissan Pathfinder, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9, Chevrolet Traverse and Hyundai Santa Fe. After spending a full day driving the new Highlander, we can affirm it is competitive in this segment, and yes, it is absolutely family friendly—even more so than before—if that’s possible. The changes are not groundbreaking, but they’re enough to keep pace with the crowd and maintain sales momentum. That should be more than enough to satisfy Toyota executives and their loyal customers.
- Base Price: $30,075
- Engines: 2.7-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4; 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6
- Power: 185 hp @ 5800 rpm; 270 hp @ 6200 rpm; 231 hp @ 5800 rpm (hybrid); 280 net hp
- Torque: 184 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm; 248 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm; 215 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm (hybrid)
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic/CVT (hybrid)
- Drive: Front or all-wheel drive
- L x W x H: 191 in x 75.8 in x 68.1 in
- Headroom: 40.7 in/39.9 in/35.9 in (without moonroof)
- Legroom: 44.2 in/38.4 in/27.7 in
- Cargo Capacity: 83.7 cu ft/42.3 cu ft/13.8 cu ft
- Curb Weight: 4134 lbs (base); 4861 (hybrid)
- EPA Rating (City/Highway): 20/25 mpg I-4, FWD; 19/25 mpg V-6, FWD; 18/24 mpg V-6, AWD; 27/28 mpg (hybrid)