2014 Toyota Highlander Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Introduction
Shrewdly, Toyota has partnered with Disney to launch the redesigned 2014 Highlander midsize crossover suv. Advertising for the new kid-hauler features characters from the Muppets, resonating with both parents and their children, and the 2014 Toyota Highlander is launching just before the House of Mouse is putting the Muppets back on the map in a big way with a new movie co-starring Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais, and Ty Burrell.
Now, I’ve heard that this new Muppets Most Wanted movie is actually funny for adults as well as kids, so when you think about all of the moms and all of the dads that are going to be tuned in to the Muppets this spring, what seems at first like a silly idea is probably going to prove brilliant at driving showroom traffic. Better yet, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has already performed crash-tests on the 2014 Highlander, and this SUV is named a “Top Safety Pick” in its class, passing one of the most important tests of any parent seeking to do the best job of protecting their offspring.
Something tells me that Toyota isn’t going to have any trouble getting the Highlander’s target buyer onto dealership lots.
2014 Toyota Highlander Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Models and Prices
With the redesigned 2014 Highlander, Toyota is trying to simplify both the process of building the SUV and of buying the SUV. That’s why it comes in four well-equipped trim levels, with the few factory options offered only for the most expensive models.
You can spend $30,075 (including a destination charge of $860) and get the base model, the Highlander LE. Aside from a V-6 engine, an all-wheel-drive system, and extra-cost paint, the only upgrades for this version of the family crossover SUV are accessories that are installed by the dealer.
That means the Highlander LE Plus ($33,600) is likely to be the most popular version. It includes the V-6 engine, along with fancier aluminum wheels, fog lights, and a power tailgate equipped with a flip-up glass rear window and the ability to adjust how high it rises, which is useful to people who frequently park in garages with low overhead clearance. Inside, the LE Plus includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, upgraded seat coverings, an 8-way power driver’s seat, triple-zone automatic climate control, and both satellite and HD Radio. Options for this model include AWD, extra-cost paint, and dealer-installed accessories.
Want leather, a navigation system with an 8-inch touchscreen display, Entune App Suite smartphone connectivity and services, a Smart Key passive entry system with push-button starting, and more? Then you’ll want to get the Highlander XLE ($36,900). This model also has a power sunroof, a larger 4.2-inch information display within the gauge cluster, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a universal garage door opener, heated front seats, a second-row 120-volt power outlet, and second-row manual sunshades. As you might have already guessed, AWD and extra-cost paint are optional for this model, as well as second-row captain’s chairs and a rear-seat entertainment system.
The Highlander Limited ($40,500) sits at the top of the lineup. Upgrades include a set of 19-inch wheels that are exclusive to the Limited model, plus smoked chrome headlight trim, LED running lights, side mirror puddle lights, rear parking assist sensors, a Blind Spot Monitor system, and a Rear Cross-Traffic Alert system. Inside, the Highlander Limited features perforated leather, heated and ventilated front seats, a 4-way power front passenger’s seat, second-row captain’s chairs, and a memory system for the drivers’ favorite settings. Premium JBL GreenEdge speakers are also included in the Highlander Limited, along with soothing LED ambient lighting and automatic up/down operation for all four windows.
Options for the Highlander Limited include AWD, extra-cost paint, and a rear-seat entertainment system. This model can also be equipped with a gas-electric hybrid powertrain that makes plenty of power while returning impressive fuel economy.
A Driver Technology Package is available for the Limited models, adding automatic high-beam headlights, a lane departure warning system, a radar-based cruise control system with a Pre-Collision system, and a Safety Connect telematics system that includes a long list of services including Automatic Collision Notification. A Platinum Package is also offered for the Highlander Limited, equipping the SUV with the Driver Technology Package plus a heated steering wheel, heated second-row seats, and a panoramic glass sunroof.
My test vehicle is the Highlander Limited in Crème Brulee Mica with black leather seats, the Platinum Package, and front-wheel drive. The sticker price read $43,220, right in line with key competitors including the Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9, and Nissan Pathfinder.
2014 Toyota Highlander Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Design
- Longer, wider, and lower
- Big-ass trapezoidal grille
- Dramatically upgraded interior materials
- Practical and elegant storage solutions
When captivated parents arrive at the Toyota dealer to check out the new 2014 Highlander, they might be a little disappointed by this SUV’s gaping, featureless grille. Everything else about the new Highlander’s styling looks good, and especially in Limited trim with the standard 19-inch Chromtec wheels. But its almost as if Toyota had no idea what to do with the front end, and the result is this huge, Tundra-sized grille and front bumper. After I brought it home, my wife took one look at the Highlander as it sat in our driveway and remarked that it appeared to be wearing sunglasses and a moustache.
When comparing the old Highlander to the new Highlander, the most significant improvement pertains to interior materials. The hard plastic surfaces, fuzzy headliner, and dated technology of the old model is replaced by soft-touch dashboard and door panel materials, a tastefully executed headliner that matches the roof pillar covers, and a contemporary control layout featuring modern technology and upscale trim accents. The new Highlander’s cabin looks good, and feels great.
It’s got lots of storage spots, too. Check out the padded shelf on the dashboard, complete with a cord pass-through for charging your smartphone. The big roll-top center console is new, too, doubling as a padded armrest, but for some reason I find it hard to open and to close. Plus, the removable tray that is inside isn’t lined with anything, so items placed there will potentially vibrate and rattle.
2014 Toyota Highlander Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Comfort and Cargo
- Quieter interior
- Claimed 8-passenger seating capacity
- Heated and ventilated front seats
- Heated second-row seats
- Heated steering wheel
- Height-adjustable rear liftgate
- Bigger unless you want maximum cargo space, then its smaller
Toyota says that the Highlander is an 8-passenger vehicle, and I’ll qualify that by saying half of them had better be children. You’re not likely to find this SUV accommodating of more than six adults at a time, or four adults and four kids.
All 2014 Highlander models except for the base LE get an 8-way power driver’s seat that includes a power thigh support adjuster, and the Limited model features a 4-way power front passenger’s seat. The lack of a height adjuster on that side sure did make my wife unhappy to ride in this vehicle, though I found that chair to be perfectly comfortable. But then, I’m taller than she is. We both appreciated the heated seats and had it been summertime, the Limited model’s standard ventilated front seats would have come in handy.
Second-row captain’s chairs are standard equipment for the Highlander Limited, and they recline and slide fore-and-aft to make more room for the people in the third-row seat as is necessary. The captain’s chairs offer good comfort, support, and legroom, but they also seem to sit a little too close to the floor. A folding center tray is effective for holding smartphones and drinks, as long as the latter are contained within something other than a box or a pouch.
The third-row seat is best for kids, but adults can squeeze in for a ride across town as long as the people in the second-row seats don’t mind sliding forward to improve knee and foot space. Entry and exit are a little tight for adults, too, but this is to be expected.
According to Toyota, the new Highlander offers 3.5 cubic-feet of extra cargo space behind the third-row seat compared to the old Highlander. Fold the third-row seat down, and the new Highlander offers exactly as much space as the old one did, at 42.3 cu.-ft. If you’re looking for maximum cargo capacity, though, the new Highlander disappoints, losing 11.7 cu.-ft. of volume compared to the old Highlander. That’s almost as much as the entire trunk of a compact car.
2014 Toyota Highlander Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Features and Controls
- Upgraded displays and controls
- USB 2.0 connection ports
- Latest version of navigation with 8-inch display screen
- Panoramic glass sunroof
Where Toyota most significantly improved the new Highlander, in my opinion, is with regard to the interior’s design and the materials used in its construction. Is it perfect? No. But compared to the cheap, plastic cabin in the previous model, this new Highlander might as well be a Lexus.
From the classy looking headliner and soft-touch dashboard and door panel materials to the cool blue nighttime lighting and the 8-inch touchscreen infotainment display, the 2014 Highlander is a terrific place to spend time. Controls are logically located and easy to use, and refined in terms of feel and operation. Visually and graphically appealing, the cabin’s dashboard and overall interior environment are upscale and modern in appearance, yet practical in terms of design.
I know that owners are just going to clutter it up, but that storage shelf on the dashboard is really useful, and in Limited models, this storage area is softly lit with ambient lighting. My test vehicle also had the optional panoramic sunroof, and my kids loved gazing out of it at the clouds, buildings, and mountainsides of greater Los Angeles. What my Highlander did not have, however, was the optional rear-seat entertainment system. For this omission, I was grateful. The kids actually looked out the window on longer trips, and talked with us, instead of plugging in and tuning out.
2014 Toyota Highlander Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Safety and Ratings
- Rear parking assist sensors
- Blind Spot Monitor
- Rear Cross-Traffic Alert
- Lane Departure Alert
- Dynamic Radar Cruise Control
- Pre-Collision System
- Automatic high-beam headlights
- Safety Connect with Automatic Collision Notification
Every 2014 Toyota Highlander is equipped with Smart Stop Technology, which makes it impossible for the SUV to accidentally accelerate as long as the driver is stepping on the brake pedal. Beyond this, the Highlander is available with several new safety systems, but they’re all reserved for the most expensive Limited trim level.
The Highlander Limited is equipped with rear parking assist sensors, a Blind Spot Monitor system, and a Rear Cross-Traffic Alert system. Safety-related options for this model are packaged in the Driver Technology Package and they include Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, a Pre-Collision System, a Lane Departure Alert system, automatic high-beam headlights, and Safety Connect telematics service. You know what I think, as a father as much as a vehicle reviewer? At the very least, Toyota should offer these technologies for the LE Plus and XLE models in addition to the Limited model. If people are willing to pay the added cost, they should be able to get these safety technologies on lower-priced versions of the SUV.
At the very least, Safety Connect service should be available on all Highlander models. With an active subscription, Safety Connect provides Automatic Collision Notification as well as a direct connection to an SOS emergency operator or to Toyota’s roadside assistance program. All of these features are useful to any family, and are available on the less expensive versions of several of Toyota’s competitors in the segment.
2014 Toyota Highlander Crash-Test Ratings:
While you might not be able to get all the fancy safety technology on all versions of the Highlander, you can rest easy knowing that it has met “Top Safety Pick” standards according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In the tough new small overlap frontal-impact test, the Highlander gets an “Acceptable” rating and receives the top rating of “Good” in all other assessments. If you get the Highlander Limited with the optional Driver Technology Package, this crossover vehicle is the only midsize SUV to receive a “Top Safety Pick+” rating for 2014.
2014 Toyota Highlander Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Engines and Fuel Economy
- New 6-speed automatic transmission with V-6 engine
- New Dynamic Torque Control all-wheel-drive system
Toyota equips the Highlander LE with a standard 185-horsepower, 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine. Presumably, the point is to offer a more fuel-efficient option to buyers on a budget, but the reality is that the 4-cylinder is rated to return just one mile more per gallon. Therefore, if you’re buying the LE model, I strongly urge you to spend the extra $1,305 to install the optional 3.5-liter V-6 engine.
The V-6 is standard for the LE Plus, XLE, and Limited models. This is one of my favorite engines because it always feels stronger than its official horsepower rating, revs willingly and eagerly, and gets decent gas mileage. In the Highlander, it is rated to make 270 horsepower and 248 lb.-ft. of torque, and is paired with a new 6-speed automatic transmission that features a manual shift mode. Believe it or not, if you’re not careful, you’ll spin this SUV’s front wheels without trying too hard. That’s one reason you might want to get the optional Dynamic Torque Control all-wheel-drive system even if you never plan to leave the pavement.
A 280-horsepower hybrid powertrain is available for the Highlander Limited. It commands a $6,200 premium over the V-6 engine, wears a price tag of at least $48,160, and is rated to get 28 mpg in combined driving. If you drive 15,000 miles annually, and pay an average of $3.50 per gallon, it will save 178.6 gallons of gas each year, which translates to savings of $625.10 at the pump each year. That means it will also take 10 years of driving before the Highlander Hybrid puts your bank account into positive territory. Buy this version of the SUV, and you’d better derive plenty of satisfaction from your environmental contribution.
During my week spent with a Highlander V-6 with front-wheel drive, I averaged 19.4 mpg in combined driving. That’s less than the 21 mpg the EPA thinks I should have gotten, but still decent among midsize crossover SUVs. Also, it’s worth mentioning that every 2014 Highlander is equipped with free Toyota Care maintenance for the first two years or 25,000 miles of ownership.
2014 Toyota Highlander Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Driving Impressions
I’ve long felt that most of Toyota’s cars are dull to drive, but its crossovers are not, and the new Highlander serves to reinforce this opinion. Regardless of whether you’re driving in the city, the suburbs, on freeway off-ramps, or down a mountain road, the Highlander’s V-6 engine produces speedy acceleration, the Limited model’s 19-inch wheels provide impressive grip in corners, the suspension delivers a taut ride and deft handling, and the brakes are responsive, easy to modulate, and adept at resisting fade.
As a result, the Highlander feels peppy and athletic, and among its primary competitors, I find it quite rewarding to drive. In fact, from the driver’s seat, the Highlander feels smaller and more nimble than it really is. Plus, on the freeway, the Highlander’s cabin is remarkably quiet, even with the shade for the optional panoramic sunroof peeled back.
If there’s a dynamic trait that is displeasing here, it’s the Highlander’s steering. First, it feels too light on center and too heavy off-center, and when bending the SUV into a curve or corner the steering almost feels like it is resisting your attempts to change direction. Second, it is too slow, which means the driver is required to dial in considerable amounts of input in order to navigate the pathways of daily life. Third, I found the shape of the steering wheel rim itself to be moderately uncomfortable, depending on how I gripped the wheel.
My Highlander did not have the company’s Dynamic Torque Control all-wheel-drive system, so I didn’t venture farther off-road than a narrow washboard-textured road in the local mountains. Even with AWD, though, the new Highlander’s approach angle is significantly reduced compared to last year, so this crossover SUV is even more of a soft-roader than it used to be.
Designed to transfer power to the rear wheels from the front wheels when they slip, and also when the Highlander is accelerating or being driven aggressively, the Dynamic Torque Control AWD is good for more than just driving on unpaved roads. My bet is that it helps to eliminate the torque steer that plagued my test model from time to time, as well as the Highlander’s tendency to try to spin its inside wheel if the driver’s right foot is too heavy on the gas.
2014 Toyota Highlander Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Final Thoughts
Completely redesigned, the 2014 Highlander represents a significant improvement over the vehicle it replaces in terms of safety features, infotainment technology, and the quality and comfort of the interior. If you like the way the new Highlander looks, or you’re just a big fan of Kermit the Frog, chances are you won’t regret buying this latest family-sized crossover SUV from Toyota.
Better yet, if the automaker can execute these kinds of upgrades for its other models, and imbue its cars with the same athleticism demonstrated by the Highlander, it might just be possible for Toyota to shrug off its well-earned reputation for building bulletproof but soulless transportation devices.
2014 Toyota Highlander Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Pros and Cons
- Dramatic interior upgrades, comfortable seats
- New safety and infotainment systems
- “Top Safety Pick” crash protection rating
- Peppy acceleration (V-6), athletic handling
- Reduced maximum cargo capacity
- Electric steering feel, response, and wheel rim design
- Safety technology reserved for most expensive model
Toyota supplied the 2014 Highlander Limited for this review
2014 Toyota Highlander Limited photos by Christian Wardlaw