2014 Toyota Highlander: First Drive

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Toyota went back to the drawing board to redesign its aging and stylistically devoid Highlander with a more exciting SUV for 2014. When we tested the previous-generation Highlander against five other 2011-2012 model-year competitors in a Cars.com $37,000 SUV comparison, its bland exterior and interior were complaints voiced loud and clear by our experts compared to the more polished competition.

Read: 2014 Toyota Highlander Starts at $30,075

Fast forward to 2014, and you can't call the Highlander boring looking any longer. The Highlander's ho-hum appearance is transformed with for 2014 with a beefier stance, bulging fenders and bold front styling. Its presence was big on the 2013 New York International Auto Show floor where it debuted, and it looks just as good rolling down the California roads on which I recently drove the 2014 during a media drive event.

Part of the transformation includes dialing up the interior styling while adding thoughtful features for modern families who need more room for cargo, people (now standard seating for eight) and an assortment of technology that families desire. The redesign checklist also included a revised driving experience that Toyota was convinced it had to enhance.

That new driving experience isn't the car's most appealing attribute, however, even with an assortment of promising new chassis and suspension improvements, so it's good the new SUV does so many other things well. It is exceptionally family friendly, packed with new features and versatility including — finally — more cargo room behind the third row.

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Toyota picked curvy canyon and coastal roads in California to demonstrate the Highlander's new handling chops. Driving a 2013 and 2014 back to back, the 2014 exhibits higher levels of road grip and an enhanced steering response through an extremely thick steering wheel. It's more athletic when digging into a corner, though I wouldn't call the Highlander "fun to drive." The 270-horsepower V-6 doesn't have the immediacy or punch of a lighter, more-powerful three-row SUV like the 290-hp Hyundai Santa Fe, which is a "little" ball of excitement among other similar three-row SUVs — a six-cylinder Highlander LE with front-wheel drive is 4,244 pounds, while a V-6, front-wheel-drive Santa Fe GLS is 3,933 pounds.

An adverse effect of the Highlander's newfound dynamics is a choppier ride over rough roads. Suspension movement of the 2013 is better isolated from occupants, while the 2014 transmits more road imperfections through the chassis and into seats. The 2014 Highlander makes up the loss in ride quality with a quieter ride than the 2013 and a more substantial feeling over rough roads with fewer rattles, squeaks and chassis flex.

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I briefly spent time in the four-cylinder Highlander with front-wheel drive, which Toyota expects to account for 5 to 10 percent of sales, and the all-new Highlander Hybrid. The volume-seller V-6 is the most refined of the bunch and best handling with all-wheel drive. Both the four-cylinder and Hybrid V-6 are a little rough around the edges as far as engine noise and vibrations. The Hybrid's V-6 rattles to life and revs high when at a stop, which is audible from across a parking lot. The Hybrid's gas mileage is relatively unchanged for 2014, down 1 mpg in city ratings to 27 mpg but maintains its 28 mpg combined rating.

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The most notable change isn't felt behind the wheel though; it's appreciated when opening the cargo hatch. Cargo room behind the third row is vastly improved from the previous Highlander's skimpy bookshelf of a ledge that had trouble even carrying groceries, let alone a stroller or golf bag. The cargo area is now rated at 13.8 cubic feet behind the third row, up from 10.3 cubic feet. Toyota's trickery to increase cargo room involved moving all three rows of seats forward, adding length behind the rear wheels and using a more compact rear suspension.

IMG_4578The newfound room also allowed Toyota to increase third-row width and add an extra seat in the third row for a maximum capacity of eight occupants in standard configuration — captain's chairs with room for seven are also available. The third row still doesn't fit adults with as much comfort as the larger Chevrolet Traverse, but it's good in a pinch. There are also new one-touch folding second-row seats to both driver and passenger sides. Previously, only the passenger seat folded and slid forward via the one-touch level.

Utility is important but the interior gets as dramatic a change as the exterior. Think Toyota Avalon quality with a stitched dashboard, steering wheel and soft-touch, high-quality materials in prominent locations. Those areas that aren't textured, stitched or covered are still on par for the class. Even the base LE Highlander exudes the almost luxurylike niceness of the higher-optioned Limited trims.

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Technology is a huge focus in the 2014, from how well Toyota's Entune multimedia system works to the Highlander's ability to suck up multimedia devices. A ledge below the climate controls keeps phones and music players in place while providing a pass-through for the charge cords. There should be no more Medusa-like dangling of cables.

Working the Entune system on the optional 8-inch touch-screen with voice commands is also impressive, while a massive center storage bin between the front seats can devour anything else plus size, like a purse, iPad or Blu-ray collection for the available rear-seat Blu-ray player. And when you forget that Blu-ray at home, an interesting new feature called Easy Speak transmits the booming voice of an angry mom or dad through the rear stereo speakers via the Bluetooth mic to keep rowdy kids in check. How much more family focused can you get than providing a feature that allows parents to yell at kids?

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Related
More Toyota Highlander News
2014 Toyota Highlander Starts at $30,075
2014 Toyota Highlander at the 2013 New York Auto Show

By Joe Bruzek | December 16, 2013 | Comments (18)

Comments 

carma

I'm not a fan of this new look, and news of a harsher ride is not something any SUV buyer wants to hear. Now it's neither fun to drive nor smooth riding, the worst of both worlds. I'm not saying it's bad, but a lot of people buy highlanders for the comfort and handling is a secondary consideration. A quick comparison with the previous generation Limited model reveals a loss of chrome strips on the front, rear and sides of the lower body; a loss of the fake, yet convincing wood trim in parts of the interior; the addition of black plastic cladding around the wheels openings, giving a cheaper less clean design look; taillights with cheap looking clear covers subject to hazing in the sun; and finally the grille that looks like something from a Subaru. All this is okay, as it will help the resale value of our '12 model, if we ever decide to part with it.

Sudek

Some people just can't handle change and only a dolt expects an suv to be 'fun to drive'.

truedek

If you were successful enough to afford an X5, GL, or escalade, you would realize how clueless your statement is.

Belly

Wow, that's an ugly mug.

JC_SRT

Escalade fun to drive? You must be one of the clueless one's you're referring to.

svo

Too bad you can't afford a nice escalade, you're missing out on the fun, moron.

Ryan

I agree with another poster on here, A rougher ride is not acceptable to Toyota customers. They also made the new RAV4 way to rough of a ride. I'll keep my 2013 Highlander until the improve ride quality on the new ones or I'll buy a different make next time. Toyota people want soft rides!

David

I am trying to like the new Highlander (I have a 2010 with 80,000 miles). One thing that shocked me is the absence of a full-sized spare. They have the temporary small one.

Is anyone else troubled by this?

Ronn Lowe

I just ordered this new beauty...wow , what a difference between the 2014 and the 2008 ! This SUV rocks ! You must see it in person as the pics don't necessarly do it justice. I drove the Lexus 350, no comparison..Highlander much more comfortable, less plastics, and luxury interior. I disagree with the article about the harsh ride....when I drove it, it was smooth and quiet....musch more than previous model. I ordered the Limited Platinum...everything ! It will be in sometime in february.....so anxious !

2014 Lexus ES350 drive much better than any highlander... quality of Lexus is a class better than any Toyota

Eddie

Ill keep my 2009 chevy Equinox. Better Over All.

Eddie

I"ll keep my 2009 equinox,40k miles and no problems.I only drive 500-600 miles a month, if that much.

jsanders

to those talking about the harsh ride - do y'all even own the car? Cause I do and this thing rides smooth as a Lexus. Not a single hint of harshness in the ride.

Carlito

It has the same suspension as the Lexus

Fantastic

I bought the new 2014 HL Limited, about a week ago, boy it is so smooth compared to the 11 year pilot and very quiet ride. Can't feel the bumps and it is very quick in acceleration. Feels very much masculine. Love it! The only way to check it is to go for a test drive and feel it.

jett

The reviewer stated the new highlander transmits more bumps. I'll take his word over yours. Plus I can't get past the ugly mug. Some things do get worse sometimes.

carma

I saw the new highlander next to the 2013 and it looked smaller to me, with a lower roofline in the back. I did some research, and sure enough, the 2014 has 12 cubic feet less of total cargo capacity compared to the '13 model. At the same time the curb weight has gone up by 200 pounds for the 2014. So it weighs more and carries less.

Newbie

I jot leased the new 2014 highlander. It is awesome!
Ride is nice, v6 power is very good, lots of features. People... Do not complain about it until you drive it!

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