Review: 2014 Toyota Highlander XLE with video

[youtube_sc url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUR81WtMNdY”]

The mid-sized, three row crossover has become the go-to family vehicle for shoppers who have post-minivan-stress-disorder. It is therefore no surprise that Toyota is embracing the automotive equivalent of “mom jeans” with their Muppets themed TV spots. Despite the family oriented marketing, the key to continuing crossover success has more to do with well-rounded performance than simply schlepping the most kids. That brings us to the third-generation Toyota Highlander. For 2014, Toyota’s most important crossover grew a few inches, gained an 8th seat and polished its road manners. Does that give the Muppet-hauler what it takes to stay on top?

IMG_7556

Exterior

Up front the Highlander has the characteristic long overhang caused by a transverse V6 engine. While some dislike the look, I’m not offended by it. On the other hand, I’m not a fan of the enormous front grill which reminds me equally of the Billy-the-big-mouth-bass era Audis and the current Toyota Corolla, but it is far more exciting than the last-gen Highlander or the Chevy Traverse. Although Toyota didn’t comment on the tall hood line and blunt nose, I suspect it is the result of a desire to look more “truck-like” which kind of works. While the Pilot is looking dated and the Pathfinder is starting to age, the Highlander certainly looks fresh.

The 2013 Highlander always looked like a box grafted to a long hood while the 2014 model draws from all the latest styling trends to “avoid the box.” The greenhouse starts tall and narrows toward the rear, a stylistic trick to make the vehicle look sporting but allow the roof-line to remain high for third row headroom. It’s no surprise that I see a hint of Grand Cherokee in the D-pillars as Toyota believes the top-end Limited and Hybrid trims will compete with the Jeep in some ways.

While our XLE model sported standard 18-inch alloy wheels, jumping up to the Limited trim gets you an interesting wheel hybrid that Toyota is calling Chrometec. It’s a plastic “cover” bonded to an aluminium wheel. This isn’t a hubcap in the traditional sense and it’s not removable which I think is as pity. If it were possible to replace them when you scuffed one, I think it would be a huge selling point but without that ability I prefer the look of XLE’s wheels.

2014 Toyota Highlander Interior-008

Interior

The 2014 model is three inches longer and a little under an inch wider than the 2013 model. The Highlander’s growth is clear in the back where we get more cargo room behind the third row than last year. That third tow itself is also new for 2014 since it now has a third seatbelt enabling 8-passenger seating. Thankfully Toyota didn’t just rely on that half-inch of width expansion, they also replaced the Highlander’s rear suspension with a double-wishbone configuration to add nearly four inches of width to the rear bench. It’s still a tight squeeze for three adults, but that’s an improvement over the 2013 model which was a tight squeeze for two. Because the Highlander is still on the smaller end of the three-row segment, third row headroom is still an issue and anyone over six-feet tall will have to cock their head to the side. Third row legroom is also limited with the Pathfinder, Santa Fe, Sorento, Pilot, CX-9, Explorer and Traverse all offering more. Some of this is due to Toyota’ prioritization of 2nd row legroom over the back (something folks with rearward facing child seats will appreciate) but more has to do with the Highlander’s overall size in the class. Thankfully the second row slides fore/aft so you can decide how you want to divvy up the inches. Although the middle-row slides forward, getting in and out of the back seat with a child seat installed if trickier than in the Pathfinder that is specifically designed for that predicament.

2014 Toyota Highlander Interior-013

LE and LE Plus trims come only with a three-across second row enabling the 8-passenger total. XLE starts with the same 8-passenger arrangement in leather, and for $275 extra you can delete the middle seat in the second row dropping capacity to 7. Stepping up to the Limited or Hybrid makes the 2nd row captain’s chairs standard, dashing all hopes of sipping fuel with your 7-closest friends. Front seat comfort proved above average during my week with the Highlander.

Despite being up 30% over last year, the 13.8 cubic feet of space behind the third row disappointed me slightly as it is lower than most competitors except notably the CX-9. I had to keep reminding myself that the Highlander isn’t as big as GM’s Lamda triplets or the Durango (and as a result will be easier to park) but I had hoped for something more competitive with the Pilot, Pathfinder and Explorer. Accessing the cargo area is made easier on LE Plus and above by the rear glass opening separately from the hatch, a feature that used to be more common but is now fairly rare in the segment.

2014 Toyota Highlander Interior-002

Infotainment

Toyota has been accused of following, not leading, when it comes to infotainment. This is an assessment I have found justified in some models, but the Highlander has turned over a new leaf. LE models start out with a 6.1 inch touchscreen Entune system which includes Bluetooth speakerphone integration, a single-slot CD player, backup camera and full USB/iPod integration with voice commands. LE Plus adds HD Radio and HD Radio sourced traffic and weather displays. XLE bumps the screen up to 8-inches and tosses in Smartphone app integration, SiriusXM satellite radio and most importantly: navigation software. This means the bulk of Highlanders found on dealer lots will have navigation standard. While I find in-car navigation more useful than what’s on my smartphone, I’m starting to question the value of navigation as a stand-alone option and Toyota has wisely chosen to make the question obsolete.

Toyota’s Entune software has received important updates for 2014 to improve the user experience. Traffic and weather data on all systems is now downloaded via free HD Radio broadcasts so you don’t need an XM subscription. Toyota has also killed their subscription based program for the Entune smartphone integrated services like Pandora, OpenTable, and Bing. In addition to the cost structure, the interface has been tweaked to be more intuitive with a configurable home screen and lightly re-organized menus. Voice recognition has been further improved for more natural voice commands and the back-end hardware has been updated for a snappier experience. While Entune still lacks the snazzy look of MyFord Touch, Entune is more responsive. uConnect is still my favorite in this segment with more features than any other system and a snappy interface, but Entune is my solid second choice.

2014 Toyota Highlander Engine-002

Drivetrain

Other companies may be dabbling with small turbo engines, but Toyota is sticking to their tried and true lineup. Things start out the same  2.7L four-cylinder engine as last year producing the same 185 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque and sending power to the front wheels only via a 6-speed automatic. While others are breaking the link between top-end trims and big engines, Toyota is offering the 2.7 in just the LE. LE Plus, XLE and Limited all get Toyota’s ubiquitous 3.5L V6 as the base engine. Producing 270 horsepower and 248 lb-ft, the only change for 2014 is a bump from a 5-speed to a 6-speed automatic. Fuel economy on the 2.7L remains unchanged at 20/25/22 MPG (City/Highway/Combined) while the V6 gets a one-MPG bump courtesy of the extra gear to 19/25/21 for FWD models and 18/24/20 when equipped with AWD.

As before, there is a V6 based hybrid system that is essentially shared with the Lexus RX 450h. Unlike the Lexus however, the Highlander Hybrid is available only an AWD vehicle. This system has remained essentially the same since it was refreshed in 2010. Things start out with a 3.5L Atkinson-cycle V6 engine producing 231 horsepower and 215 lb-ft of torque. The engine is connected to a beefier version of the Camry Hybrid’s power split transaxle. This unit uses two motor/generator units, a planetary gearset and a NiMH battery pack to bump system output to 280 horsepower and an estimated 280 lb-ft of torque. (Toyota doesn’t release official combined torque numbers.)

Rather than using a mechanical AWD system, the Hybrid employs a separate motor/generator unit in the rear connected to an open differential capable of delivering 68 horsepower and 96 lb-ft of torque. This isn’t 68 ponies in addition to the 280 coming from the front, the combined maximum is 280. This means that the system is capable of sending about 30% of the total output to the rear axle. Non Hybrid models use a more conventional mechanical AWD system employing an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch pack capable of a 50/50 maximum power split.

2014 Toyota Highlander Instrument Cluster-001

Pricing

Despite expecting the LE model to account for a very small percentage of sales, Toyota has priced the 2014 model very aggressively. At $29,215 the Highlander undercuts almost all of its competition coming in several hundred less than the Traverse, Durango, Pilot, Explorer, CX-9, and even the Hyundai Santa Fe. In fact, the only direct competitors that slot below the LE are the $28,950 Pathfinder S and the $27,995 Kia Sorento LX (7-seat). Jumping up to the $32,740 LE Plus gets you a V6 engine, power driver’s seat with lumbar support, power liftgate, HD Radio, three-zone climate control and a separately opening glass pane in the liftgate. Toyota says the $37,295 XLE model I drove will be the most popular trim and adds keyless entry/go, heated leather seating, moonroof, roof rails, sunshades integrated into the rear doors, an 8-inch infotainment display, navigation, the towing package with a 5,000lb rating and a universal garage transmitter. Limited kicks things up a notch to $40,895, adds 19-inch wheels, a blind spot monitoring system, rear parking sensors with cross-traffic detection, ventilated front seats, memory settings for the driver’s seat and mirrors, an up-level JBL speaker system and some LED daytime running lamps. The “Limited with Platinum”  trim for $42,990 adds radar cruise control, a panoramic moonroof and a heated steering wheel and is designed to give Grand Cherokee shoppers a Toyota alternative. AWD can be added on LE Plus, XLE and Limited trims for $1,460. Should money be no object, $49,555-$51,045 will buy you an AWD Highlander Hybrid, but with prices like these Toyota doesn’t think they will be a large part of the sales mix.

Pricing comparisons are often tricky, but Toyota’s fairly straightforward price chart and surprisingly aggressive MSRPs make the job easier. At the low-to-medium end of the chart, the Highlander is easily one of the best values in this segment. Although the starting price is slightly higher than the Pathfinder, the Highlander delivers more standard equipment including the 6.1-inch infotainment system. While the Sorento starts lower, the Highlander makes up for the cost difference with about $1,800 more in standard equipment. Although comparisons are trickier at the XLE level, the Highlander manages to stay consistently one of the best values in the segment.

2014 Toyota Highlander Exterior-013

Drive

While the old Highlander was solidly middle of the pack with it came to road manners, the rear suspension change for 2014 lifts the Highlander up near the top. The Durango’s perfect 50/50 weight balance and RWD bias make it the obvious handling choice in the segment, but second place is now a tie between the CX-9 and the Highlander. Say what? Yes, I was surprised as well. Relatively wide 245/60R18 tires, firmer springs and the new double wishbone configuration in the rear still can’t make a 4,200lb crossover handle like your average sedan, but unlike the overweight Traverse and Acadia the Highlander can be described as “engaging” on winding mountain roads.

Acceleration in our V6 XLE tester came in a hair behind the lighter Kia Sorento by just a hair at 7.3 seconds to 60. That places the Highlander in the thick of the V6 fight slotting in behind the Pathfinder (thanks to the CVT) and ahead of the heavier Durango V6 despite its snazzy 8-speed transmission.

2014 Toyota Highlander Exterior-014

The Highlander’s new-found handling abilities take a toll on ride quality. Although I would not go so far as some reviewers who have called the Highlander “harsh,” the ride is on the firmer end of the spectrum. I’d like to comment on steering feel, but no crossover has much to speak of thanks to electric power steering. Cabin noise was well controlled and measured in at a low 68 dB which is about the same as the Acura MDX and Jeep Grand Cherokee. On the downside, my average of 20.5 MPG over 911 miles of mixed driving was middling with entries like the Explorer Ecoboost, Pathfinder, Sorento and Santa Fe all getting better fuel economy with similar performance figures.

Disappointing fuel economy aside, Toyota surprised me with their 2014 Highlander. As a brand, Toyota has typically played to the heart of the segment without really pushing any boundaries. The Highlander on the other hand presents a strong value proposition from the base LE model to the volume XLE model while also delivering one of the best handling three row crossovers available. The standard 8th seat pushes things further in the Highlander’s favor. Since the 8-seat segment narrows down to the Highlander, Pilot and the Traverse/Acadia/Enclave triplets, it’s hardly a fair fight with the Highlander being the better all around vehicle despite the cozier third row and smaller cargo area. Far from being the “logical family hauler” you might think a Toyota crossover would be, the 2014 Highlander strikes a near perfect balance of family friendliness, strong value and driving enjoyment. Driving enjoyment in a Toyota crossover? You heard that right.

Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Specifications as tested

0-30: 2.55 Seconds

0-60: 7.3 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 15.17 Seconds @ 92 MPH

Average observed fuel economy: 20.5 MPG over 911 miles

Cabin noise at 50 MPH: 68 dB