2014 Toyota Highlander first drive review: Comfort food…to go

2014 Toyota Highlander

Toyota’s new Highlander brings more room, equipment and…Muppets!

Santa Barbara, CA – To quote directly from a Toyota press release, the “Muppets gang is in for a wild ride when they join forces with Toyota this year, blending Toyota’s exciting ‘Let’s Go Places’ spirit with Muppets mayhem.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, could sum up the newest Highlander in a nutshell, combining – apparently – an exciting ‘Let’s Go Places’ spirit with mayhem provided by the Muppets. As you’ll know, the revised 2014 Highlander will never be confused with Jeep’s Wrangler Rubicon, but if I’m pursuing on-or-off-road adventure, I’d kinda’ like the mayhem to be supplied by something other than the Muppets; better, I think, for Highlander prospects that it be supplied by Cheerios (or peanut butter) on the third-row carpet…

Of course, at a Highlander/Camry/Avalon/Corolla (pick one or all) intro you don’t expect to peg your adrenaline meter. There are few automotive lineups that speak better to small town or suburban values than Toyota’s, and as a product of both small towns and suburbs I find very little wrong with that. It’s only when the market mavens attempt to inject ‘excitement’ into the conversation that one tends to blanch. Mitt Romney, having fathered five sons, is (obviously/painfully) quite the stud, but please don’t make that the centerpiece of Mitt’s campaign literature; better to emphasize his prowess at turning someone else’s sweat into beachside real estate.

With the 2014 Toyota Highlander lineup, you needn’t sweat at all. A solidly midsize (and fairly close to a full-size) 3-row CUV, its underpinnings – shared (at least in spirit) with Camry and Avalon – fairly ooze competence, either in base 4-cylinder guise or equipped with the far more popular V6. While this is the Highlander’s 3rd-gen (the first was announced at the New York Auto Show in April, 2000), it doesn’t seem to differ all that much from the 2nd-gen, an aggressive redesign launched in 2008. Sitting on a wheelbase of just under 110 inches, the 2014 Highlander is both a little longer and a titch wider than its immediate predecessor. Seeing the newest Highlander at the State Fair of Texas last fall it new front fascia, headlights and (most notably) taillights made it seem much bigger, but that apparently was more a function of the show stand than actual dimensions. Styling, of course, is generally subjective, but if we were asked we’d vote in favor of the very first Highlander, still – we think – the most quietly tasteful.

2014 Toyota Highlander Dash

The Highlander controls, rolltop console

If there’s the occasional quibble with a (trapezoidal!) grille or side sculpting, a look inside should quickly hush the criticism. Like most midsize crossovers, the Highlander places special emphasis on human beings. And in this case it’s eight of them, with a spacious second row and – in light of a new rear suspension design – a reasonably accommodating third row. And behind the third row is genuine room for stuff, measuring almost 14 cubic feet. You won’t, to be sure, pack eight pieces of luggage in 14 cubic feet, but it beats a 3rd-row seat that’s backing right up to the rear hatch. With the 3rd row folded you’ll enjoy over 40 cubic feet; fold the second row and you have an Ikea-swallowing 80 cubic feet!

At the wheel the driver is faced with a spacious, eminently logical array of instrumentation, cleanly designed dash (featuring a soft-touch instrument panel) and various painted, satin or chrome-plated accents. Even in the LE Plus, a $33K Highlander to which we devoted the bulk of our time (automotive scribes continue to wait for their economic recovery), the appearance was upscale and the functionality everything you’d expect.

My co-driver, a youngish mother of two, became almost animated while inspecting what Toyota describes as a “massive roll-top center console.” It provides a comfortable armrest when closed, while – when open – is sufficiently spacious to hold a large handbag. In that we don’t (yet) carry a handbag, we saw it as the perfect repository for our medical marijuana; especially so if taking same without a prescription…

2014 Toyota Highlander 3rd Row

The 3rd row offers more room and easy access, thanks to new rear suspension. larger design staff.

In selecting the LE we assumed we were driving a Highlander with the base 4-cylinder powertrain. And during that ‘assumption phase’ we found this new Highlander almost explosive, wondering aloud why anyone would need a V6. Of course, that’s what we get when we assume, as the Toyota turned out to be equipped with the V6. And given the small ‘delta’ in fuel efficiency between four and six (the cost difference in regular driving might be one medium latte per week) and the Highlander’s two tons (plus) of curb weight, we’d opt for Toyota’s way-smooth V6 in a nanosecond.

On the roads in and around Santa Barbara  the Highlander did everything we asked of it. Acceleration was more than adequate, power to merge or pass was plentiful, and while loaded only with two adults (height/weight proportional), the 3.5 liter V6 seemed to offer a surplus of both power and torque. We wouldn’t race for pink slips, but who-in-Akio-Toyoda’s-name ever pays off a Highlander?

This newest crossover rolls out to the ‘petit bourgeois’ in LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited guise; the Limited is also available with a hybrid drivetrain. With price points ranging between the low $30s and high $40s, this Highlander can be virtually anything you want it to be, including a 3-row, FWD/AWD Lexus. While we prefer our Toyota Camrys and Avalons and Highlanders in the lower of the two pricing spheres, we also know that for many buyers a Toyota is a long-term purchase. A $5K bump in trim level or options is chump change if stretched over ten years of ownership.

The Highlander’s sweet spot might be the XLE or Limited, priced at just under or over $40K. That perhaps leaves room in the budget for Scion’s FR-S; if, of course, you grow tired of the Muppets.

Specifications follow…