2014 Toyota Highlander XLE review: Giving thanks to a third row

2014 Toyota Highlander

Toyota’s Highlander fills the bill, whether going over the river or thru the woods…

In a moment rare for its honesty, know that the subject of this reporting was intended to be Kia’s new Sedona. And while ‘Kia Sedona’ lacks the resonance of a BMW M4 or Lambo’s latest, we were planning a Thanksgiving Day trip from the D.C. area to Allentown, PA, carrying four adults; one elderly mother (very much an adult – or adult to a factor of four, as she’s 84); and our grandson, now 20 months. And while anything with 3-rows can easily accommodate five adults and a toddler, it’s the stuff associated with overnight travel and toddler that gets you to scratching your…head. In between planning for the way-spacious Sedona and actually getting it the Kia was sideswiped by a dump truck. And while we didn’t have a Plan B Toyota was kind enough to supply it: A 3-row Highlander XLE with all-wheel drive. As the Pennsylvania Dutch might put it (but thankfully wouldn’t): Wunderbar!

At this point Toyota’s Highlander is well established. And while this latest iteration is but an aggressive refresh of the previous gen, it seemingly checks all the boxes for those whose lives revolve around families, activities and family activities. While offering some 140 cubic feet of passenger volume, it ain’t a minivan. And if intending to carry three rows of passengers and their stuff over some 200 miles of roadway, a minivan can be awfully handy in a pinch, if only to avoid the pinch.

2014 Toyota Highlander

Passenger load wasn’t quite SRO…but almost

With an inventory of people and their belongings, we concluded that we could accommodate all passengers and their things if the ‘60’ side of the 60/40 third row was folded, leaving but the ‘40’ for our thankfully-small 30-something daughter. The luggage and miscellany associated with toddlers (the complete itemization would run for pages) would essentially be packed around her; probably not the safest of solutions, but also precluded taking – and fueling – another car. With skies clear and roads clearing we were off on the morning of Thanksgiving Day. As – of course – was everyone else.

Behind the wheel the Highlander feels substantial; not, thankfully, heavy or lethargic, but like something you can entrust to a load of family and friends. From the driver’s perch you enjoy reasonably good visibility in most directions; the generous glass area is, of course, made more accessible by the Highlander’s high hip point. In front of you is an instrument panel apparently already spec’d for those of us using readers; both speedo and tach seem oversized, while the center screen proved more than adequate. We liked the ergonomic shape of the steering wheel, and while the plastics used in the upper cockpit have an upscale feel and appearance, the same can’t be said for those located in the southern reaches. There, especially on lower door panels, the plastics feel unnecessarily hard and look unnecessarily cheap.

The Highlander’s middle row can adjust fore and aft, is split – as has been mentioned – 60/40, and supplies enough width to easily accommodate a center-mounted child seat and two average adults bordering same. In a perfect world the seat split would have been 40/20/40, with the child seat anchored to the 20, allowing for easier access to the third row from either side of the car. Or, failing that, providing the ability to lower a 3rd-row passenger through the XLE’s standard moonroof. With – maybe – an engine lift…

2014 Toyota Highlander Cargo

Luggage was crammed to the sills

With this being an overnighter, and with the hotel providing a crib and hosts providing a high chair, we thankfully didn’t have to pack anything beyond luggage and my mom’s lightweight/foldable walker. With its 3.5 liter V6 offering a reasonably competitive 270 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque while moving 4,500 pounds of vehicle and – we’re guessing here – 800+ pounds of passengers and their things, we didn’t go racing for pink slips. But once out of the D.C area and into Pennsylvania, the Highlander handled the route’s undulations and moderate altitude as well as anything carrying the ‘Highlander’ moniker. All were pleased by the Highlander’s ride and overall comfort – even our Yoga practitioner in the third row!

For an investment of almost $40K (a loaded Limited can easily nudge $45K), the well-optioned Highlander is not for the financially faint of heart. Were we shopping the Toyota showroom and making a Thanksgiving run more than once a year(?), we’d think about an all-wheel drive Sienna. Or wait until the toddler is old enough to drive himself…or simply old enough to not want to go.

Specifications follow…