2014 Toyota Highlander review: Family-friendly Highlander holds modern tech, old-school engine

Workhorse engine

This sonic terror sounded most prominently from the rear speakers, but the Highlander's 3.5-liter V-6 couldn't seem to outrun it. This engine uses Toyota's variable valve timing, but lacks refinements such as direct injection that could pull a little more efficiency out of it. As it stands, this engine makes 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque.

2014 Toyota Highlander
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The Highlander receives all-new styling for the 2014 model year. Josh Miller/CNET

For most Highlander buyers, that kind of power will be perfectly adequate. I certainly had no problem merging onto the freeway or climbing hills. But passing slower cars on a two-lane highway takes some caution. You aren't going to power on by and slip back to the right before that oncoming big rig blows its air horn.

Toyota also offers a 2.7-liter four-cylinder for the Highlander, but don't think of this as the economy option. Only making 185 horsepower, the four-cylinder gets an EPA rating of 20 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. The V-6, in the front-wheel-drive Highlander, turns in 19 mpg city and 25 mpg highway.

I drove the all-wheel-drive Highlander with the V-6, with EPA ratings of 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, only a 1-mpg sacrifice from the front-wheel-drive version, and not much below the four-cylinder version. My real-world average came in at 18.5 mpg.

As in previous model years, Toyota offers a hybrid drivetrain for the Highlander. Although substantially more expensive, it boasts more power and an EPA fuel economy average of 28 mpg.

The Highlander's six-speed automatic usually did its shifting pretty quietly, but under sustained acceleration, such as on a hill climb, it had a hard time deciding between lower and higher gears, leading to multiple pronounced gear changes. Throwing the transmission into its Sport position solved that problem.

What really stood out for me in the Highlander's driving character was the compliant, well-sprung ride. The Bridgestone P245/55 R19s contribute a good bit of cushion with their high walls, damping out rough roads so that passengers from the front to the far third row can enjoy long trips.

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Middle-row seats in the Highlander slide forward, providing good access to the third row. Josh Miller/CNET

The power-steering tuning, designed for comfortable cruising, was equally good. The Highlander featured good response from driver to wheels without being twitchy. Turning the steering wheel gave an immediate result, with just a little softness built in to make long highway miles comfortable. There was a satisfying heft to the steering wheel, as well, that didn't get in the way of cranking it all the way around when performing parking-lot maneuvers.

There were no surprises in the Highlander's handling. It couldn't chop up a corner like a Miata but also wouldn't sway hard over with 30 degrees on the inclinometer like a Country Squire. Drive it too fast in a turn and it will lean, but vehicle stability systems will kick in to subvert the kind of punishment that recklessness brings.

The all-wheel-drive system included on the Highlander I drove had some surprising capabilities. As the Highlander uses a front-wheel-drive architecture, it defaults torque to the front wheels. However, the instrument cluster display's all-wheel-drive screen showed torque going to the rear wheels under acceleration. At the push of a button, I could also lock the center differential, which would ensure that torque was being dispersed out to all wheels, useful for particularly slippery conditions. This all-wheel-drive system also feature descent control, which comes in handy for crawling down icy hills, and a snow mode.

Further helping out the driver, the Limited-trim Highlander comes standard with a blind-spot monitor system and rearview camera. Both are extremely useful safety gear for this crossover. The blind-spot monitor lit up very visible icons in the side-view mirrors when cars came up on either side of me. The rearview camera kept me from needing to park by braille at San Francisco curbsides, but there were no active overlays on the image, just some lines that made it look like it was an advanced system.

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The 2014 Highlander is half a foot longer and a couple of inches taller than its original incarnation. Josh Miller/CNET

The addition of the Driver Technology package brought in adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and automatic high beams. When I followed a line of cars up to a stoplight with cruise control engaged, I didn't find the system as refined as what I've used in Mercedes-Benz vehicles. It didn't seem capable of handling stop-and-go traffic like some of the better systems out there, but can ease long cruises down the highway.

Modern family van

Toyota brings many modern features to the 2014 Highlander, from smart little ergonomic touches that owners will appreciate to the connected apps in the navigation head unit. Drivers will find the app-based interface of the cabin electronics very usable, and voice command a good complement for controlling the system while under way.

Entune, which showed great promise in the implementations I saw previously in the Camry, gets even better in the Highlander. However, it could use further refinement in using apps to set destinations for navigation. The audio system was troubled in this example, but I'm not convinced that problem will be replicated in other models.

The Highlander certainly drove well. It's the kind of vehicle that you can load the kids in and get into without fussing over the driving experience. It drives comfortably, letting owners worry about other things, such as if they brought the sunblock or packed enough snacks when heading to the beach.

I'm least impressed by the V-6 engine. It gets the job done, but with no particular efficiency. With Toyota reliability, it will likely serve as another part of the car that will need little attention, other than frequent visits to the gas station.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Toyota Highlander
Trim Limited Platinum
Power train 3.5-liter V-6 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 18 mpg city/24 mpg city
Observed fuel economy 18.5 mpg
Navigation Standard, with live traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Internet-based radio, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, HD Radio, satellite radio
Audio system JBL GreenEdge 12-speaker system
Driver aids Adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind-spot monitor, rearview camera
Base price $29,215
Price as tested $44,450

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