With the 2014 Toyota Highlander, you get easy access to the third row, a rear window that opens independently of the hatch, online destination search, and a feature that lets you use the stereo as a PA to yell at the kids you're carting around. It's a family van in SUV guise, sporting all-wheel drive with a locking differential.
Despite these modern amenities, Toyota retains its old workhouse 3.5-liter V-6 engine under the hood, adequate for power but poor on fuel economy.
When I got my first good look at the 2014 Highlander, the third generation of Toyota's large crossover, it looked larger than life. After digging through the specs, I found it was only half a foot longer and a couple of inches taller than the first generation. What threw me were the new styling cues that I saw the previous week on the new Toyota 4Runner.
These cues include a large grille, the louvers painted a dark gray in this top-of-the-line Limited trim model with the Platinum package, and architectural headlight and taillight casings that stick out substantially from the bodywork. CNET editor Antuan Goodwin, reviewing that 4Runner, commented that it was the first car where he could see the taillights from the driver seat.
Toyota did good work with the ergonomics of the new Highlander. Opening the side doors, I could easily pull latches to move the middle-row seats forward, allowing easy access to the third row. Middle and third rows flip down pretty easily, creating a flat load floor for cargo, and I liked how the rear window opens up, making for quick rummaging through gear in the back.
I was very impressed by the shelf under the dashboard, complete with a cable pass-through to the USB port making it perfect for small electronics, and the deep, deep console storage area. Toyota definitely had the tech-warrior in mind when it designed the Highlander's interior.
Complementing the 8-inch touch screen in the center of the dashboard was a nice little instrument cluster display, which let me see screens for trip information, all-wheel-drive performance, navigation, and music. Other automakers have been doing this kind of thing for a while, but it's nice to see Toyota catch up.
New tech twists
The navigation head unit presented some features that are new from Toyota. Down the sides of the touch screen were touch buttons, giving me quick access to the stereo and hands-free phone functions. Labels on two other buttons said Home and Apps. Home brought up a screen partitioned to show the map, currently playing music, and the weather, all nice to have at a quick glance while you drive.
The Apps screen worked like Chevy's MyLink system. It was filled with equal-sized icons for all of the cabin tech functions, from navigation to stock information. If my most-used icons were not on the first screen by default, I could reorganize them to my liking. This paradigm works very well in our smartphone-influenced era, but Toyota could do some work on the graphics, which are a little bland and monochrome.
I suppose the reason Toyota did not include a navigation button on the bezel was to make navigation an option, just software that can be loaded onto the system if a buyer chooses it.
Another big surprise for me was that the navigation system let me view maps in perspective view. I thought Toyota would hold out on adding that feature forever. These maps were bright and clear, showing traffic and few landmark buildings. Under route guidance, I experienced a couple of times where the system changed my route to avoid bad traffic, something that I always appreciate. However, I also ignored route guidance when it wanted me to get on the freeway to travel five blocks in the city.
I could enter new destinations through the usual touch-screen controls, with functions for address, points of interest, and recent destinations. Voice command proved very good, letting me enter addresses as a single string. Better yet, the Highlander seamlessly integrated voice command with Entune, Toyota's connected app feature.
To use Entune, I had the app loaded on my phone and the phone paired with the Highlander's Bluetooth system. When I pushed the voice command button, I could say, "Find a business," then say any business' name. Behind the scenes, the Highlander would send my search term out to Microsoft's Bing search engine, which then sent back a list of matching businesses, organized by distance and relevance.
Ruining what would have been a great user experience, I then had to go through about a dozen screens to actually set the business address I wanted as the destination.
Beyond online search, Entune also powered iHeartRadio, Pandora, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, Yelp, Facebook Places, sports scores, stock prices, and gasoline prices from nearby stations. The Entune Web site let me plug in my existing account information for these apps, so my Pandora stations and other preferences would be available on the Highlander's touch screen.
For music, I mostly relied on Bluetooth or the cabled connection to my iPhone. Bluetooth offered a limited interface, merely showing skip controls and track information. Cabled, I could browse my music library on the Highlander's touch screen, and even use voice command to specify artists or albums I wanted to play.
There's a lot of space inside the Highlander, but the 12-speaker JBL audio system, standard at the Limited trim, should have been up to the task. From the driver's seat I could appreciate good clarity in its music playback, but the slightest bit of bass filled my ears with panel rattle and distortion. It was bad enough to make music unlistenable.
However, it was also so bad that I think Toyota may have inadvertently given us a lemon when it came to the audio system. If you test-drive one, make sure to bring your favorite music and listen for any buzzing or rattle.