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2014 Toyota Highlander gets a much-needed update in NYC

Toyota plays catchup with the midsize SUV market, adding new style, new tech, and new safety features to the 2014 Highlander.

2014 Toyota Highlander
Sarah Tew/CNET
2014 Toyota Highlander
Sarah Tew/CNET

NEW YORK--Toyota's soccer-mom-mobile gets an infusion of cabin tech, modernized safety features, and an updated sense of style with the debut of the 2014 Toyota Highlander midsize SUV at the New York International Auto Show.

With the previous generation pushing seven years old, the Highlander was very much in need of an update. Also, the SUV still seats up to eight passengers across its three rows or seven passengers when equipped with the optional second-row captain's chairs. Both configurations benefit from increased interior volume for passengers and cargo thanks to a new, double-wishbone rear suspension that removes the strut tower intrusions. Despite the increased interior volume, Toyota tells us that the exterior dimensions haven't increased much. Overall length is only up a bit over 3 inches and width only increases by a fraction of an inch.

Of course, the new suspension's primary function is keeping the wheels stuck to the road and, of course, Toyota tells us that handling has been improved. The Highlander should boast a more rigid chassis and more responsive steering.

The new look is, to my eye, more truckish than before, with a more upright greenhouse that promotes better visibility and a chunky front fascia that features an enlarged upper grille opening. I'm seeing blended elements from Toyota's Tundra and Tacoma trucks with echoes of elements from the automaker's newest large sedan models here. While I'm not a fan of the new look, it is certainly less anonymous than the outgoing model.

It'll be interesting to see whether Toyota's Venza takes this more trucklike look when it is eventually redesigned or if the automaker will push its design closer to that of its sedans.

2014 Toyota Highlander
The new Highlander's exterior dimensions haven't changed much. Sarah Tew/CNET

The standard cabin tech package is built around Toyota's 6.1-inch display audio system, which we've seen previously in the most recent batch of the automaker's new models, and will come with a rearview camera as a standard feature. The automaker's Entune infotainment, app integration, and navigation engine will also be available as an option, making use of an 8-inch color touch screen in this incarnation.

Interestingly, Toyota's presentation made multiple references to a "unique" in-dash shelf for stowing small objects, sunglasses, or mobile phones. I suppose that bragging about storage nooks is the new bragging about number of cup holders. Sarcasm aside, the shelf is where you'll find the vehicle's USB port, audio input, and power point, so at least it's a useful cabin design element.

2014 Toyota Highlander
Toyota's mostly standardized its Entune-based tech options across the lineup. Sarah Tew/CNET

Toyota's midsize SUV also plays catchup with its available safety tech options. Driver safety is augmented by blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, lane departure detection, automatic high-beam headlights, and front precollision monitoring system -- all now par for the course where modern driver aid technology is concerned.

The 2014 Toyota Highlander will be available in 2.7-liter, four-cylinder or 3.5-liter, V-6 flavors -- nothing new here -- with front-wheel and all-wheel-drive power train options. The all-wheel drive system features a new Dynamic Torque Control system that the company says automatically and continuously monitors and adjusts the front-to-rear power distribution between the 100:0 default and 50:50 maximum split for finer control of traction without compromising fuel economy.

Additionally, the Highlander Hybrid model will make a return appearance. Today's presentation didn't mention any new details about the hybrid power train, so either not much has changed or the details are still being worked out. I'm betting on the former and possibly a slight bump in fuel economy estimates once the EPA testing is done.

Expect to see the updated 2014 Toyota Highlander at dealerships in early 2014. Pricing has not yet been announced.

Correction, 9:45 a.m. PT: I've removed the inaccurate sentence referring to the Highlander's use of a body-on-frame. Apparently, Toyota was referring to the FJ Cruiser during that portion of its presentation.