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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Model||2014 Toyota Highlander|
|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|
|Price as tested||$44,450|