With a generous loadout of safety features, innovative technologies like Driver Easy Speak, and a thrifty Hybrid power train option, the 2014 Toyota Highlander may be the ultimate mom-mobile.
The slightly enlarged seven-passenger crossover debuts for the 2014 model year with a laundry list of new features, including a revision of the automaker's Entune dashboard app interface, a suspension and chassis that have been retuned and refined for a quieter, more comfortable ride, and a new look that blends the trapezoidal grille and eagle-eyed headlamps of the automaker's Tundra and Sequoia with a dash of Lexus-inspired finesse. It's boxy and a bit frown-faced, but I found that I rather enjoyed the look.
Everything's an 'app' these days
The Entune infotainment system hides most of its features under a menu called Apps, accessible via a capacitive button located on the touch screen's bezel.
Apps include traditional infotainment functions such as navigation, hands-free calling, messaging, traffic, and fuel economy monitoring, as well as actual Entune apps such as Pandora and iHeartRadio Internet radio, MovieTickets.com and OpenTable reservations, and Bing, Facebook Places, and Yelp destination search. Entune apps require that you pair a smartphone running the Entune app for iOS or Android, as your phone provides the data connection for the system.
Other audio sources include USB and iPod connectivity, SiriusXM satellite radio, HD Radio, FM/AM terrestrial radio, and a 3.5mm analog audio input. Sports scores, stock quotes, and fuel prices provided by SiriusXM round out the "info" part of the infotainment system.
I found it just a bit annoying to have to bounce into this Apps menu and then back out to navigation to go from selecting Pandora stations to viewing the map -- I'd prefer to have a physical Map or Nav shortcut button -- but it wasn't so frustrating that I couldn't deal. The Entune touch-screen infotainment system was very snappily responsive to my taps, so moving around the interface wasn't maddening. That the instrument cluster contains a small LCD that can show the upcoming turn-by-turn directions helped curb my need to be constantly checking the map.
Aside from the Apps shortcut, the Entune system has shortcuts to a Home screen and shortcuts for up to four hands-free calling contacts, displays a split-screen map view, and has a toggle for the odd and innovative Driver Easy Speak feature. There are also capacitive buttons leading to the current Audio source and the hands-free calling system.
Driver Easy Speak
Driver Easy Speak picks up the driver's voice using the same microphone in the ceiling console that is used for Bluetooth hands-free calling and rebroadcasts it throughout the cabin using the car's speakers. Think of it as being like a sort of built-in PA that allows you, the driver, to communicate with passengers all the way back in the third row without having to turn your head or raise your voice.
There are seven levels of amplification for the Driver Easy Speak feature, which can be selected via the touch screen. As I stated earlier, the system is activated or deactivated via touch-screen buttons on the home screen and in the app screen. I would like to be able to quickly activate and deactivate the feature with a steering-wheel push-to-talk button, so that it's only broadcasting when I want it to.
As is, when Driver Easy Speak is activated, it is always on and I noticed the occasional bit of feedback squeal at the highest volume setting when I wasn't talking into the system, but not so much that the system's built-in echo cancellation couldn't deal with it. I also noticed that the system slightly lowers the volume of the current audio source when in use.
This feature works well with the convex "mommy mirror" that drops down from the sunglasses holder to help busy parents keep their eyes on the road while dealing with a carload of kids.
I was able to drive a generously equipped Toyota Highlander Limited model that featured the full array of driver aid technologies, which amounts to lots of warning tech, but few intervention systems.
For example, we had active high-beams that automatically dimmed the bright lights when a camera detected the lights of another vehicle ahead to prevent dazzling other drivers. The same camera array is used to detect the lane markers and power the lane departure warning system that alerts the driver when the vehicle drifts out of its lane without a turn signal at speeds above 35 mph. However, this system will not pull the vehicle back into its lane like theor the .
Sonar sensors on the rear bumper power the blind-spot monitoring system that illuminates an LED in the side mirrors when a vehicle is detected in the Highlander's blind spots. These sensors do double duty as proximity sensors when reversing or parking the SUV, working in tandem with the standard rearview camera system.
There's also a forward collision warning system and an adaptive cruise control system, both of which are powered by a forward-facing radar sensor hidden beneath the large "T" logo on the Highlander's grille.
Cabin comfort, Toyota touches
I was able to test Highlander models that were equipped with an optional Panoramic moonroof with a motorized shade that slid back to reveal a mostly glass roof. Skip this option and you can choose to equip a ceiling-mounted rear-seat DVD entertainment system instead, though for my money, I'd invest in a few tablets instead. The flip-down system can accept DVDs, Blu-ray discs, or external devices via its single analog A/V input. I'd have liked to have seen at least one HDMI input, which would send a cleaner picture and allow the connection of certain smartphones or tablets for playback.
The Highlander isn't what I'd call "luxurious" but it is a remarkably quiet car; you can barely hear the engine idling when stopped at a light and road noise is almost a total nonissue.
As a result, the optional JBL Automotive GreenEdge audio system doesn't have to work very hard to sound good. Fortunately, Toyota and JBL have put a lot of effort into making sure that it does. I was pleased with the staging and stereo channel separation that I was able to hear over the course of a few test tracks. Voices, strong midranges, and delicate highs are what this 10-speaker system does best, but I was able to hear just a bit of distortion or door panel buzzing at higher volumes. Toyota tells me that this may be attributable to the fact that the preproduction vehicles that I was able to test weren't 100 percent production-accurate.
The Highlander's cabin seems mostly well sorted out, with neat features to be discovered here and there. One of my favorites was a mobile phone shelf located below the infotainment system where the driver or passenger can stow a cellphone without occupying a cupholder. This shelf featured a small cable management pass-through that allows a USB or charging cable to be passed through to the 12-volt power outlet below and keeps you from having to deal with cords being draped across the center console.
Speaking of the center console, opening the armrest's sliding covers reveals a storage cavity large enough to fit a 13-inch laptop case or a few tablets, which is great for hiding away valuables when parked.
Additionally, I liked the Highlander's power lift gate, which featured a separate openable rear glass window hatch on our Limited model. Most users will probably only use this small liftable window a few times, but it's nice to know that it's there for those times where you don't want to open the full rear hatch to toss an item in.
Performance and economy
The Highlander is available with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine, but Toyota reckons that most prospective drivers will be choosing the 3.5-liter V-6 model. Output for this larger engine is stated at 270 horsepower and 248 pound feet of torque, which flows through a standard six-speed automatic transmission on its way to either the front or all four wheels.
This is an engine that is capable of good acceleration, despite the fact that it's not really set up for such. Drop the shifter into D and keep your pacing family-friendly and you'll be rewarded with shifts so smooth that you'll hardly notice them and the aforementioned quiet ride. The transmission has the tendency to short shift gears in the name of efficiency, but tip your foot into the pedal a bit more (or select from the transmission's Sport or Manual modes) and you can coax the power out at the cost of a fairly harsh engine note.
I wasn't able to sample the four-banger version of the Highlander, but with even less power on tap, I'm pretty sure that I wasn't missing anything truly special.
The Highlander's ride is as smooth as its V-6 engine, yet still feels controlled. Steering was responsive and the body remained flatter than I thought it would when pushing the big crossover around bend after bend on a moderately quick tour of the Pacific Coast's Highway 1. The Highlander preferred a more leisurely pace, but while I wouldn't go driving it like a sports car, it is good to know that the big girl can pull off the odd evasive move without getting too flustered.
With the Limited V-6 under my belt, I was able to slide behind the wheel of the Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive-powered model, arguably the top of the line for the '14 Highlander.
The Hybrid Limited is also powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, but that is mated to an electric motor for a combined system horsepower of 280 ponies. The Highlander Hybrid is an all-wheel-drive vehicle with three separate electric motor-generators -- two on the front axle and one driving the rear wheels -- so there is no need for a heavy drive shaft running along the spine of the vehicle.
While the rear wheels are driven fully by electricity, the front wheels get a blend of power from the gasoline engine and the electric motors via an eCVT. The eCVT doesn't shift gears like a traditional gearbox because it doesn't have gears. It continuously varies its ratio, holding the engine speed independent of vehicle speed to deliver the maximum torque or efficiency depending on which is being asked of it at a given time.
I wasn't able to find a stated total system torque number for this Hybrid system, but I'm told that it is significantly higher than the standard V-6 model. The V-6 engine makes 215 pound-feet on its own, the electric motors on the front axle make 247 pound-feet, and the electric motor on the rear axle makes 103 pound-feet. However, Toyota is careful to state that figuring total system torque isn't as easy as adding these numbers up.
I was able to find fuel economy estimates of 27 city, 28 highway, and 28 combined mpg, which is quite good for a seven-passenger vehicle and significantly higher than the 18 city, 24 highway, and 20 combined mpg from the Limited V-6 AWD.
When asked to accelerate, the Hybrid model was noticeably quicker than the purely gasoline-powered model, but that's not the point. What drivers will no doubt appreciate is how much more efficient and quiet this Hybrid model is. For those who can afford the probable price premium over the standard Limited V-6, the Hybrid is the Highlander to get.
The 2014 Toyota Highlander will be available in a variety of trim levels, starting with the $29,215 LE four-cylinder FWD to the $43,590 Limited V6 AWD with Platinum Package that I was able to test. The Highlander Hybrid Limited will start at $47,300, but the fully loaded Hybrid Limited with Platinum Package that I was able to test has a range-topping MSRP of $49,790. Production for the 2014 Highlander Hybrid begins this month and models should start hitting dealerships by the time you flip your calendar over to 2014.