The Toyota Highlander and its competitors have replaced the minivan as the do-anything vehicle. But the Highlander itself had become dull and was lost in the rising sea of competitors, many of whom are selling in much larger numbers. A makeover was called for.
Changes to the third-generation Highlander are mostly visual, inside and out, but the four-cylinder engine has been dropped and there is a new transmission and a new all-wheel-drive system. The steering, suspension and pricing have been revised – the latter held to last year's level or lower depending on trim levels, despite additional features.
While the wheelbase is unchanged, the 2014 Highlander has grown 75 millimetres in length, 15 mm in width and is 30 mm lower. Repositioned A-pillars, a lower roofline and more sculpted side panels give it a more aggressive look. While it would be a stretch to call the new look a standout, it certainly is more contemporary.
The 2014 Highlander will arrive in Canadian showrooms in late January in LE, XLE and Limited trim levels with a hybrid version trailing by a month or two. The LE comes with front-wheel drive but is available with all-wheel drive. The new on-demand system, introduced on the RAV4 is standard on the XLE and Limited.
All have three-row seating with a bench in the middle row on LE and XLE and captain's chairs in the Limited. Ease of access to the third-row seats has been improved and there are belts for three occupants, but it remains best for occasional use by small people.
The interior update is clean, contemporary and practical., with a horizontal layout, larger display screens and tidy appearance. But a shelf that runs three quarters of the width of the vehicle, below the dash, will garner the most attention. It has a hole where wires can be passed through to inputs on the centre console to charge or power devices.
Another unique feature appears on the up-level audio/navigation systems. Driver Easy Speak allows front-seat occupants to address those in the third row through a microphone in the headliner and speakers in the rear, bringing new meaning to yelling at the kids.
There is storage space in the centre console big enough for a tote and 30 per cent more storage space behind the third row. The hatch is electrically operated on all but the base model and can be set to three levels for those short of stature or plagued by a low garage roof.
The four-cylinder engine is no longer available in Canada. All 2014 Highlanders will come with the corporate 3.5-litre V-6 carried over unchanged. In the hybrid, it runs on the fuel-saving Atkinson cycle and is paired with a trio of electric motors.
A six-speed automatic replaces the five-speed in the outgoing model, while the hybrid uses a continuously variable transmission.
On the road, the Highlander impresses for its refinement, ride quality and low noise levels. This is a tall, heavy vehicle and will never be confused with a sports car, but it is among the most civilized and comfortable in its bracket, thanks to the Camry underpinnings and revisions to the springs, shock absorbers and electric steering. The Highlander is meant for consumers more interested in car-like dynamics than tackling back-wood trails.
The V-6 does not leave an impression of great power or performance. The better description would be "more than adequate." The Highlander is a heavy vehicle, tipping the scales at more than two tonnes and the new version weighs 45 kilograms more than the outgoing version due to its increased size and additional strengthening to reduce noise, vibration and harshness.
Toyota says the new transmission and all-wheel-drive system make a major contribution to improving fuel mileage by 10 to 12 per cent. There was no opportunity to test those numbers during this introductory drive.
It pioneered SUV-like vehicles on a car platform, leading to the CUV designation, but the Highlander is surrounded by competition. This refresh should enable it to maintain its sales spot in the middle of the pack. But there is nothing special that will allow it to gain ground on the big players.
2014 Toyota Highlander
Type: mid-size CUV
Base price: $31,680
Engines: 3.5-litre V-6 and hybrid with 3.5-litre V-6 and electric motor.
Horsepower/torque: 3.5 V-6 270-hp/248-lb.ft.
Transmission: six-speed automatic.
Drive: front or all-wheel-drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.1 city/7.9 highway
Alternatives: Buick Enclave, Chevy Traverse, Ford Edge and Escape, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder
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