published Saturday, February 1st, 2014

Test Drive: New Highlander takes the high road

The new 2014 Toyota Highlander is bigger and more refined than before.
The new 2014 Toyota Highlander is bigger and more refined than before.
Photo by Mark Kennedy.

FAST FACTS

Model: 2014 Toyota Highlander XLE

Exterior color: Blizzard White

Interior color: Black

Engine: 3.5 liter, V-6

Horsepower: 270

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 24 mpg highway, 18 mpg city

Dealer: Capital Toyota

Price (as tested): $38,329

Toyota’s successful Highlander crossover SUV enters its third generation for the 2014 model year with more space, interior refinements and more purposeful sheet metal.

Earlier this week we scored a test drive in one of the first new 2014 Highlanders to hit the ground here at Capital Toyota on Brainerd Road, a Blizzard White V-6 model in XLE trim. Sales manager Ed Emerson said more units are on the way.

Toyota sells more than 120,000 Highlanders a year, a number that has been consistent for the last decade except for 2009 and 2010, two years during the teeth of the Great Recession.

Although one of the most successful midsize SUVs on the market, the Highlander was due for a reboot that builds on the vehicle’s strengths — spaciousness, reliability and utility. We think Toyota has set the stage for another successful product cycle.

Base Highlanders start at about $30,000 and can drift up to almost $50,000 for a hybrid version in Limited trim. Our XLE V-6 tester splits the difference at $38,329.

STYLING AND COMFORT

The new Highlander has some of the previous generation’s busy body lines ironed out. This, and more aggressive wheel arches, give the SUV a cleaner look. The new Highlander has also gotten a nose job, with echoes of Lexus’ new spindle grille design. A sculpted hood adds visual interest to the exterior, as do available fog lights and attractive five-spoke 18-inch alloys.

The Blizzard Pearl paint, a worthwhile $395 option, adds luster and resale value — as white is America’s favorite car color. Paired with a black leather interior that’s outlined with light-brown stitching, the Highlander has a more upscale appearance than before and seems to have been benchmarked to the better European brands.

Inside, our seven-passenger test vehicle included second-row captain’s chairs. A second row bench seat arrangement is also available for those who occasionally need to transport eight. The third-row seat is larger this year. Leather seating surfaces are attractive and are made with a durable-grade leather that will hold up to daily family use — a.k.a. the Skittles gang.

Typical of Toyota products, the interior ergonomics are first rate. The new dash architecture includes a neat shelf that runs two-thirds of the width of the interior and is ready-made for your cell phones, sunglasses and magazines. A center console contains a spacious storage compartment big enough to carry a terrier — or, more appropriately, a large purse.

The gee-whiz award goes to Toyota’s new-for-2014 feature that allows the front-seat occupants — read Mom and Dad — to communicate with third-row occupants via the vehicle’s sound system. Yes, your voice travels through the speakers.

Other nice features include automatic on/off headlights, roof rails, a power lift gate and 12 cup and bottle holders.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

Highlander buyers have three engine options, a 2.4-liter four cylinder (185-hp), a V-6 (270-hp) and a hybrid power-plant which combines a V-6 with a battery boost to make 280 horsepower. The non-hybrid, V-6 will be the choice of most Highlander buyers and models so-equipped can tow up to 5,000 pounds.

Our V-6 XLE tester was quiet and composed on the road, with noticeable improvements to the steering and handling over last year’s model. Suspension components included McPherson struts up front and a double-wishbone set-up in the rear. Electronic steering is standard.

BOTTOM LINE

The V-6 Highlanders should get 24 mpg highway and 18 mpg city, not bad for vehicles this size. And with price points to fit lots of budgets, Toyota’s bread-and-butter SUV should continue to be one of America’s most popular family haulers.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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