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First Drive: 2014 Toyota Highlander XLE AWD

Toyota Highlander

Lately, it seems the rule book for ‘mid-size’ SUV’s has been thrown out the window. What was once considered a ‘mid-size’ family hauler is now a full-size family crossover; and now, for 2014, the all new Toyota Highlander is bigger than ever competing against the Nissan Pathfinder and Ford Explorer.

To start us off, we opted for this XLE trim with All-Wheel Drive; a trim level that will be popular amongst the consumers. There are 4 main trim levels: LE, XLE, Limited, and Hybrid models starting in the low $29,000 to the highest Hybrid trim level of $51,000. Everything on our tested XLE model is a standard feature outside the $1,810 Rear Seat DVD Entertainment, $275 2nd Row Captain’s Chairs, and the $395 Blizzard Pearl paint it arrived in.

The Highlander has been completely transformed for 2014 from the ground up. The new look brings about mixed feelings amongst the public’s eye. Consumers find the new look to be a somewhat outlandish and perhaps a bit vulgar – but I actually like that. The Highlander is bold and different. I relish the Highlander’s wider stance and bulky body. The muscular physique and protruding headlights & taillights gives a confident masculine appeal. Plus, that large grille – it can swallow the entire Muppet cast. And the standard 18” alloy wheels wrapped in All-Season tires heightens the overall appearance and fills the wheel wells attractively.

Breaking new ground, the Highlander rides on a new chassis and new motor – featured by 3.5-liter dual-cam Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i)  V-6 engine. Connected through a smooth 6-speed automatic transmission, power is delivered to the front wheels, but if you opt for the AWD (like our tester) power is delivered to all wheels all the time.  Now, you’re not going to win any shopping mall parking lot races, nonetheless the 270 horsepower and 248lb-ft of torque will get you from 0-60 in just over 7 seconds. You also won’t get much of an engine roar when maxing out the Highlander’s RPMs and when push comes to shove the Highlander will handle like an SUV with decent responsiveness mixed with some body roll – though the perfect tightness in the steering wheel was to our liking… not light and not to stiff. Rated at 5,000lbs for towing, the Highlander can tow just about anything a family needs for a weekend getaway.

Let’s not forget that this is still a Toyota… everything has a quiet, smooth quality about it and that’s where the Highlander’s ride quality really starts to come into play. The suspension is utterly smooth – we think the grille is eating the potholes before the car drives over them. Nearing speeds of 80mph the cabin is quite with no noticeable road or wind noise. Although braking was somewhat of a disappointment – while they aren’t bad, we felt it could have been better. Which also goes the same for fuel economy of an EPA 18 city and 24 highway – we averaged 15 mpg city while receiving roughly 300 miles of range on regular unleaded fuel.

Although the Highlander is advertised as an 8-passenger, our tester was only a 7-seater that included the optional $275 leather trimmed 2nd row captain’s chairs and folding center table. The black leather upholstery gave a business like appeal that was comfortable. Both driver and passenger seats had decent back and thigh support. Only the driver on our tester had an 8-way power adjustable seat and both front seats had bum warmers. It was hinted that the 2nd row was ideal for children as there wasn’t much support for tall passengers; while there was plenty of leg and head room, thigh support was problematic for our taller passengers. And as usual for any 3rd row SUV, this is condoned the child only zone – a full size adult can fit, with knees to their chins for a short distance. The 2nd row can slide and recline for 3rd row passenger comfort – the 3rd row can also recline for added relaxation.

The newly contemporary styled dash is one of our favorite features to the Highlander. Full of soft touch materials, faux stitching, stylish silver trimmings and a cubby trey splitting the dash – this makes it one of better designs in its class. The touch sensitive buttons surrounding the 8” display added a nerdy tech feel… that we liked. The 8” display with Navigation is a fairly decent system to use. While it didn’t carry an advance version of Toyota’s Entune software, it continued to be an easy to learn system with excellent voice activation software. This 8″ display also  carried a fantastic rear back-up camera. The Highlander XLE features a manual tilt-telescoping leather wrapped steering wheel that feels pleasant in the hands with thick grip points. The steering wheel mounted controls are nicely laid out for easy functionality. And with the available tri-zone climate control system, there was never a battle of who’s hot and whose cold – which we gather parents will enjoy.

There are subtle details that prove the Highlander was designed around family intent. The Highlander had tons of storage, from the large center console & split storage shelf on the dash. The $1,810 optional DVD rear added entertainment for long journeys. And there is even a ‘conversation mirror’ – which we like to consider ‘spy vision’. Like most SUV’s the Highlander has a decent amount of cargo area – unlike other SUV’s the Highlander continues to offer a rear glass pop-up window along with a power lift tailgate that is fully height adjustable. Naturally, with the 3rd row in position all cargo capacity is lost – flatten that row and its proper SUV capacity. The 2nd row also folds for all additional cargo needs.

This new Highlander has come a long way since its debut in 2001 and making its mark in the crossover community. Reaching over the $40,000 price point on our tester, we wish it had featured a power adjustable passenger seat and the blank covers over the optional buttons added a cheap reminder of the options we didn’t go for. Overall, consumers are surely not to be disappointed with this new-generation design and technology.

Price (As-Tested):
2014 Toyota Highlander XLE AWD: $37,500
Destination: $860
Featured Options:
2nd Row Captain’s Chairs: $275
Blizzard Pearl Speciality Paint: $395
Rear Seat BluRay DVD Entertainment: $1,810
Grand Total: $40,840


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