2014 Toyota Highlander Test Drive and Review

Highlander hits all the right notes

2014 Toyota Highlander. Photo © Jason Fogelson

Toyota arguably has the broadest range of SUVs on the market. Land Cruiser, Sequoia, 4Runner and FJ Cruiser cover the body-on-frame needs, while Venza, RAV4 and Highlander take care of unibody crossover demands. If you lined up all of the Toyota SUVs by size and price, the one right smack in the middle is Highlander. When it comes time to tweak the middle of the lineup, you've got to tread carefully.

Toyota has taken its time with Highlander, and a new version is finally here.

The 2014 Toyota Highlander comes with base prices from $29,215 (LE I4 FWD) to $49,790 (Hybrid Limited Platinum), including a 3-year/36,000-mile basic warranty, a 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty, an 8-year/100,000-mile warranty on hybrid electrics and EPA fuel economy estimates of 20 city/25 highway (I4 FWD), 19/25 (V6 FWD), 18/24 (V6 AWD) and 27/28 (Hybrid). Let's drive.

First Glance

The first generation Highlander (2001 – 2007) used to be my preferred design. It retained the essential “SUV-ness” of the 4Runner, without retreating into the cute-ute of RAV4. The clean lines of the first-gen begat the slightly bloated second-generation Highlander (2008 – 2013). Now, the third generation Highlander emerges with a crisp, yet thoroughly modern take on the mid-sized crossover. All new from stem to stern, Highlander now looks fresh yet familiar, with just enough SUV to avoid being called a station wagon.

Dimensionally, Highlander is very close to 4Runner. Both ride on a 109.8” wheelbase, and are within inches of each other in total length – in fact, Highlander is an inch or so longer at 191.1”. 4Runner is taller than Highlander’s 68.1” height, and both vehicles are 75.8” wide. Highlander is a few hundred pounds lighter than 4Runner, thanks to unibody construction.

Highlander also has more interior passenger volume, about 140.4 – 144.9 cubic feet, depending on configuration, versus 128.0 cubic feet for the three-row 4Runner.

Right from the front, Highlander presents a new upright grille and front fascia design with a dashing chrome bar that serves to visually connect the headlights and give a home to the Toyota logo at center. The rest of the vehicle seems to sweep back from that grille, lending a dynamic sense of forward motion that previous generations have lacked. A strong shoulder line carries through to the rear of the vehicle, rising slightly, but not impinging on the generous greenhouse. Pronounced wheel arches highlight the big wheels (18” standard on LE; 19” on LE Plus, XLE, Limited and Hybrid models). Highlander has evolved into a very attractive, grown up crossover. The third generation is now the best-looking Highlander.

In the Driver's Seat

Highlander’s interior got more than a massage – it got a total redesign as well. Somebody at Toyota was paying attention to how people actually use their vehicles. The dashboard and front cabin are awash in storage bins, compartments and cubbies, some with smart routing holes for wires and cables.

I especially appreciated the lower shelf on the dash, which makes great use of a space that is usually just blank plastic. The center console provides 28 liters of storage, which translates to a lot of storage in American – enough space for a laptop computer and a big purse. Material selection in the cabin has been upgraded, with lots of soft touch surfaces, elegant dash stitching and nice finishes on high quality plastics.

The driving position is typical crossover – not as commanding as the high perch of a 4Runner, but not low slung like a sedan. Tilt and telescope adjustment on the steering wheel helps to dial in the perfect fit, and full power seat adjustment is provided on the upper trim levels. Luxury level appointments, like heated and ventilated front seats, are available on the Platinum models and as options on Limited models.

A moonroof is available, and a new panoramic moonroof is a further option. The panoramic moonroof is pretty spectacular, giving you the option to open up views and a adding a sense of space to the entire cabin with little penalty in headroom.

Highlander can be ordered as a seven- or eight-passenger vehicle, with a 60/40 split bench second row as a no-cost option. The third row has been reworked thanks to a new trailing arm double wishbone rear suspension that allows more hip room and a middle seating position. In reality, the third row is better suited to kids than adults, but at 6’2” tall, I was able to sit back there for a short ride without the need for a crane or immediate chiropractic assistance afterwards. Simple but effective slide and tilt mechanisms for the second row make entry and exit very efficient. The seven-passenger model, with twin captain’s chairs in the second row, seemed much more practical to me.

Cargo space has been smartly apportioned in the Highlander. With the second and third rows folded flat, there’s 82.6 – 83.7 cubic feet of space (the moonroof and panoramic moonroof have a small impact on cargo space). 42.0 – 42.3 cubic feet are available behind the second row, and a decent 13.6 – 13.8 cubic feet of luggage space is open behind the third row.

On the Road and Off

Highlander comes with a choice of three powertrains: a 2.7-liter inline four-cylinder (185 hp/184 lb-ft of torque) standard in the LE only; a 3.5-liter V6 (270 hp/248 lb-ft of torque) available in the LE and standard in other models; and a gasoline-electric hybrid with a 3.5-liter gasoline V6 and two electric drive motors that produce 280 hp together as a system.

The gas-only versions come with a six-speed automatic transmission, while the Hybrid gets a continuously variable automatic (CVT).  The four-cylinder engine is hooked up to the front wheels only. The V6 can be ordered with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and the Hybrid is all-wheel drive only.

I’ll follow up with a more extensive test drive of the different models in the near future. On this test drive, I got a chance to spend a few hours behind the wheel of a Hybrid Limited model, and a few more hours thrashing a gas-only V6 Limited. As in the past, Toyota has chosen to configure the Highlander Hybrid as a top-of-the-line model only, bundling the premium powertrain with a host of other premium features. That’s all good, except it makes the price of entry for a Hybrid very steep, starting at over $47,000. Driving the Hybrid is a seamless experience. The CVT is well-matched to the powertrain, delivering crisp performance and smooth operation. The gas-only V6, thanks to its traditional stepped automatic transmission, is a little more satisfying to drive, and can be ordered with a good mix of features for a much more reasonable price. Both Highlanders benefit greatly from the new suspension, with a smooth ride, controlled handling and cornering that is surprisingly agile. Toyota has made substantial improvements in NVH (noise/vibration/harshness), and as a result Highlander achieves near-luxury levels of driving refinement.

Journey's End

I’m on record as a big Toyota fan. My personal ride, Moose, is a 1994 Toyota 4Runner, and I follow Toyota’s progress closely.

I’m always on the lookout for a possible companion to Moose, and the Highlander has been on my radar from day one. The original first generation Highlander Hybrid (2006 – 2007) is the one that has tempted me the most. With the new refinements to the third generation Highlander, I’m fantasizing about a 2014 Highlander LE V6 AWD, which lists at $32,480. I love the idea of the Hybrid, but I would have a hard time justifying the additional $15,000 worth of technology and extras.

Highlander swims in some very competitive waters, with some fresh models from other manufacturers. The Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and Honda Pilot all thrash at the seven-passenger buyer. The Dodge Durango, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Hyundai Santa Fe have all recently upped their games, and GM’s trio of Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia all do a great job of transporting a family in comfort and style. Toyota’s got the only seven-passenger hybrid crossover (GM’s Cadillac Escalade Hybrid is body-on-frame, not a crossover), but that exclusivity probably won’t last forever.

The all-new Toyota Highlander is an excellent crossover vehicle, and a great choice for the family that doesn’t want to drive a full-size SUV, but isn’t ready to settle for a minivan. With great new style, a solid driving experience and some excellent equipment, Toyota’s got another winner on its hands.

Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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Fogelson, Jason. "2014 Toyota Highlander Test Drive and Review." ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2016, thoughtco.com/2014-toyota-highlander-3160653. Fogelson, Jason. (2016, August 23). 2014 Toyota Highlander Test Drive and Review. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/2014-toyota-highlander-3160653 Fogelson, Jason. "2014 Toyota Highlander Test Drive and Review." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/2014-toyota-highlander-3160653 (accessed November 22, 2017).