Soon to debut in its third generation, the 2014 Toyota Highlander will be available in more trim options and with more features than previously offered. It’s the manufacturer’s acknowledgment of the ever-increasing popularity of sport utility vehicles.

Available in four grades — LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited — the 2014 Toyota Highlander lineup begins at $29,215, a $195 increase over the model its replaces. All gasoline Highlanders will come equipped with a 3.5-liter V6 engine, except for the LE grade, also available with a 2.7-liter, four-cylinder engine.

The gas-electric Toyota Highlander Hybrid limited, which debuted at the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show in November, will range from $47,300 ($930 more than the 2013 edition), and the Platinum model from $49,790.

The 2014 Toyota Highlander has a new exterior design

The 2014 Toyota Highlander has a new rear light design. All images © James Raia/2013

The manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) for the new Highlander LE will range from $29,215 for the LE FWD four-cylinder to $43,590 for the Limited AWD V6 with the Platinum package.

Prices for the new Highlander take effect with the start of production in early December. The SUV in gas version will be available at dealers nationwide in January, 2014. The hybrid will be available next February.

During a regional mid-December media debut, headquartered at Carmel Valley Ranch in Carmel, California, I test drove two 2014 models.

As explained during an evening presentation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the new Highlander has myriad changes for its 14th year in production.

(Click on thumbnails for larger images.)

To wit: The new Highlander is one-half inch wider and three inches longer; Horsepower has been increased from 246 to 280 (Except the four-cylinder) and it has 18 inch wheels (with except the Limited trim). There’s now eight-passenger seating in some models and an increase from seven to eight airbags standard.

The previous full-time four-wheel drive system has been replaced with on-demand system. It can switch 50 percent of the torque to the rear wheels. A lock mode holds power at 50/50 and turns off automatically at 25 mph. A “snow mode” button is offered for inclement weather.

The exterior look is different, too. It’s more contoured with new, larger front and rear-light configurations and a more stylish overall look.

The test drive route from Carmel Valley to Big Sur was adjusted because of a fire that destroyed many homes and forced evacuations. The smoke and ashes from the blaze were apparent during our amended trek along the curvy and undulating coastline of Highway 1. We also drove through flat agricultural roads and into the community of Marina and near the former Ft. Ord.

The new Highlander is among the fraternity of vehicles I’ve driven that immediately felt comfortable. I didn’t sit in either the second or third rows. But the driver’s and front passenger seats were comfortable and spacious, with plenty of headroom and legroom. The driver’s view offered a near panoramic view with no blind spots.

The new Highlander offered a quiet drive and it accelerated with satisfaction with the exception a few steep inclines that required an extra effort for the slightly straining engine.

The interior design is straightforward with intuitive controls. There’s a nifty horizontal shelf that extends two-thirds of the length of the dash. The new Highlander also has two keen small but functional features: The Driver Easy Speak is a microphone-like system for better communication with passengers in rear rows. And there’s a secondary, mirrored rear view mirror.

Standard equipments lists on all models are extensive.

The LE grade standard features: 18-inch alloy wheels, Entune Audio with Bluetooth phone and streaming music, an integrated backup camera, seating for eight with second-and third-row 60/40 split fold-flat seats, air conditioning, heated side mirrors with turn signal indicators, smart storage compartments like an extra-large roll-top center console, an in-dash shelf with easy access to power and USB ports, and a windshield wiper de-icer.

The LE Plus plus includes: standard fog lights, an adjustable-height power rear liftgate and flip-up rear hatch window, eight-way power driver seat with lumbar support, Entune Audio Plus with XM & HD radio, three-zone automatic climate control, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

The XLE grade adds standard smart key with push button start, leather-trimmed seats with heated front seats, Chromtec roof rails and a tilt-slide moonroof, second-row integrated sun shades, Entune Premium Audio with Navigation, App Suite with an eight-inch touch screen display, anti-theft system, Homelink, and a 5,000-pound towing capacity. Options include seating for seven with second-row captain’s chairs, and a rear-seat Blu-ray DVD entertainment system.

The Limited grade adds standard 19-inch Chromtec alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, rear parking sonar, seating for seven with second-row captain’s chairs, perforated leather-trimmed seats, heated and ventilated front seats and memory settings for the driver seat and side mirrors, four-way power passenger seat, and Entune Premium JBL Audio with Navigation and App Suite.

The 2014 Toyota Highlander will feature the standard Star Safety System, including Enhanced Vehicle Stability Control, Traction Control, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, Brake Assist, an Anti-lock Braking System, and Smart Stop Technology. All Highlanders will also come equipped with a standard backup camera and Hill-start Assist Control. All AWD models will have an AWD LOCK switch.

The 2014 Toyota Highlander pricing:

LE L4 FWD $29,215; LE V6 FWD $30,520; LE V6 AWD $31,980; LE Plus V6 FWD $32,740; LE Plus V6 AWD $34,200; V6 FWD $36,040; XLE V6 AWD $37,500; LTD V6 FWD $39,640; LTD V6 AWD $41,100; LTD Plat. V6 FWD $42,130; LTD Plat V6 AWD $43,590.

The 2014 Toyota Highlander MPG:

2.7-liter, front-wheel drive: 20 city/25 highway/22 combined; 3.5-liter V6, front-wheel drive, 19 city/25 highway/21 combined; 3.5-liter V6, all-wheel drive, 18 city/24 highway, 20 combined; Hybrid V6, 27 city/28 highway/28 combined.

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