2014 Toyota Highlander: Perfect family vehicle?

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Revise an already good vehicle and you can end up with an appreciably better one. The revised, user-friendly 2014 Toyota Highlander is sleeker, roomier and even more user-friendly. For some, it might be the perfect family vehicle.

The revised Toyota Highlander is slightly longer and wider than its predecessor. It also has a lower roofline, sculptured side-door panels, redesigned trapezoidal grille, wraparound headlights, deeply chiseled fenders and prominently protruding wheels for a more aggressive look. There’s also a new rear bumper for a “tougher” appearance.

The first- and second-row seating areas are spacious. There’s also extra room in the third-row seating area. The Highlander is billed as an eight-passenger SUV with a second-row 60/40 split bench seat if you don’t opt for the two second-row individual seats. But the slightly wider third-row area is still tight and rather difficult to enter or leave. It’s best suited to kids.

The Toyota Highlander is higher than a conventional car and thus calls for extra effort to get in and out. The bonus is high seating for superior visibility.

Trunk space is marginal with the third-row seats in their upright position, but they can be easily flipped forward to provide a larger cargo area. Both third-row seats and second-row bench seat have a 60/40 split, so lowering second- and third-row seats allows an impressive cargo area.

The revised 2014 Toyota Highlander may be the perfect family vehicle.
The revised 2014 Toyota Highlander may be the perfect family vehicle.

However, the cargo floor is rather high for quick, easy loading of heavier objects.

The Highlander also gets a new refined, upscale interior and an array of comfort, convenience and technology features. The front console can hold a large handbag when opened, thus addressing complaints of women drivers that there’s “no place to put my purse.”

A new 6-speed automatic transmission is very responsive and has an easily used sequential shift feature in V-6 models.

The Highlander is available as front- or costlier all-wheel-drive (AWD) models. Its body has an enhanced suspension system, more rigidity and improvements to help give it an ultraquiet interior for peaceful lengthy highway drives.

There are a variety of models: LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited, besides a gas/electric Hybrid version. List prices range from the base $29,215 LE model with a four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive to $49,790 for the rather pricey V-6 AWD gas/electric Hybrid. The Hybrid provides an estimated 27 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on highways.

The sleek, efficient interior of the 2014 Toyota Highlander.
The sleek, efficient interior of the 2014 Toyota Highlander.

The 3.8-liter V-6 has 270 horsepower and impressive punch, while delivering an estimated 19 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on highways. Figures with AWD dip a bit to 18 and 24.

The 2.7-liter four-cylinder generates 185 horsepower. Toyota says the front-drive Highlander four-cylinder delivers 20 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on highways, giving the impression that the four isn’t much more economical than the V-6. Still, a Highlander with the six or four-cylinder weighs more than 4,000 pounds, which doesn’t lend itself to sparking city fuel economy.

I recommend the V-6 if you load the Highlander with people and cargo and spend lots of time on highways or in fast-moving freeway traffic. After all, the Highlander is often bought as the family workhorse, and the V-6’s extra power and torque make driving it easier.

Even the base LE is decently equipped, with items including three-zone automatic climate control, integrated backup camera, audio system with a touchscreen and side mirrors with turn signals.

Move to the LE Plus and you get a standard pushbutton start and heated leather seats. The Limited adds 19-inch alloy wheels and a blind spot monitor with cross-traffic alert—a major plus in crowded parking lots. The XLE adds a tilt/slide power moonroof with a sunshade.

I tested the $37,500 AWD Highlander XLE with the V-6. That figure didn’t include an $1,810 rear-seat BluRay DVD entertainment system, which many will consider a “must-have” in a family vehicle.

My test Highlander was carlike, with a quiet interior, smooth ride and good handling, although tight parking spaces called for careful maneuvering of this fairly long vehicle.

Helping keep things stable are stability and traction control systems. Other safety features include front- and side-curtain air bags.

The steering was nicely weighted, and I doubt typical buyers would want more road feel. Brake action was progressive, allowing smooth stops from the anti-lock all-disc-brake system with electronic brake-force distribution.

The six-speed automatic could be easily shifted manually, although the transmission worked so efficiently I rarely used its manual-shift feature.

Large door handles help allow entry. The backlit gauges are easy to read in sunlight, and there’s a mixture of large and clearly marked small controls. The 4.2-inch color nav-linked multi-media display was fairly easy to use. There are plenty of cabin storage areas.

Check for fluids such as the level of the engine oil and you’ll be confronted with an unusually heavy hood with only a prop rod to hold it up. Hydraulic struts are needed here.

In all, the Highlander is one of the smoothest, most-efficient no-fuss vehicles in its class.

Pros: Sleeker. Roomier. Smooth ride. Carlike. Potent V-6. AWD offered. Hybrid available.

Cons: High step-up. Tight third-row seating. Minimal cargo rom with upright third-row seat.

Bottom Line: Just start it an go without hassle.

Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.

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