Full 2014 Toyota Highlander Review
What's New for 2014
The 2014 Highlander is fully redesigned. Highlights include improved interior quality, available eight-passenger seating, a height-adjustable power liftgate and a six-speed automatic transmission for V6 models.
With all the family-friendly crossovers on the market these days, it's a full-time job just keeping them straight. So allow us to make your job a little easier. The 2014 Toyota Highlander is the granddaddy of this segment, and it's back this year with a whole new bag of tricks. A decade and a half ago, the original Camry-based Highlander became the first vehicle to blend the versatility of a midsize SUV with the ride and handling of a sedan. Now, facing a legion of tough rivals, the all-new, third-generation 2014 Highlander is out to regain its edge.
Truth be told, the second-generation Highlander was still a stud when Toyota put it out to pasture last year. We even called it an "ideal choice" in some respects, which is high praise indeed for a family hauler on its farewell tour. But that doesn't mean there wasn't room for improvement. In particular, the hard plastic dashboard failed to impress at this price point, as did the unremarkable technology features it housed. Also, the Highlander's rear accommodations had begun to feel a bit cramped by midsize crossover standards, especially in the third row. A reinvention wasn't strictly necessary, but signs of aging were increasingly apparent.
Take a look at the 2014 Highlander and it's apparent that the rest of the segment may now be playing catch-up. The new dashboard is a welcome addition, as Toyota has ditched the generic hard panels in favor of supple surfaces with artful curves. A larger 8-inch touchscreen is available, while desirable add-ons like adaptive cruise control help bring the options list up to date. Thanks to an extra 3.7 inches of width in the third row, there are now three seats back there instead of two, making the Highlander one of the few crossovers in this class with room for eight. The driving experience has been refined, too, with reduced cabin noise and a responsive new six-speed automatic transmission for the faultless V6 engine.
In light of all these improvements, we awarded a top "A" grade in our 2014 Toyota Highlander rating. Of course, that's not to say that Toyota's redesigned crossover is the best at absolutely everything. If you want a truly adult-friendly third row, for example, the 2014 Ford Flex would be a better bet. Another perennial favorite of ours is the 2014 Mazda CX-9, which is more fun to drive and offers more cargo space as well. There's also the handsome-looking and sportier 2014 Dodge Durango or the three-row 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe, which stacks up nicely against the Highlander across the board.
But the Highlander has history and the Toyota nameplate on its side, and it's better than ever for 2014. Here's how you remember the all-new Highlander: It's the one that got this whole party started, and now it's the latest three-row crossover to raise the bar.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2014 Toyota Highlander is a three-row midsize crossover offered in LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited trim levels. Eight-passenger seating is standard on the LE, LE Plus and XLE, while seven-passenger seating (featuring second-row captain's chairs instead of a three-person bench) is optional on the XLE and standard on the Limited. Note that the related Highlander Hybrid is reviewed separately.
The base LE gets things started with 18-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, heated exterior mirrors, a rear spoiler, cruise control, a rearview camera, a height-adjustable driver seat, a sliding and reclining 60/40-split second-row seat, a 60/40-split third-row seat, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a 6.1-inch central touchscreen and a six-speaker CD sound system with an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod/USB interface.
Picking the LE Plus gets you foglights, a flip-up rear hatch window, an adjustable-height power liftgate, tri-zone automatic climate control, upgraded upholstery with synthetic leather ("SofTex") accents, an eight-way power driver seat (with power lumbar), a leather-wrapped steering wheel, satellite radio and HD radio.
The XLE boasts 18-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof, roof rails, keyless entry/ignition, leather upholstery for the first and second rows (SofTex for the third), an upgraded driver information display, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a 110-volt power outlet in the second row, retractable second-row sunshades, driver voice amplification for communicating with rear passengers ("Driver Easy Speak"), an 8-inch central touchscreen and the Entune App Suite with mobile-app integration (compatible smartphone required).
Finally, the top-shelf Limited comes packed with 19-inch wheels, LED running lights, ambient interior lighting, heated and ventilated front seats, driver memory functions, a four-way power passenger seat, dual second-row captain's chairs with a table in between, a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alerts, rear parking sensors and a 12-speaker JBL audio system.
The Limited offers two exclusive options packages. The Driver Technology package includes automatic high-beam control, adaptive cruise control, a collision mitigation system with automatic braking, a lane-departure warning system and Toyota's Safety Connect telematics. The Platinum package starts with the Driver Technology package and adds a panoramic sunroof, a heated steering wheel and heated second-row captain's chairs.
Optional on both the XLE and Limited is a rear-seat entertainment system with a 9-inch display and a Blu-ray player. As noted, the XLE is also eligible for the second-row captain's chairs, though if you want them to be heated, the Limited's the only way to go. There are no factory options on the LE and LE Plus.
Powertrains and Performance
The base Highlander LE starts with front-wheel drive and a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The transmission is a six-speed automatic. Fuel economy is rated at an unimpressive 22 mpg combined (20 city/25 highway): barely better than the much stronger V6.
Optional on the LE and standard on all other trims is a 3.5-liter V6 engine, rated at 270 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque in this application. The transmission is again a six-speed automatic, but you can specify either front- or all-wheel drive. The front-wheel-drive V6 configuration is rated at 21 mpg combined (19 city/25 highway), while the AWD V6 drops a tick to 20 mpg combined (18 city/24 highway). At the Edmunds test facility, we recorded a 7.3-second 0-60-mph time for an XLE AWD, which is about a second quicker than the average for this large crossover SUV segment.
A properly equipped Highlander V6 can tow up to 5,000 pounds.
The 2014 Toyota Highlander comes standard with traction and stability control, antilock disc brakes, front-seat side airbags, a driver knee airbag, a front passenger seat-cushion airbag and full-length side curtain airbags. A rearview camera is also standard. In a simulated panic stop from 60 mph at the Edmunds test facility, a Highlander XLE AWD managed a braking distance of 116 feet, a very good distance for this class. The brake pedal has a squishier feel than we'd like, but this won't be a deal breaker for most buyers.
The Limited trim gets a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert, and its optional Driver Technology package adds a frontal collision warning and mitigation system (with automatic braking), lane-departure warning and Toyota's Safety Connect telematics (emergency assistance, stolen vehicle location and automatic collision notification). Unfortunately, these items are unavailable on lesser Highlander trims.
In crash testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Highlander received the highest possible rating of "Good" in the moderate-overlap frontal-offset, side-impact and roof-strength tests. In the small-overlap frontal-offset test, the Highlander received the second-highest rating of "Acceptable." Its seat/head restraint design was rated "Good" for whiplash protection in rear impacts.
Interior Design and Special Features
Perceived cabin quality wasn't a strength of the previous-generation Highlander, but Toyota has made amends. Gone are the bland hard plastics that used to cover the dashboard, supplanted by supple surfaces with fancy stitching at the seams. The gauge cluster has a more contemporary look than before, thanks in part to the multifunction information display that sits in the middle (especially the XLE and Limited's larger color version). Although the base 6.1-inch central touchscreen is, well, a bit basic in both form and function, the newly available 8-inch unit is more satisfying with its improved graphics and functionality.
Toyota has baked a number of handy storage features into the 2014 Highlander's interior. There's a unique shelf on the dashboard, for instance, that's a perfect resting place for phones, with a hole in the bottom that lets you feed in cords from the power point below. Also, the storage box under the console armrest is much more spacious than before, providing what Toyota describes as enough room for a large purse (hopefully "murses" fit as well, since the Highlander's styling is said to be manlier this time around).
Regrettably, the previous Highlander's slick 40/20/40-split second-row seat with its removable center seat has been discontinued, so there's only the standard 60/40-split bench seat and the available captain's chairs. On the bright side, those second-row seats slide farther forward now, permitting easier access to the third row. If you're expecting big-time space in the way back, we should warn you that adults will still find it cramped relative to some rivals. Kids will be fine, though, and the three-across seating bolsters the Highlander's credentials as a minivan substitute. The XLE and Limited also have a neat feature that allows you to use the Bluetooth microphone to broadcast your voice to people seated in the rear through the Highlander's speakers. Now you can say, "I'm turning around right now if you guys don't cut it out!" all you want without craning your neck.
On the cargo-carrying front, the new height-adjustable power liftgate with memory height settings (standard on LE Plus trims and higher) is a boon in garages with low ceilings. Maximum hauling capacity has dropped to 83.7 cubic feet, however, from the previous generation's robust 95.4 cubes. The new Highlander does offer 13.8 cubes behind the third-row seat, which beats last year's 10.3.
On the road, the first thing we noticed is that the 2014 Highlander feels longer and wider -- which, to be fair, it is (by about 3 inches and half an inch, respectively). Whereas the previous Highlander drove much like a tall Camry, the new one feels more broad-of-beam. Nonetheless, the meaty three-spoke steering wheel inspires confidence, and if you drive quickly around a tight turn, the Highlander remains secure, with plenty of grip. As long as you're not looking for handling as confident as the Mazda CX-9's, you'll likely find the Highlander sharp enough.
Of course, the Highlander's bread and butter is ferrying passengers around in comfort, and here it excels. The cabin remains hushed at speed, and road impacts are generally shrugged off by the compliant suspension, though the Limited's 19-inch wheels don't do the ride any favors. Most Toyota Highlander buyers end up with the tried-and-true V6 engine, and it's easy to see why: You get almost the same fuel economy as with the base four-cylinder, along with an extra 85 hp and some of the smoothest acceleration in any crossover at this price. The new six-speed automatic transmission is a notable upgrade over the old five-speed automatic, providing quick, precise downshifts that make the 2014 Toyota Highlander feel quicker than it is.