The Toyota Highlander was born into a fairly crowded family of large vehicles. Introduced in 2001, it stuck to a midsize formula, sitting above the compact RAV4, and under the rugged 4Runner and mammoth Sequoia. Buyers who wanted more space for passengers and cargo, while skipping the Lexus brand (with the RX) could consider the Highlander. This put it right in the thick of not only Toyota’s lineup, but right in the middle of the burgeoning midsize crossover utility vehicle segment. As the RAV4 grew in size through successive generations, and the more stylish Venza was introduced, the Highlander grew to suit. It is based on the Lexus RX, which itself is ultimately based on the Toyota MC platform that underpins a lot of their cars.
The second-generation Highlander came to market and was immediately moved up into the full-size crossover utility vehicle segment, with its larger dimensions and standard third-row seating. Powered by standard V6 engines and available with both front and all-wheel-drive, the Highlander has always been a competent, inoffensive, middle-of-the-road offering that got the job done. The third-generation Highlander hopes to build on these attributes, but mixes in some newfound excitement prescribed by Toyota Motor Corporation CEO, Akio Toyoda. With that in mind, I picked up my test vehicle: a Highlander Limited, with AWD, and painted a shade of “Pre-Dawn Grey Mica”.
Many on the internet would proclaim most of Toyota’s offerings as “bland” or outright “boring”. In some cases, I wouldn’t disagree with them. However, the intended audience for such a large and utilitarian machine, probably wouldn’t care whether or not styling excellence is at the top of the priority list. Nonetheless, the new Highlander features a more aggressive, purposeful look to its front stance. The squared-off side profile hasn’t changed much, but the rear three-quarter glass is swept forward for a more dramatic look. Out back, the squared-off tailgate makes room for passengers in the third row. One curious exterior detail: the handsome design on the 19” wheel is actually a “Chrometec” cover over top of a styled aluminum wheel. Wheel covers are nowadays really only seen on base-model cars, but the idea here is to improve durability (curb rash? Just get another cover) and decrease costs associated with manufacturing a full chrome-finish wheel. Overall, the exterior styling took a little bit of time to grow on me, with the huge front grille and headlights, but I think it will do more to satisfy those who considered the outgoing Highlander as being a little too boring. It’s still inoffensive, but there’s a little more going on than before.
What’s a little surprising is how well the Highlander is equipped. Soccer moms and hockey dads love having the ability to chauffeur all their kids and gear around, but the intense competition in the large crossover utility vehicle segment has forced everybody to up their game. Features that one would normally associate with premium brands have made their way down market and into more mainstream products. My Limited-trim tester is full of goodies, including a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled leather seating surfaces, heated second-row seating, premium JBL 12-speaker audio with subwoofer, a rear power tailgate (with separate flip-up rear glass), and the list goes on and on. One omission that I would have loved to see are upgraded headlights. Even the top-end Limited trim has to settle for standard halogen projector headlights. HID or even LED headlights (seen in the Corolla) would be the cherry on top.
Inside, space is incredibly generous in all directions. The driver and passenger are treated to a clean and logical layout, with a clear emphasis on storage space. The rolling door design is smart – when you have it open, there is still some space for your elbows to go. Between the glovebox and climate controls, you’ll find yet another storage shelf, with a pass-thru for charging your phones and other devices. Flipping down the sunglass holder reveals a convex mirror for safely looking your second-row passengers. For the practical owner, the Highlander excels. Moving back to the second row, my Limited tester comes with two captain’s chairs. They are just about as comfortable as the front two seats, save for the missing cooled seat function. Lesser trim models come with a bench instead, but with that, you gain the ability to seat up to eight occupants instead of seven with the Limited. Second-row occupants are treated to a surprisingly comprehensive control panel that manages climate settings for everybody else. The third row seat in many CUVs is thought to be reserved for emergency or Mother-in-Law use only, but this isn’t the case in the Highlander. Once you roll the second-row seats forward, the third-row becomes surprisingly usable. Even with the third-row in position, there’s a decent amount of space for smaller items – the seatback isn’t pushed up to the rear tailgate. If you don’t need the third row, it’s easy to fold them down, producing a flat load floor that can swallow up lots of cargo. Fun fact: Toyota’s Driver EasySpeak utilizes a microphone near the driver to amplify their voice for third-row passengers. Very useful considering how spacious the Highlander is.
The Highlander is powered by a range of V6 engines, both gasoline and hybrid-electric. Toyota’s workhorse 3.5L V6 gasoline engine in this case produces 270hp at 6200rpm and 248 lb-ft of torque at 4700rpm. Always known to be a smooth powertrain, it doesn’t disappoint here. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, it moves the large Highlander with good authority. The Highlander also has the advantage of being lighter than its competition. The Chevrolet Traverse, for example, easily the largest in this segment, is a whole 300lbs. more. The lighter weight helps with performance and fuel efficiency. A reactive all-wheel-drive system is standard on all trim levels except for the base LE. Downhill Assist Control (DAC) as well as an electronic differential lock is standard when you opt for all-wheel-drive.
Fuel efficiency, while always improving in the full-size crossover vehicle segment, has never been really good. Toyota rates the Highlander Limited AWD at 11.5L/100km in the city, 8.2L/100km on the highway, and 10.0L/100km in a combined cycle. I managed about 12.5L/100km in mostly city driving over 400km. These numbers are about average in the full-size crossover category – the price one pays for being able to shuttle around eight passengers and all their goods.
Toyota prices the Highlander Limited at $45,100. No options are available as this is already the top-end trim. It is an impressive piece of kit with all the technology, passive, and active safety systems rolled in, and again, right in the middle of the class, made up of competitors like the Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, Ford Explorer, and even the Dodge Durango. I find the Chevy Traverse (also the GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave, by extension), and Ford Explorer to be way too big and cumbersome. The Honda Pilot, while a solid entry, is getting a little dated at this point. The Nissan Pathfinder is new for 2013, but CVTs are still not my style. The Dodge Durango is the oddball choice, with its rear-drive dynamics and 8-speed automatic transmission. It seems even bigger, but is priced in-line with the Highlander and its competition.
Of note, I’d like to point out that the Highlander XLE seems like a better deal when it comes to the fundamentals. You do give up nice luxury items like the cooled seats, heated steering wheel, and have to settle for a smaller sunroof, but it has pretty much everything you would want for a few thousand dollars less – making the Highlander one of the more interesting values in this segment.
By the end of the week, I found it extremely difficult to dislike any aspect of the Highlander. It quietly does everything very well, flies under the radar, and it does everything the way you’d expect things to happen – without surprises. I noted the lack of better headlighting, but that’s about the only negative item I could find. The Highlander is definitely worth a close look if you’re looking to move the entire family and all their stuff in competent comfort.
2014 Toyota Highlander Limited AWD Gallery