"You drive a Highlander, why don't you go on this event?" This was the question that was posed to me when we received the invite to drive the new 2014 Toyota Highlander in Carmel, California. Since the debut of the new model at the 2013 New York Auto Show earlier this year, I've wanted to see just how different my model—a second-generation—is from the new one. The Highlander is now in its third generation with the 2014 model and has received many updates to its exterior and interior. The styling has been updated to create a more sporty appearance to the midsize three-row SUV and has received upscale touches throughout its interior, making feel more refined and luxurious.
But how different are the driving dynamics? My Highlander is a midrange model without all the bells and whistles that comes with fully-loaded press cars. I knew it would be hard to compare the overall vehicle, but I also knew the real test would come when I got behind the wheel. We had a presentation before we set out on our drive loops that talked about the mechanical changes to the Highlander, along with what to expect from those changes. Weight has been reduced. The suspension has been upgraded, and the rear wheels were supposed to be more engaged for better on-road behavior. So how well did the new Toyota Highlander deliver on these claims?
The automaker hoped to combine the aspects that make the Highlander one of the segment leaders--strong performance and an eye-catching exterior design. To accomplish this, Toyota changed most of the exterior elements, giving the new model a more modern and streamlined design.
Taking a look at the front end, your eyes are instantly drawn to the new grille design that has become bolder with the help of the large "T" design. The lines branch out from the iconic logo and help sculpt the front shoulders and run to the rear of the model. This offers more distinct lines that help emphasize the new Highlander's sporty nature. New headlights and daytime running lights with integrated fog lights complete the new front end, and help maintain a more modern image that will help propel the Highlander further up in the segment, or at least Toyota hopes.
The sides and rear of the new midsize crossover SUV have become more defined and streamlined. The front pillars have been slimmed down to improve visibility, while the rear-quarter glass has been extended to improve visibility for rear passenger, along with providing a more spacious feel to the interior. The second-generation Highlander was definitely more round and less sculpted than the new generation that implements a redesigned back door area, with wider rear fenders and the same "T" theme that is seen on the front grille. Wraparound taillights add to the overall effect and bring the design full circle by matching similarly styled headlights.
The interior has received the most notable changes, including more soft-touch materials and a new shelf for phones and other small handheld electronics in the center console. Toyota wanted to create an interior that followed along the lines of the "Functional Beauty" design philosophy. Storage space has been increased with the help of some new features, and the new materials used have created a more sophisticated look and feel of the interior.
Almost immediately after getting behind the wheel, your eyes center in on the redesigned dash layout. All models are equipped with a 6.1-inch touchscreen infotainment display with all the usual buttons. But what makes the lines so clean in the new design is the balance between actual buttons, knobs, and the touchscreen. Those who are used to having more tactile controls than just a touchscreen will find the balance just right. Though some of the controls may be a reach for the driver, the voice commands have been improved for the new model year to help with this issue.
Soft-touch materials have been outfitted throughout the cabin, and hard plastics are just a distant memory. On the second generation models, hard plastics were utilized heavily and made the cabin feel less than inviting. Toyota has recognized this issue and dealt with it well. Even the steering wheel has been updated to include new controls and a three-spoke steering wheel design. It seems like Toyota really listened to customers when designing this new model.
Perhaps the most notable interior feature of the 2014 Toyota Highlander is the increased cargo capacity. The new model implements an in-dash shelf that features soft-touch padding that helps keep items in place, especially when cornering. Just below the storage shelf are USB ports to let you charge your phone or MP3 player while driving. Added to that is a new 24.5-liter storage compartment in the center console that will hold almost anything. Moms and women can fit purses, bags, and other items with ease.
And if there were to be one significant gripe about layout from us, it would come by way of the Highlander's improved third row that's still not really big enough for full-grown adults. There are other crossovers and SUVs out there that, quite simply, do it a little better.
Having driven my second-gen Highlander less than a day before I hopped behind the wheel of the new 2014 Toyota Highlander, I was able to get a good sense of the changes to the model. Right away, the upgrades are apparent; I didn't realize my Highlander was so out of date. The steering on the new model was noticeably sharper, and as soon as you turned the wheel, the car followed. My model takes about a half-second after turning the wheel to move in comparison.
For the first loop of the day, we set out to Big Sur, testing the vehicle through winding roads along the coast. The handling of the new model was good, and the Highlander felt grounded to the road. When taking sharp corners, we never felt unsure if the new model would be able to handle it. In the past, I've noticed whenever I took a corner a little too fast, it felt like I was about to get on two wheels, as my model was a front-wheel drive model. The rear wheels feel much more planted to the ground in the '14 Highlander, and the all-wheel drive model gave us an added feeling of security when you notice that the rear wheels are engaged throughout the turn.
Getting up to highway speeds was easy and quick, and we often didn't know how fast we were going, as the ride was smooth and quiet. When we hit between 75 and 80 mph, the road and wind noises were slightly noticeable, but with the radio turned on, it was easily drowned out. The new Entune audio system has also been updated for the new model year and now offers a much clearer and distinct sound than past models. You can pick out the individual elements of the music you're listening to, thanks to the speaker separation. In previous models, all sounds came out of all speakers, but now, sounds are split up to magnify the unique sounds. It made for an overall great experience.
There was one feature that didn't seem to work as well as I would have liked, and that was the microphone that enable the third row passengers to hear what the front passengers were saying. In theory, the front driver or passenger would simply speak like they would with each other, facing forward and not having to project their voices. The sound would then travel through to the rearmost speakers for the rear passengers to hear. This would prevent the driver from turning around to address those in the back seats. It was a nice thought, but the execution could have been better. The result was a disjointed sound that wasn't that easy to understand.
If you're looking for a family-friendly midsize crossover SUV that can easily accommodate all passengers and have plenty of room for cargo, the 2014 Toyota Highlander should definitely be at the top of your list. It's one of the only models with a functional third-row seat, and with the redesign it now features added cargo room for all those road trip or weekend trip accessories. The updated interior and exterior give the new model a more modern and upscale appearance, and all models have been competitively priced.
There are other models out there that may be more suitable for specific needs, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee with its off-road capabilities or the Nissan Pathfinder's abundance of room. Even though the 2014 Toyota Highlander isn't meant for going off-roading, it still has light capabilities and can get you to that remote camp ground in the woods and still have room for your tent and other camping necessities. Marketed for adventurous families on the go, we can expect to see the new Highlander fly out of dealers across the nation as soon as it comes to market.
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