This is the latest in our new series of short-take reviews, in which we concentrate on a car or truck with a powertrain or trim level not previously detailed. –Ed.
As the three-row crossover becomes America's de facto family car, the genre takes on an increasingly important role in an automaker's lineup. The newly redesigned 2014 Toyota Highlander, then, picked an opportune time to up its game. It may be largely carryover mechanically, but it looks and feels significantly upgraded.
Skiing road trip
Our all-wheel-drive test example featured the Highlander's mainstay powertrain, a 270-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, paired with a six-speed automatic. It returned an indicated 22 mpg on a four-hour trip to the Adirondacks that was about three-quarters highway and the rest two-lane roads. On the way home, with a bit more downhill, we managed 23 mpg. This engine makes adequate power, but won't inspire Walter Mitty fantasies.
The Highlander's ride was busy on less-than-perfect pavement, although the suspension soaks up potholes pretty well. Still, the 2014 Highlander is a more agreeable road-trip steed than its predecessor. It's fairly quiet and not hard to see out of (a backup camera is standard). It's also available with blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and adaptive cruise control. The latter is useful but perhaps not quite aggressive enough for the New York State Thruway on the Friday of a holiday weekend.
The recalibrated steering now has some reassuring heft to it. In the last Highlander, it was rather overboosted and limp. The smooth, leather-wrapped wheel actually feels connected to something, which is novel for a Toyota.
Greater substance, space for people and stuff
The new Highlander is nearly three inches longer and has 13.5 additional cubic-feet of cargo space. The interior has been transformed, with padded surfaces and a stitched dash cover, and seatbelts for three in the third row. A padded, nearly full-width shelf under the dash is perfect for stashing cell phones and sunglasses and glows blue at night, the best use of ambient lighting we've seen yet.
The only negative in this well thought-out interior is that, in Limited models, the roomy middle row comes only with two captain's chairs, which eliminates the center seating position. You have to drop down a trim level to get the more versatile, three-passenger split-bench seat.
Did we say free upgrade? We did not
The new Highlander's greater size, substance, and niceness come at a price, however. My AWD Limited test car rang in at $44,793, although it was equipped with everything, including all the aforementioned high-tech features, plus navigation, heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel, and a panoramic sunroof. The price-leader Highlander LE has crept up just a bit, but the volume models -- the ones people actually buy -- are now between $890 and $1700 higher. You pay more, but you get more. That could be the theme of the 2014 Toyota Highlander.
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