2014 Toyota Highlander LE AWD – Review

2014 Toyota Highlander LE AWD is a vast improvement over the previous generation

2014 Toyota Highlander LE AWD is a vast improvement over the previous generation

Bottom line:  We like the versatile people- and cargo-hauling capabilities of the all-new-for 2014 Toyota Highlander.  It’s competitively priced, drives much better than the outgoing model, and has Toyota’s peerless pedigree, top-ranked build quality and reliability.  I’d buy one.  Highly recommended.

The 2014 Toyota Highlander arrives at a perfect time for me.  We’re shopping for a new vehicle and the Highlander is on my short list?

Why the Highlander?  First, Toyota’s legendary reputation for build quality, long term reliability and low cost of long term ownership.  We tend to keep our vehicles for about ten years, so minimizing repair expenses over the long haul is a high priority.

Second, I want the security of all-wheel-drive for our Canadian prairie winters.  Then there’s the hauling capability of CUVs.  CUVs are North America’s modern era stationwagons, and offer tremendously versatile people and cargo hauling capabilities.

Finally, the 270 horsepower 3.5-litre V6 Highlander has a 5,000 lbs. towing capacity, and I’m looking for a vehicle that can potentially haul a 2-motorcycle trailer with ease.

What’s new?

For 2014, the Toyota Highlander is all new.  Built on the mid-size Camry platform, this is the third generation of Toyota’s popular CUV, and the total makeover is a massive success.

Styling loses the bland, generic look of the old version in exchange for a bold, angular style that’s clean and crisply sculpted.  The nose of the new Highlander takes on styling cues from the Tundra pickup truck, and the new sheetmetal is distinct and handsome.

The main mechanical changes for the Highlander is a new independent rear suspension using a double wishbone with trailing arm design.  That change makes more room available at the rear allowing the fitment of a 3-person third row bench.  The Highlander now can haul 8 passengers, but kids best fit the third row.

Attractive features

Our ‘base’ LE AWD demo unit (MSRP $34,480 with ‘convenience package’) has an impressive list of features.  Winter-weary Canadians will appreciate the all-wheel-drive (with locking centre differential), heated side mirrors, windshield de-icer and a ‘snow’ setting for the transmission.  A backup camera, locking centre differential, downhill assist control, and 6.1-in. touchscreen are among the notable standard items. However, Toyota should be lambasted for making the heated front seats optional (part of ‘convenience package’ that includes 18-in. alloy wheels, power tailgate, 3-zone climate control, flip-up rear hatch window, and satellite radio).

Simple, easy to read gauges complement the 2014 Toyota Highlander's nicely finished interior

Simple, easy to read gauges complement the 2014 Toyota Highlander’s nicely finished interior

Front cloth seats are comfortable, but heated only if the 'convenience package' is ordered

Front cloth seats are comfortable, but heated only if the ‘convenience package’ is ordered

Interior

The cabin of the new Highlander is a nice environment for spending time.  The interior feels spacious and the materials are all of fine quality, just what one expects from Toyota.  Plastics are soft to the touch, and the black cloth material has a slight sheen that makes me believe it’s designed to repel stains and minor spills.

The front bucket seats are comfortable, and the second row passengers enjoy limo-like legroom and the benefit of reclining seats.  The second row seats are easy to fold flat, requiring pulling in sequence, two separate levers, and the seats fold flat for greatest ease of loading.

A handy shelf runs along the bottom edge of the dash

A handy shelf runs along the bottom edge of the dash

60-40 split second row seating is commodious and seatbacks fold easily by activating two levers

60-40 split second row seating is commodious and seatbacks fold easily by activating two levers

Highlander's cargo hold features a flat floor and plenty of room for large items

Highlander’s cargo hold features a flat floor and plenty of room for large items

Driving

Despite being a substantial (mid-size) CUV with a few hundred pounds more weight than the last gen, the Highlander is easy to drive in traffic.  From the driver’s seat, it’s easy to see the leading edges of the hood and front fenders.  The Highlander is the same overall length as an E-class Mercedes, but some 3-1/2 in. wider, and that extra girth is noticeable when slicing through traffic.

Still, even though Toyota classifies the Highlander in its truck range, its chassis and suspension tuning gives a comfortable ride, and on the highway, road and wind noise is very well controlled.  If cross-country driving vacations in comfort are high on your list of priorities, the Highlander is a top contender.

With the new suspension design, the new Highlander drives much better than the one it replaces.  Steering feel is quite good, and the suspension feels firm and almost ‘European.’  Make no mistake, the Toyota will never make BMW X5 or Mazda CX-9 driver sweat when chasing through the esses, but it’s heads and shoulders better than the second gen which had all the character of white bread.

Fuel economy

We ran two tanks of unleaded regular fuel through the Highlander and the best this 260 horsepower 3.5-litre V6 could deliver was 10.1 L/100 km (28.1 miles per Imperial gallon) of mostly highway driving.  Given its AWD configuration and lardy 2045 kg (4508 lb.) curb weight, and 5,000 lb. towing capacity, that’s not bad, but frankly, I expected better.  (Our recently sold 14-year old 4.3-litre V8 Mercedes-Benz E430 4Matic regularly achieved 9.2 L/100 km in similar driving conditions.)

Conclusion

Until the 2014 Toyota Highlander was launched, our previous favourite CUV was the superb Nissan Pathfinder AWD which, with its CVT transmission, is slightly more fuel-efficient than the new Highlander.  (Pathfinder official NRCan rating 10.9/7.8 L/100 km vs Highlander’s 11.5/8.2 L/100 km city/highway.)  But the Highlander’s handling feels sharper and crisper than the Pathfinder (another vehicle on my personal ‘short list’), so the nod goes to the Highlander for now.

After testing the gasoline 3.5-litre V6 Highlander and its Hybrid sibling a few weeks ago, the 2014 Toyota Highlander is easy to recommend, and it remains the vehicle to beat on my personal shopping list.

 

2014 Toyota Highlander LE AWD
Price as-tested $34,480 (excludes destination charges, PDI, other fees and taxes)
Engine 3.5-litre DOHC V6
Power 270 horsepower @ 6,200 rpm; 248 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm
Transmission 6-speed automatic, all-wheel-drive with lock mode
Tires/Wheels P245/60R18
Fuel Economy Rating (L/100km) 11.5/8.2 (city/hwy) (Actual:  10.1-10.8 L/100 km)

 

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