The redesigned-for-2014 Toyota Highlander isn’t boring, or so claim its maker’s admen -- “Ain’t got no room for boring,” goes the commercial jingle as Muppets and Terry Crews engage in hijinks. The ads are goofy, but you’ll smile anyway. Who doesn’t like cheery puppets and Sergeant Jeffords? (The answer is killjoys. That's who.)
The three-row crossover did have room for improvement. The Highlander has new bodywork, better handling (allegedly), and is better suited to meet family needs, three focal points Toyota wanted to address with the latest model. In our book, the most important moving target is the family-friendly angle. As enthusiast choices in the division of midsize CUVs are few and far between, there’s no tangible upside to laboriously poring over performance. If you came to this website to read about the LaFerrari and your mouse/finger/stylus accidentally hit this story, feel free to leave your “Toyota is boring/tastes like vanilla” comment below.
But is it boring? After several days of fiddling in and around a middle-of-the-lineup Highlander XLE AWD, the two doodads that stuck out the most were the super-handy storage shelf spanning roughly two-thirds of the dashboard and the powered, height-adjustable liftgate that takes forever to open and close. The latter should be flagged a standard feature because the only trim you won’t find it on is the four-cylinder LE. “Forever” translates to around 11 seconds to fully swing up after pressing the exterior open/close button and another 10 seconds to clamp shut. In the Great Contest of Midsize Three-Row Crossover Liftgate Openings and Closings with Arms Full of Bags, we’ve yet to run into another contender that takes as long. (Insert some safety-related counterargument here.)
That’s about it for memorable attributes. Toyota hasn’t thrown any haymakers in an attempt to make the newest generation sizzle and pop among its peers. The previous-gen Highlander was highly competent -- the last time one stopped by, it picked up third place in a six-vehicle comparison (“SUV Six Ways,” May 2011). The current Highlander is highly competent with mostly the same pluses and minuses.
The best word to describe the interior is “purposeful.” It’s focused on functionality and doesn’t try to impress you with its largely absent premium-ness. Presentation and touch and feel won’t wow if you’ve done some cross-shopping, not surprising if you knew the older Highlander. But having a straightforward cabin layout has its perks. Center stack controls are big (a tradition carried over from the preceding model) except for the radio tune knob, which is far from reach unless you’re in the passenger seat. The in-dash shelf has a hole cut into its base where you can thread cables to the lower 12-volt receptacle and auxiliary and USB ports, promoting a clean aesthetic and possibly, fewer entanglements. The huge center console bin, measured at an official capacity of 6.5 gallons, is a neat idea but is less accessible to shorter drivers because moving the seat forward puts your arm at an awkward angle to reach in. It could use a liner of grippy material to keep loose items from slithering around on the bare plastic bottom. The bin’s roll-back cover doubles as an armrest and reminds us of the roll-up door on a wooden bread box: How quaint.
Continuing with family friendliness, the ingress, egress, and ability to fit a car seat are as easy as one could hope (no surprises here). The first and second rows, particularly the legroom, are commendable. The 60/40-splittable second-row bench offers plenty of available fore/aft movement, while its large, easy to grasp, low-tension grab handles make moving it a breeze. The seats can be positioned toward the front enough to where staffers about the same height as Terry Crews (he’s 6’2” or 6’3” depending on the Internet source) can smoothly drop into the rearmost, 60/40-folding row.
Physically sitting in the nosebleeds is another matter. As with past Highlanders, the third row is…well, avoid sitting back there. Specs and individual experience tell us the back is one of the tightest in the class, with headroom notably lacking. There’s even less space for heads and legs compared with last year’s model. You could pack children in, as long as you never let them luxuriate in the adult-ready accommodations provided by the Dodge Durango, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, etc. A Sienna, with its low load floor and side sliding doors, would be better. The minivan is also not as fuel thirsty, with a front-wheel-drive SE trim achieving 20/27/23 mpg city/highway/combined in the real world to our AWD Highlander’s 17/24/19 mpg.
Both use Toyota’s 3.5-liter V-6 and it does what it’s always done: feel underrated for its quoted output. As proven in the Camry, dearly departed RAV4 V-6, and the last Highlander, the six-cylinder brings credible hustle, launching our XLE AWD test crossover from 0-60 mph in 7.1 seconds. The Highlander is still (likely unintentionally) the speed demon of mainstream three-row CUVs. Its 112-foot braking distance from 60 mph improves on 122 feet. It circled the figure eight in 27.8 seconds at 0.62 average g, meaning it made it all the way around without rolling over.
When not driven aggressively, the Highlander rides and conducts itself in its familiar, undistinguished manner. A 2011 Limited model with 19-inch wheels was knocked for its wobbliness at speed. With 18s mounted, the ’14 XLE sailed along just fine, hitting a middle area between road conquerors Durango and Chevrolet Traverse on the plush end and the “they’re still around?” company of the truck-ish Pilot and sporty Mazda CX-9 on the other. It’s an undeniably big vehicle (oddly, it doesn’t convey through the steering wheel that it’s much smaller than a full-size Sequoia), yet it doesn’t feel as substantial as other competitors named. Interior noise is similarly unremarkable, not quiet enough to praise and not deafening enough to lambast. The whole crossover has a Dan Marino quality to it: It’s accomplished and you know it’s durable, but without a couple key feathers in its cap, the air of unfinished business is palpable. Come to think of it, being assigned to put the ultimate touches to produce a standout CUV wouldn’t be a boring gig.
The Highlander has a lot to like if you’re jonesing for three rows and plan to never press the desperation seats into service (more cargo area!) It certainly makes dollar sense, as IntelliChoice tabulates its 5-year cost of ownership to be advantageous against numerous other selections within the segment. (Its projected 57-percent residual is astonishing.) So if you’re in the market, stop by your local Toyota dealer and ask for Kermit, Gonzo, or the guy from the Old Spice commercials.
| 2014 Toyota Highlander XLE AWD |
| BASE PRICE || $38,360 |
| PRICE AS TESTED || $41,228 |
| VEHICLE LAYOUT || Front-engine, AWD, 8-pass, 4-door SUV |
| ENGINE || 3.5L/270-hp/248-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6 |
| TRANSMISSION || 6-speed automatic |
| CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) || 4532 lb (53/47%) |
| WHEELBASE || 109.8 in |
| LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT || 191.1 x 75.8 x 68.1 in |
| 0-60 MPH || 7.1 sec |
| QUARTER MILE || 15.4 sec @ 90.5 mph |
| BRAKING, 60-0 MPH || 112 ft |
| LATERAL ACCELERATION || 0.81 g (avg) |
| MT FIGURE EIGHT || 27.8 sec @ 0.62 g (avg) |
| REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB || 17/24/19 mpg |
| EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON || 18/24/20 mpg |
| ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY/COMB || 187/140/169 kW-hr/100 miles* |
| CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB || 0.96 lb/mile* |
|*Derived from EPA estimates |