Being an automotive journalist has long been a dream of mine. Jumping from job to job in the automotive industry, I finally landed the managing editor position at Truck Trend. As glorious as the title sounds, I spend all day in front of a computer. Don't get me wrong, I love my job making the magazine the squeaky-clean product it is, but I was secretly envious of my coworkers sharing stories of the awesome vehicles they drove. As one not to give up on his dreams, I finally got the go-ahead from your beloved editor, Jason Gonderman, to do a vehicle review. As it was to be my first one, I began jokingly requesting vehicles that have words like "SRT," "Porsche," and "Land Rover" attached to them. I wanted something fast, powerful, and beautiful for my first review—what enthusiast wouldn't? Jason chuckled and promised he'd do his best.
A few weeks later, I had the final word: I'd be reviewing a 2014 Toyota Highlander Limited AWD. Almost immediately, the song from Toyota's "No Room for Boring" commercials was stuck in my head. Right before I got to the point of thinking in a Muppet's voice, I realized this was going to be awesome. Sure, while the words "fast, powerful, and beautiful" aren't the first words that come to mind with the Highlander, I had a challenge on my hands: To put Toyota's multimillion-dollar marketing campaign to the test.
The Great Escape
Since there is no better way to test a vehicle than a long road trip, I decided to head up to my hometown of Boise, Idaho, to visit friends and family. Yes, our offices are in Los Angeles, and yes, that is a 14-hour drive. Right when the Highlander came to the office, I started it up using the dash-mounted push-button ignition and began my journey on one of the most boring and desolate drives one could ever embark on. My route would take me through Bishop, California, western Nevada, southeastern Oregon, and southwestern Idaho, all mostly on US-95 and US-395.
A bit of context: I have done this route several times with my daily driver, a 1994 Suzuki Sidekick. To say the Highlander was an upgrade from that would, well, be a bit of an understatement. I was excited to test everything in the car, the first feature being the adaptive cruise control, part of the $1,400 Driver Technology Package. Using a system like this for the first time is quite the test of trust between man and machine, especially in heavy traffic. However, it turned out to be quite the boon for long stretches of highway— pretty much turn off your mind and let the car do the rest. Actually, don't do that, because the system will just beep at you and stop working should the speed of traffic drop below a certain point (around 25 mph).
While there was sunlight for part of the drive, the majority was done in the dark. This provided an interesting use case for the Lane Departure Alert (LDA), which uses a windshield-mounted camera to scan for lines in the road ahead and warns as you are about to cross over into the other lane. Since the LDA is passive, the system became mildly annoying, as it'll beep at you any time you come remotely close to the lines. However, on the mindless straight portions, the beeping brought my focus back on-road, even though I was perfectly awake. If you're a person who easily becomes drowsy on long drives, you might just find this particularly helpful.
The inside of the Highlander was quite a nice place to be for the trip. Soft, leather-trimmed seating with heating and ventilation proved to be very comfortable. For the first time in a Highlander, there is soft-touch material on all key touch points and elegant-looking cool-blue ambient lighting on the door panels. There is also a trick storage shelf in the dash that runs from underneath the head unit to the passenger side. It is so convenient it makes you wonder why this hasn't been done before.
Speaking of the head unit, the Limited trim comes with a Toyota Entune–connected 8-inch touchscreen display. The high-resolution screen was easy to read in bright sunlight and was quick to respond to even light touches. The Pandora app support and XM satellite radio were very nice to have once the waves were gone. The system is one of the easier to use in the industry. As for the sound the system produces through the JBL GreenEdge speakers, well, it was disappointing enough to bring up in this review, with a low- and mid-range that was muddled and not very clear. Additionally, around 4 a.m. of my drive, I decided to blast some Journey and Lynyrd Skynyrd to keep me alert and unearthed something disconcerting: a rattle from the liftgate-mounted subwoofer. A quick Internet search showed a mix of people suffering from this same issue, so make sure to blast some tunes on a testdrive.
After enjoying the 70-mph speed limit of Nevada and enduring the 55-mph limit of Oregon, I finally made it to Boise. A double-wishbone suspension out back and revised tuning all around give the Highlander a comfortable yet composed ride, with a surprisingly small amount of body roll in the corners. The 3.5L V-6 engine (standard on all but the base LE trim) produces 270 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque, and while not class leading, felt quite powerful when climbing hills or overtaking slow traffic.
One reason I made this journey was to do a side-by-side comparison with my parents' 2001 Toyota Highlander Limited, the first year of the model's existence. From my unscientific observation, you see more of the first generation on the road than the second, which serves as evidence to Toyota's reliability record. These two top-trim models' MSRPs are separated by nearly $13,000, so it really isn't a fair comparison. The second lowest LE Plus trim on the '14 model has the most similar MSRP and all the features of the older model, as well as some that weren't even available on the '01 model, such as an adjustable power liftgate, three-zone automatic climate control, and backup camera. The ride is vastly improved, the interior is a much more comfortable place to be, and with 50 more horsepower and two more transmission gears, the powertrain is a much better performer.
Speaking of the interior, the 2014 Highlander comes standard with third-row seating for three (up from two in last year's model) and available second-row captain's chairs. Those two additions made my tester the vehicle of choice over the old Highlander when it came to shuffling people around. The sliding second-row seats and the clear pass-through between them were a godsend, as I was a bit panicky that my nieces and nephews would spell the demise of the clean, bright almond leather interior—thankfully I was safe. My tester was also equipped with the optional $1,800 Blu-ray entertainment system, but as a Millennial who doesn't own any "antiquated" disc formats, I quickly became the boring uncle. Whoops. Can't please them all, I suppose.
After enjoying the glory of the Potato State, it was time to make another all-night drive to the Golden State, which proved to be an adventure itself. While the way there meant I had to dodge jackrabbits, strangely enough, the way back meant dodging mice. The total near-miss count for the whole trip ended up being 10 jackrabbits, 9 mice, countless bugs (they were casualties, though), and 1 hitchhiker who appeared 30 miles away from civilization at 3 a.m. The navigation system also added to the adventure. Set to take the shortest route, it took me on a deserted highway in central California, climbing past 7,500 feet in elevation at 1 a.m. Needless to say, the Highlander is stable at high speeds, and it was breathtaking to see the Milky Way galaxy in such clarity.
So is the new Toyota Highlander boring? Not at all. Overall, it's a great package with a comfortable ride and a great powertrain that places it near the top of the pack among CUVs. Is it exciting? Well, that's open to interpretation. That said, Toyota did succeed in supporting the idea that it isn't the car, but rather what you do with it that makes it exciting. Verdict? Mission accomplished.
|2014 Toyota Highlander Limited AWD|
|Price as Tested:||$45,565|
|Vehicle Layout:||7-pass, 4-door SUV|
|Engine:||3.5L DOHC V-6|
|Transmission:||6 speed auto|
|Curb Weight:||4,508 lbs|
|Ground Clearance:||10.1 in|
|Approach Angle:||18.0 degrees|
|Departure Angle:||23.1 degrees|
|0-60 MPH:||7.1 sec (est)*|
|Quarter-Mile:||15.4 sec @ 90.5 mph (est)*|
|60-0 MPH:||112 ft (est)*|
|EPA Fuel Econ:||18 city / 24 highway|
|Observed Econ:||21.92 combined|
|*Estimates based on Motor Trend testing of 2014 Toyota Highlander XLE AWD|