2014 Toyota Highlander 3.5 FWD, Hybrid AWD First Test
Testing Both Ends of the Spectrum
Back in August, the Toyota Highlander XLE took second place in our August 2014 three-row SUV Big Test on account of its dependable, if exceedingly bland, capability and low estimated cost of ownership. We recently acquired two other models for testing, each near the ends of the Highlander range: A front-drive and V-6-powered LE-Plus and close to topline Hybrid Limited. (Less expensive LE and LE-Plus models equipped with a 2.7-liter I-4 exist, but appear to be as elusive as Sasquatch.)
To recap, the refreshed Highlander retains the drivetrains from last year, but gains new exterior designs and modified interior space. The general driving impressions from our Big Test and First Test still hold true with the LE-Plus and Hybrid. But the differences? Front-drive Highlanders earn 1 better mpg city/highway than their all-wheel-drive brethren. They weigh less, too. Versus the XLE we tested earlier, our LE-Plus was 225 pounds lighter. In acceleration testing, the only benefit from that weight loss showed up in the Highlander's trap speed, which was 1.2 mph faster. All other acceleration results tied. The Hybrid Limited, with its batteries and motors, is, unsurprisingly, the heaviest Highlander we've tested, at 4862 pounds. Also unsurprising: It's the slowest in a straight line, trailing the other models by 0.3 second to 60 mph and 0.2 second to the quarter mile.
The Toyota Highlander is a 2015 Motor Trend SUV of the Year contender - find out whether the three-row crossover has what it takes to win later this month.
Braking performance worsened for both variants. Our front-drive LE-Plus took 131 feet to stop from 60 mph, up 19 feet from the all-wheel drive model – roughly the length of the Highlander plus 3 feet. Both models feature the same braking system, which leads us to believe the culprit is the tires. Our front-drive model had Michelin Latitude Tours, while the all-wheel-drive model wore Bridgestone Duelers of the same size. The Hybrid model, wearing Toyo Open Country, took 124 feet for its best stop. Around the figure eight, the LE-Plus and Hybrid also put down slightly worse figure-eight lap times and average lateral acceleration, again a possible fault of the tires.
As for driving, the LE-Plus exhibited pronounced torque steer but otherwise drove similarly to the XLE, with acceptable ride quality and an engine that still feels surprisingly powerful. The Hybrid was a little more interesting. While it does return better fuel economy, we found it difficult to appease the ECO gauge in the dash; even modest acceleration moved the needle to the POWER setting. The system features an EV mode (engine off), but seldom stays in it. "Just about any level of acceleration perceivable as such is deemed 'excessive,' and the EV mode is defeated," said MT technical director Frank Markus. "All of which seems sort of as if the hybrid architecture wasn't upsized for this vehicle. HINO (Hybrid in name only)!" he said.
The LE-Plus' interior, with seats upholstered in synthetic leather, drew some complaints. "First impressions are good, but take your eyes away from the dash, and it all starts to look very cheap and plasticky very quickly," said MT editor at large Angus MacKenzie. Editor-in-chief Ed Loh agreed that parts felt cheap, using the door as an example. "The black plastic interior door handles has a visible seam, the interior panel flexes against your knee during cornering, and the door slam is very tinny and hollow. Not the way I remember the last Highlander," he said. The Hybrid's interior provided a better sense of luxury. "This is the Toyota I remember. Shame that you have to spring for everything to get that quality feel. Rear captain's chairs with side windows shades feels quite lux," said Loh. On both models, everyone complimented the large backseat, separate climate controls, and visibility, though we were disappointed by the absence of a 12-volt outlet.
The Highlander's neatest attribute, regardless of trim, continues to be the large shelf in the center console for electronics storage. It also has a small hole for you to route your cables to the power and USB ports. Unfortunately, Toyota's Entune infotainment system gets confused if you plug in multiple devices. I wanted to listen to my iPod, for example, and charge my phone via the two USB ports, but the Highlander only recognized the iPhone.
Some simple ergonomic challenges make you scratch your head. The radio's tuning dial requires you to reach quite a distance from the driver's seat. The powered liftgate takes a long time to open (the longest we've seen). And, as Markus pointed out, the 40-percent folding seat in the second row – the one that's easier to fold for third-row access – is on the curb side for left-side-drive countries. About that third row: "Third row is untenable with middle row full rear, but adjust it forward and recline a bit and it's OK for adults on shorter trips," said Markus.
These small complaints stand out when everything else works and you're surrounded by an absence of innovation or passion. The Highlander, again, is a highly competent vehicle. As MacKenzie said, "It's a simple SUV for undiscerning buyers, thousands of whom will probably be happy with it."
|2014 Toyota Highlander LE||2014 Toyota Highlander Limited Hybrid|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$33,600||$51,600|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 8-pass, 4-door SUV||Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||3.5L/270-hp/248-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6||3.5L/231-hp/215-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6 plus 167-hp front and 68-hp rear electric motors, 280 hp comb|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic||Cont. variable auto|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||4307 lb (54/46%)||4862 lb (54/46%)|
|WHEELBASE||109.8 in||109.8 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||191.1 x 75.8 x 68.1 in||191.1 x 75.8 x 70.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.1 sec||7.4 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||15.4 sec @ 91.7 mph||15.6 sec @ 90.3 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||131 ft||124 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.76 g (avg)||0.75 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||28.3 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)||28.2 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||19/25/21 mpg||27/28/28 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||177/135 kW-hrs/100 miles||125/120 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.91 lb/mile||0.71 lb/mile|
2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid: