CARMEL, CA – Toyota launches the new ’14 Highlander CUV into a segment ripe with opportunity but also more competitive than it’s ever been.

Customers shopping the Middle CUV segment, as defined by WardsAuto, demand more than they did since unibody models started replacing ones based on body-on-frame architectures.  

With transaction prices in the segment sometimes approaching $50,000, buyers expect a greater degree of luxury than ever before, and it’s apparent Toyota developed the new Highlander with that in mind.

Based on Toyota’s MC platform, which also underpins the Camry, Avalon, Sienna, Venza, RAV4 and Lexus RX, the ’14 Highlander provides a smooth, car-like ride during a recent test drive on the immaculate roads of this affluent California suburb.

Much attention was paid to eliminating outside noise from the cabin, and it shows.

Toyota says it reduced interior noise through a 30% expansion of insulation in the floor and use of acoustic-type glass for the windshield. Vibration is minimized through expanded coverage of the dash silencer, enhancements to body sealing and three hydraulic engine mounts. 

Improvements in the exhaust layout provide additional noise and vibration reduction, the automaker says.

The degree of cabin quietness is on par, or better than, that of most luxury vehicles, which should be a tremendous selling point for customers ready to spend big bucks on a new CUV.

The ’14 Highlander can be had with three powertrains: a 3.5L V-6 making 270 hp, 2.7L 4-cyl. producing 185 hp and a Hybrid Synergy Drive system that pairs the 3.5L V-6 with a high-torque electric drive motor-generator.

We had a chance to drive all three powertrains here and if we had to choose one, we’d opt for the 3.5L.

The 2.7L does an admirable job propelling the 4,134-lb. (1,875-kg) Highlander, but on inclines and off the line it struggled a bit. However, those looking for good fuel economy and to save a few bucks should consider the 2.7L, rated at 20/25 mpg (11.7-9.4 L/100 km) city/highway.

The hybrid packs plenty of power and performs seamlessly. However, we achieved only a combined 18.5 mpg (12.7 L/100 km) during mostly freeway driving, below the advertised 22 mpg (10.6 L/100 km). And with a starting price of $47,300, or $18,085 more than the 2.7L, value is questionable.

The 3.5L offers the perfect fit. Its 248 lb.-ft. (336 Nm) of torque gets the big CUV up to speed effortlessly and cruises along at 75 mph (120 km/h) without complaint. The 17 mpg (13.8 L/100 km) we achieved is short of its 20 mpg (11.7 L/100 km) combined rating, however.

Both gasoline versions of the Highlander come equipped with a 6-speed automatic gearbox, while the hybrid gets a continuously variable transmission. The 6-speed is a nice unit, delivering quick, unobtrusive shifts. The CVT does its job well but, like most of its brethren, it sucks a bit of the fun out of the powertrain.

Outside the Highlander gets dramatic changes. Responding to criticism the automaker’s lineup is boring, designers have set a path to turn those perceptions on their head.

The ’14 Highlander is a good first step in that direction, offering a bold, if semi-polarizing, exterior appearance.

The most dramatic changes include a lower roofline, which Toyota says improves aerodynamics, as well as sculpted side-door panels and redesigned trapezoidal grille.

The changes are a definite improvement, but Toyota carried over the protruding headlamps and taillights from the outgoing model, which disrupt the flow of the new design.

Inside, attention was paid to upgrading materials and expanding space. All trim levels come with a soft-touch instrument panel, as well as silver-, satin- and chrome-plated accents. Limited grade models get a wood-grain-pattern trim on the front dash and door panels.

The understated cabin design lends a degree of luxury that will help the Highlander compete in its crowded segment. Perhaps the most surprising addition is a widened third row that can carry three adults comfortably, bringing total seating capacity to eight. Although most competitors offer a third row, few have one that accommodates adult passengers in comfort.

Toyota officials decline to reveal volume expectations for the ’14 Highlander, but the new model has its work cut out for it with strong competitors such as the Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder seeking to grow market share.

The ’14 Highlander is an upgrade in nearly every aspect over the outgoing model. But you get what you pay for. With a starting price of $29,215 for the 4-cyl. model and a Platinum package hybrid going for $49,790, the Highlander is treading dangerously close to Lexus territory.

bpope@wardsauto.com

’14 Toyota Highlander
Vehicle type 8-seat, 5-door CUV
Engine 3.5L DOHC V-6
Power (SAE net) 270 hp @ 6,200 rpm
Torque 248 lb.-ft. (336 Nm) @ 4,700 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 93.9 x 83.0
Compression ratio 10.8:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 109.8 ins. (2,788 mm)
Overall length 191.1 ins. (4,853 mm)
Overall width 75.8 ins. (1,925 mm)
Overall height 68.1 ins. (1,729 mm)
Curb weight 4,398 lbs. (1,995 kg)
Base price $43,590
Fuel economy 19/25 mpg (12.3-9.4 L/100 km)
Competition Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, Nissan Pathfinder
Pros Cons
Dramatic exterior design change Still has protruding head lights and tail lamps
Hybrid offered Nearly $50,000 for base hybrid
4-cyl. engine available Feels underpowered