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Toyota Highlander (click the image to open a slideshow in a new window)

Toyota upgrades its Highlander gas and hybrid SUV

By Jim Bray
May 1, 2014

The world's largest carmaker has a brand new version of its popular Highlander for 2014 (click the image to open a slideshow in a new window), and it's a very nice vehicle that differentiates itself well from the smaller Venza.

Time was - last year - when I couldn't really fathom why Toyota kept the Highlander around (other than its sales, obviously!) because the Venza does most of the same things in a smaller and more interesting to drive package. Well, other than the third row seat the Highlander boasts that the Venza doesn't - which could be a pretty compelling difference if you need to haul that many bodies.

But other than the two/three row conundrum, I couldn't really figure out why someone would buy the bland and relatively uninteresting Highlander when they could choose the much less bland and uninteresting Venza. Times change, or maybe I'm just getting older, and I quite like the new Highlander and can see why people would want it. It's now quite distinct from the Venza - a real "Crossover/SUV" as opposed to the more "Crossover/tall wagon" of the Venza. Or a real SUV compared to a crossover, if you prefer.

The first of Toyota Canada's test samples - the XLE AWD version (starting price of $39,900 Canadian) - was so hot off the assembly line I nearly burned my fingers on its door handle. And while it isn't a lot bigger than the old model (it's about half an inch wider and just over two inches longer, and with a lower center of gravity), it feels bigger than that, which isn't necessarily a bad thing in an SUV.

This is a very nice and a surprisingly interesting SUV and it can haul your stuff and up to eight people - tiny ones for the third row. I sat back there long enough to prove it could be done without undue duress - and also to see how easily a fat old man can slide behind the second row to access third class. And it was surprisingly easy! The second row slides forward, revealing a reasonable path to steerage. All it needs is some kind of cone of silence that would let the driver drive without having to hear all the plaintive bleating from the ankle biters back there.

You can tell this Highlander is new from the moment you set eyes on its bigger, more "Tundra-like" grille and the new look continues right past the more angular body panels - kind of like what Toyota did to the RAV4 and the 4Runner, though I think it works better on the Highlander than on those other vehicles. You won't forget that this is still a Highlander, but it's fresher and a little more aggressive-looking at the same time - a nice, "anti-blandness" move.

The gas-powered Highlander only gets one engine choice in Canada (a four cylinder version is supposedly still available in the U.S.) and it's Toyota's nearly ubiquitous (and very good) 3.5 liter V6 that in this iteration puts out 270 horses and 248 lb.-ft. of torque. It doesn't feel over-powered, in fact it could be bumped up a few ponies, but it's definitely enough to move the vehicle along well.

Power gets to either the front or all wheels via a new six-speed automatic transmission that shifts smoothly. Naturally, the hybrid version gets a CVT and it's typical of the species: loud and whiny when you step on the gas.

Toyota says the new Highlander is more stable on the road, driving more like a passenger car than the previous version. It doesn't really drive like a car, if only for the fact that you're a lot higher up, but it's pretty good for a crossover/SUV. About my only complaint is that the turning circle is a tad wide and that meant I had to plan the approaches to angle parking spaces carefully. It wasn't a really big deal, though, and to be fair, it's affected nearly as much by the parking abilities - or lack of - of the people on each side your chosen space.

But the electric power steering feels fine and the suspension is actually pretty good - not too bland and reasonably tight. In all, it drives well considering the niche it occupies.

Inside, the 2014 Highlander has a modern, comfortable, clean and functional interior, with that third row of seats capable of being folded away with one touch. Toyota says there's 34 per cent more cargo space behind the third row seats than the outgoing Highlander - and, speaking of storage, there's a nifty shelf on the dashboard, above the glove compartment but extending right over to near the driver's side that you can use to store stuff you want to access easily - stuff like cell phones and firearms (for those road rage moments!). There's also a box between the front seats that can hold a large tote bag; it fit my backpack with my iPad in it well.

All new Highlanders come with a 6.1 inch display audio system with USB and auxiliary input, Bluetooth for phone and tunes, voice recognition and steering wheel-mounted audio controls. It all works, though as usual the voice control can be frustrating. Oddly enough, I didn't hate Toyota's audio system, which sounded decent and works well. And I liked the touch controls on the center stack, which are reminiscent of the Avalon's.

The XLE has three zone climate control (two up front and one rear), and of course it offers such competitive stuff like power door locks with keyless entry, power windows with driver and front passenger auto up/down function, a tilting/telescoping steering wheel and lots of welcome touches like power outlets, a power-assisted rear door closer, and plenty more.

The Highlander XLE includes as standard equipment stuff like leather seats (heated up front), an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat, fog lights, power rear door with jam protection (it doesn't work against marmalade, though) flip-up glass hatch, power moonroof and "the AVN Premium navigation system with a larger eight inch touch-screen." You also get rear door sunshades and a smart key system with push button start/stop. 

Highlanders' safety equipment includes eight airbags, a back-up camera connected to a console-mounted display (as opposed to the little one in the rear view mirror, which works fine but is rather tiny) You can also order a blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert. And of course like all Toyotas, Highlanders come with Toyota's "Star Safety System," that includes Antilock Brakes, Brake Assist, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, Vehicle Stability Control, Traction Control and Smart Stop Technology.

Besides the XLE AWD that's the subject of this rant, a base model starts at $31,680; there's also a front drive LE (starting at $31,680), an LE AWD version (starting at $34,180) and a Limited AWD (starting at $45,100). You can also opt for the hybrid, which starts at $43,720.

The Highlander drives pretty much like the gas version, except for the whiny CVT, but overall if you have to have a hybrid you can do lots worse. Hybrid Highlanders have all wheel drive and you can up the trim level ante via either XLE ($46,145) or Limited ($52,695) versions. You're getting into serious coin by the time you've signed the dotted line for the Limited, but you are getting a very nice hybrid SUV. Is it worth the approximately $6,000 premium over the loaded gas version? Not to me; that six grand can buy a lot of gas but, as they say, your mileage may differ.

I wasn't really looking forward to driving the new Highlander when I picked up the first of Toyota's sample vehicles. Sure, the old one was fine, but I found it quite boring. The new version does everything the popular SUV did before but, as with most of the new generation of Toyotas I've driven recently, such as the Camry, Avalon and Corolla, it's just plain nicer to be around.

Toyota really does seem interested in moving beyond offering vehicles that may be excellent and as reliable as one could wish for, but which don't really offer a lot of incentive for people who enjoy the drive as much as they want efficiency and reliability. That's wonderful to see!

Copyright 2014 Jim Bray

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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