Toyota Highlander — Storage and much more

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

There are a lot of things to like about the 2014 Toyota Highlander. This third-generation Highlander is the personification of what a family crossover sport utility should be, but that being said, it isn't as sporty as some. There are a couple of entries in the mid-sized segment that have more adult-friendly third-row seating, a few offer more overall cargo space, and several are arguably more stylish. What Toyota has done is build perhaps the best all-around family vehicle even if it isn't necessarily the best at any one thing.

The first thing you notice is the bolder grille that reminds us of the new snout on the full-sized Tundra pickup. A chrome strip at the top of the grille extends over the arching headlight enclosures giving the Highlander kind of a squinty eye look. The wheels are bigger going from a base of 17 on the previous vehicle to 18 inches, and the wheel arches are more pronounced giving the vehicle an aggressive stance.

Inside, the Highlander is more refined with more soft-touch materials, including luxury-looking stitching on the seams, and less hard plastic. The gauge cluster has a modern look with a multifunction display dispensing numerous bits of information sitting between the tachometer and speedometer.

The center stack comes with a 6.1-inch Entune infotainment system screen in the base models and a larger 8.0-inch screen in the upper trims. There is also a deep bin under the center console lid that is big enough to store purses, laptops and a myriad of items that people travel with these days.

But what impressed us as much as any one thing is the massive storage shelf that reaches in a sweeping artful curve from the left edge of the center console all the way to the passenger-side door. It's a work of art not seen in any other crossover vehicle.

The bin curves from side to side following the contour of the dashboard is blacked out inside so that it doesn't distract from the overall styling of the dash and it has a large enough lip to hold things in place in case of a sudden jolt. It's deep enough to accommodate such things as a small notebook, sunglasses and cellphones. It's partitioned off to keep items apart. And there's a hole in the back where a cord can be fed into a power point below.

As with the Tundra redesign for 2014, Toyota has elected to carry over the engines from the outgoing model. The 3.5-liter 270-horsepower V-6 offers solid performance in either front or all-wheel drive mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Toyota has been able to squeeze an additional mile to the gallon now rated at 19 mpg city, 25 highway and 21 overall. If you opt for all-wheel drive, mileage drops to 18/24/20. Towing capacity remains at 5,000 pounds.

Merging and passing can be accomplished without drama with the V-6, which can reach 60 miles an hour from a stop in 7.2 seconds (or 7.5 — depending on what performance testing numbers you like best) which is about average for V-6-equipped crossovers in the segment. We also found the Highlander nicely planted itself on tight, sweeping turns and with good on-center feel.

As noted, there is ample room to carry four adults comfortably, and second-row passengers will find adjustable and reclining seats in either bench or captain chair configurations for comfort. Although the third row remains a place for kids or Muppets, Toyota has increased the width of the seating area in back by 3.7 inches and it now can accommodate three across turning a properly configured Highlander into an eight-passenger vehicle.

Toyota has added more than three cubic feet of space behind the seats, now rated at a useable 13.8 cubic feet. However, cargo space with all seats folded has decreased from 95.4 cubic feet to 83.2.

The Highlander comes with the usual safety features including a standard backup camera. And the Limited trim comes with blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert and an optional package that includes frontal collision warning with automatic braking, lane-departure warning and Toyota's Safety Connect telematics that includes emergency assistance, stolen vehicle location and automatic collision notification. Unfortunately these useful features are only available by purchasing the more expensive Limited model.

The new Highlander starts at $30,030 for the base LE with a 2.7-liter inline four making 185-horsepower and rises through four trim levels to $44,405 for the Limited Platinum AWD. The base LE with V-6 engine is $33,550. Our test car was a front-wheel drive Limited with a bottom line of $42,945.

Base price: $30,030; as driven, $42,945
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 270 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 248 foot-pounds @ 4,700 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/2/3
Wheelbase: 109.8 inches
Length: 191.1 inches
Curb weight: 4,354 pounds
Turning circle: 38.7 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.8 cubic feet
Maximum cargo capacity: 83.2 cubic feet
Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
Fuel capacity: 19.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 25 highway, 19 city
0-60: 7.2 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Nissan Pathfinder, Dodge Durango, Honda Pilot

The Good
• Solid performance from V-6
• Seating for up to eight passengers
• Refined interior
• Storage abounds up front

The Bad
• Top safety features unavailable below top trim level

The Ugly
• Lackluster four-cylinder engine