2014 Toyota Highlander

CARMEL, Calif. — Like the current Camry, the latest Highlander is a major re-do of the current platform. It’s also a vehicle where U.S. thinking is taking more of a lead as engineering and product development control for the model shifts away from Japan. That’s because Toyota is expecting U.S. sales to increase to 140,000 units.

It has targeted Russia, Mexico and Central and South America as prime growth markets, and all 2014 Highlanders will be sourced from Toyota’s Princeton, Ind., plant.

Though the new model is 2.8-inches longer and 0.8-inches wider than the 2013 Highlander, passenger volume is 0.8 feet less, and total cargo volume drops by a surprising 8.2 cubic feet. Yet, oddly enough, the new Highlander feels bigger inside. A quick look at the numbers shows a slight increase in the leg room of the first and second rows (the third row loses 2.2 inches), greater hip room, and 3.5 feet more cargo room behind the third row seats. Ingress to the second and third rows is easier. Though Toyota says it can seat eight, six adults could comfortably fit in the new Highlander for a night on the town, especially if those in the sliding second row give those in the third row a break.

Even without a decibel meter to measure the difference, it’s easy to tell that the 2014 Highlander is quieter. That’s because the engineering team made the dash silencer larger and overlapped it with the floor silencer, added sound insulation to the instrument panel, increased floor silencer and insulator coverage by 30%, adopted spray–on sound insulation for the underbody to reduce both weight and noise, added sound-absorbing tibia pads, augmented the dampening performance of the carpeting, increased the thickness of the side and rear-quarter glass, and changed to acoustic glass for the windshield.

They also increased the amount of foam used in the rear quarter panels, door openings, and roof header while improving airflow around the vehicle to reduce both drag and wind noise. As a result, the interior is discernibly quieter, and — along with the upgraded interior design and materials — feels much less pedestrian. It’s not a Range Rover, but it feels more luxurious.

The instrument panel covered in soft-touch materials, and features stitching around the perimeter of the soft-touch pads. A trough incises the horizontal surface and provides a handy place for cell phones or other small items within easy reach. It’s covered in a non-slip material that keeps things in place on the move. If you need more cargo space nearby, look no further than the cavernous center console with its roll-top desk-style lid. You could lose an infant in there.

The glovebox is equally large, but we suspect the owner’s manual (the early production models tested weren’t equipped with them) will take up a good deal of room.

As expected from Toyota’s mainstream cars, the instrumentation is crisp, easily read and informative. Ice blue illumination is used on the 2014 Highlander, and Limited models are fitted with blue LEDs that illuminate the front and rear door panels, as well as the horizontal in-dash shelf.

An information display sits between the speedometer and tachometer; a 3.5-in. black and white screen on the LE and LE Plus, and a 4.3-in. LCD color unit on the XLE, Limited and Hybrid Limited. Everyone gets readouts on distance-to-empty, average and current fuel economy, odometer, trip meter, shift position, outside temperature, ECO driving indicator, and a door ajar warning. Higher trim levels add audio and telephone information, turn-by-turn navigation, compass and street name, dynamic cruise control information (on Limited models so equipped), torque distribution (AWD gasoline-engined models), and Eco Drive Mode (Hybrid Limited models).

Surprisingly, the three-spoke steering wheel is pleasingly fat, and covered in supple leather. The electrically assisted power steering system it controls isn’t the most communicative, though it has less friction and more heft than the outgoing system. Placing the Highlander on the road isn’t a problem once you get used to the strakes running along the hood. They trick the eye into using them as road references, which means you have a few inches of width outside the lines, so to speak. It takes very little time to adapt, however.

To keep things simple, as if that’s possible with infotainment units these days, Toyota has broken the Entune system into four offerings. The basic Entune Audio on the LE model has a 6.1-inch touchscreen AM/FM/CD with MP3/WMA capability, an auxiliary audio jack, advanced voice recognition, USB 2.0 port, side touch controls (that can be a bit of a reach for shorter drivers), hands-free phone capability, and Bluetooth streaming. It also acts as the display for the backup camera display with its projected path guidelines.

Move up to the LE Plus and you get Entune Audio Plus. It adds a higher resolution VGA display, HD Radio, Sirius XM satellite radio, and subscription-free HD traffic and weather. Order the Highlander XLE, and you’ll get the Entune Premium Audio with Navigation and App Suite. This replaces the 6.1-inch screen with a high-resolution 8.0-in. touchscreen, and adds AM/FM cache, navigation, and a complimentary app suite. The latter allows complimentary access to a number of popular mobile applications via an iOS or Android smartphone. They include Yelp, iHeartRadio, Facebook Places, Pandora, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable.com, and Bing. Customers ordering a Highlander Limited get the Entune Premium JBL Audio with Navigation and App Suite. It adds six more speakers (for a total of 12), an external JBL amplifier with digital processing, a subwoofer, and MP3 sound enhancement via digital signal processing.

If that’s not enough, there’s also Driver Easy Speak. This isn’t a natural language voice activation system to control infotainment and other functions. For parents, it’s much better. This technology uses the microphone located in the overhead console to amplify the driver’s voice and broadcast it through the rear speakers at a volume level the drive chooses. Call it the “Voice of God” option for XLE and above buyers. It’s enough to make you think that, in spite of what the engineers might have learned in testing the prototypes on North American highways and the mountains of China and Russia, they learned the most important lessons from their customers.

Let’s be honest, handling dynamics and ride comfort were not strong points of the previous Highlander. However, the engineers have made many detail changes to the 2014 Highlander’s suspension system. These include altering the spring curve by retuning the front MacPherson struts’ coil springs, and using low-friction materials in the front dampers to reduce “stiction” under cornering and braking.

In back, the previous dual-link/MacPherson strut rear suspension has been replaced by a double-wishbone design with better camber control. And though it can be a bit “stiff-kneed” on bumpy surfaces when the vehicle is unladen, its greatest attribute is the cargo space it liberates by locating the coil springs and dampers outboard.

A 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is available on LE and LE Plus only.As before, a 2.7-liter inline four mated to a six-speed automatic transmission is available only on the front-drive LE; all others are powered by a 3.5-liter V6/six-speed automatic combination. This means the V6 has one more gear than before, and that simple change raises fuel economy across the board.

The V6 is almost as fuel efficient as the four, due in large part to the numerical increase in the final drive ratio (from 3.478:1 to 4.154:1). Other improvements include use of an “ultra-flat” torque converter with low-speed lock up, the addition of sequential shift and snow modes, and an expanded flex-lock range. In addition, neutral control releases the clutch halfway to separate the engine from the transmission when the vehicle is stopped in Drive with the air conditioning off.

In practice, the six-speed shifts more cleanly, is more responsive, and runs the engine at lower rpms. The combination is also frugal enough to make you wonder why — other than price — Toyota offers the four-cylinder engine at all.

The biggest mileage gains come, as expected, with the Hybrid model. A mechanical carry over, the big change for 2014 is the elimination of the base Hybrid. It has been replaced by the Hybrid Limited. This places the Hybrid model on an equal footing with the range-topping gas-powered Limited, and reduces seating capacity to seven through a switch to standard Captain’s chairs in the second row.

Gas mileage, however, is a solid 27 city/28 highway/28 combined. With the hybrid-electric drive system mated to the V6 engine, it makes for a smooth, quiet, comfortable and efficient powertrain. However, it will take further testing over regular roads and in everyday driving situations will show whether or not the Hybrid Limited is as impressive in real life as it was on the launch drive route.

Toyota has come to the conclusion that offering buyers QDR (Quality, Durability, Reliability) isn’t enough to keep them interested. They are being seduced by competitors with prettier sheetmetal, more technology and better driving dynamics. It will be interesting to see whether or not mid-size crossover buyers think Toyota has gone far enough in terms of looks, luxury and driving dynamics to keep current customers in the fold, while peeling off those loyal to another brand.

The initial assessment is that the 2014 Highlander is vastly improved, but still on the vanilla side of the taste scale. Only this time it’s French vanilla… with sprinkles.

— Christopher A. Sawyer The Virtual Driver