CARMEL, CA – The three-row mid-size crossover vehicle is well on its way to replacing the minivan in the marketplace as the do-anything family vehicle. With its new third-generation Highlander, Toyota is staking its claim to a chunk of that market.
Toyota claims to have started the crossover trend with the introduction of the first Highlander in 2001. Based on the Camry platform, it was arguably the first car-based SUV (although proponents of AMC's Eagle and Subaru's Outback might take issue with that claim).
Along with the Highlander came a new designation – CUV (Crossover Utility Vehicle) as opposed to SUV which refers to more truck-like and rugged body-on-frame vehicles.
CUVs more closely fit the urban lifestyle. Like minivans, they are spacious and can be configured to carry oodles of cargo or up to eight people. Unlike minivans, most have all-wheel drive and at least the appearance of a more masculine vehicle.
But compared to SUVs, they are typically more highway friendly and refined and generally more fuel efficient.
Toyota has given its pioneering entry in the category a major makeover for the 2014 model year, with a new exterior, refreshed interior and updated suspension.
The express purpose of these changes is to make the Highlander more visible in the increasingly crowded segment where it has begun to languish in the face of fresh competition.
Its platform and V-6 engine are carried over from the outgoing model but the third- generation Highlander has a new transmission and all-wheel-drive system.
Due to arrive at your local Toyota store toward the end of January, it is also more focused on convenience and refinement with improved driving dynamics. The steering and suspension have been re-engineered and there are some slick new features – standard and optional.
Three trim levels
The Highlander continues to be available in LE, XLE and Limited trim levels with various packages available to bump up content at each step of the trim ladder.
All but the base model come with a rear-view camera and, depending on trim and equipment level, prices have been held at the previous points or reduced, despite additional equipment.
The exterior has been updated with a new look front and rear. While the wheelbase remains the same, width is up 15-mm and length by 75-mm, with most of that increase aft of the third row to help increase cargo capacity by more than a third.
The new Highlander is also 30-mm lower and, combined with the added width and a new trapezoidal grille, its appearance is more rugged.
Toyota has been pushing for more aggressive designs and the Highlander accomplishes that goal. But it is still a Toyota and doesn't stray far from the conservative looks that have proven so successful for the brand.
Big changes inside
While the exterior has been updated, the big changes are found inside, where there is a more spacious feel and a number of additional features.
Most surfaces are covered in soft-touch materials and ergonomics have been improved. There are plenty of Toyota’s favored square buttons on upper trim levels, but blanks on lower ones to remind you where you saved money.
Two new features stand out. The first is an “app” found on the audio system standard on mid- and upper trim levels. Labelled “Driver Easy Speak” it allows the driver to speak to occupants in the third row with enhanced volume and clarity.
Press the button on the screen and the microphone built into the headliner, normally used for the hands-free phone, sends your voice through an amplifier to the speakers in the rear of the vehicle. It brings a whole new meaning to “keep ti down back there” or other such common phrases!
Another clever touch is a shelf that runs blow and two-thirds of the width of the instrument panel. It is perfect for the variety of “stuff” we carry in vehicles from smartphones to gloves and sunglasses. It even has a pass-through to run cords to both 12V and USB charging points.
The centre console contains a gargantuan storage bin designed to hold a computer case or very large handbag. The sliding cover serves as an armrest, even when open.
The third row contains belts for three occupants and access is easier with redesigned folding second-row seats. But that seat is best left to little people and short distances.
Drivetrain and chassis
Power for all models comes from the same 3.5-liter V-6 engine found in numerous Toyota and Lexus vehicles and it is unchanged from last year. The four-cylinder engine offered previously has been dropped in Canada but remains available in the base model in th United States.
The five-speed automatic transmission has been turfed in favour of a six-speed and the full-time all-wheel-drive system offered previously has been replaced by an on-demand unit that made its appearance on the new RAV4.
It operates in front-wheel-drive mode the majority of the time but is capable of sending up to 50% of engine torque output to the rear wheels. It is optional on the base model – which features standard front-wheel-drive – and standard on all others.
Toyota says the combination of the new transmission and new AWD system, along with aerodynamic tweaks, has brought a 10% improvement in fuel efficiency.
The Highlander will also, once again, be offered in hybrid guise with the same 3.5-litre V-6 engine and trio of electric motors used previously. With a combined 290-horsepower output, the hybrid is not only the stingiest Highlander but also the fastest and most expensive – although the hybrid powertrain will now be available over a range of models rather than just at the top end.
On the road
On the road, the Highlander provides a new level of peace and quiet. Noise levels have been considerably reduced, whether from the road and tires or wind.
The new Highlander also benefits from some updated steering and suspension settings. There is a newfound degree of alacrity and it handles road blemishes without the head toss common in tall heavy vehicles of this nature.
Body roll has also been reduced. Still, the Highland feels like what it is – a taller and heavier Camry.
The 270-horsepower engine has its work cut out, however. A rocket ship it is not. It's a heavy vehicle, even more so for 2014 thanks to an added 40 kilos, and performance can best be described as adequate.
Throw in more aggressive pricing and appearance, combined with some slick new features, all these changes should help the Highlander retain its position in a big and highly competitive segment.