Rating: 9.0
Bottom Line:
In the face of stiff competition, Toyota has reacted by making the 2014 Highlander larger and more luxurious. But pricing has also escalated, and a base 4-cylinder Highlander costs as much as V6 versions of Toyota's accomplished rivals. Toyota's reputation for quality and reliability make the Highlander a fine choice for families, but we prefer the more stylish Dodge Durango or roomier Chevrolet Traverse.
  • Room for the family
  • Controlled ride and handling
  • Efficient hybrid available
  • Pricey
  • Not as big as some rivals
  • 4-cylinder lacks power

Toyota took a chance when it introduced the Highlander in 2001. As one of the first "crossover" car-based SUVs, it didn't have the bold, muscular styling or off-road capability of popular truck-based SUVs of the time. However, customers realized they didn't need all the off-road capability, and they liked the Highlander's carlike ride and reasonable fuel economy. Late in the decade many competitors acknowledged the success of the Highlander and switched to crossovers. That left the Highlander a bit behind the curve, since many rivals are now bigger and more luxurious. For 2014, Toyota is remedying that issue with a larger Highlander outfitted with upscale materials. Does the new model stack up?

View Pictures:  2014 Toyota Highlander

Model lineup
The 2014 Highlander is offered in LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited trims. The Hybrid is now available only with Limited equipment; a base Hybrid is no longer available.

The LE standard equipment includes cloth upholstery, a rearview camera, a 3.5-inch LCD multi-information display, Bluetooth connectivity and eight airbags, including driver knee airbag and front passenger seat cushion airbag.

Some of the LE Plus additional equipment includes a flip-up rear hatch window, adjustable power liftgate, three-zone automatic climate control with air filter, an 8-way power-adjustable driver's seat and satellite radio.

The XLE gets a sunroof, roof rails, keyless access and starting, leather upholstery with vinyl third-row seat, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, universal garage-door opener, second-row window sunshades, Driver Easy Speak voice amplification, and Entune Premium Audio with the Navigation and App Suite.

The Limited's plethora of equipment includes perforated leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front row seats, second-row captain's chairs, blue LED ambient lighting, Entune Premium JBL Audio with 8-inch touch screen and 12 speakers, rear park assist and blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert.

An available Driver Technology package includes Toyota's Safety Connect service, a precollision system with dynamic radar cruise control, and lane departure alert with automatic high-beam headlights. A Platinum package has these features plus a panoramic sunroof, a heated steering wheel, and heated perforated leather second-row captain's chairs. A rear DVD entertainment system is also offered.

Under the hood
The powertrain choices carry over from 2013, except for a new transmission. The 2.7-liter 4-cylinder and 3.5-liter V6 engines are now mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission instead of a 5-speed. The 2.7-liter makes 185 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, while the V6 produces 270 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. The 4-cylinder comes only with front-wheel drive, while the V6 offers both front- and all-wheel drive. With the 4-cylinder, the Highlander carries Environmental Protection Agency-estimated fuel economy ratings of 20 mpg city/25 mpg highway. With the V6 and front-drive, those numbers are 19/24 mpg, and with the V6 and AWD they are 18/24 mpg.

Toyota also offers a hybrid powertrain that teams the 3.5-liter V6 engine with three electric motors to make 280 horses. The transmission is a continuously variable automatic that constantly adjusts gearing ratios instead of changing gears. The hybrid powertrain is rated at 27 mpg city/28 mpg highway, and it has all-wheel drive.

The Highlander's new all-wheel-drive system sends 100 percent of the power to the front wheels during normal cruising, but can apportion up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels when it detects slip. It also comes with a center locking differential to lock in a 50-50 split. Depending on the model and equipment, the Highlander can tow 1,500, 2,000 or 5,000 pounds.

Inner space
Inside, the new Highlander has a more upscale look than its predecessor. Fit and finish are excellent, and the new soft-touch dashboard imparts a higher quality feel than the hard plastic Toyota used in the past. The most innovative feature is a new dashboard shelf. It sits below the main controls and is a great place for small items, especially phones. It also has a pass-through so you can run a cord to the USB port below and charge your phone.

The dash features touch-sensitive audio and phone controls, and it comes standard with various versions of Toyota's Entune infotainment system. We usually don't prefer touch controls as they can be hard to hit just right, but these worked every time. Entune is a hub for the communications, entertainment, and navigation functions, and it provides a gateway to apps through owners' smartphones.

There is one more unique feature of note. Toyota calls it Driver Easy Speak. The driver simply hits a virtual button on the center screen and his/her voice is broadcast through the speaker system. While this initially seems like a good way to yell at the kids, it's better used to include backseat passengers in the conversation. Not a bad idea for a family vehicle.

Speaking of families, the Highlander competes against some large family trucksters, including the Durango and Chevrolet Traverse, so it was in Toyota's best interest to make the Highlander bigger for 2014. While the new model is longer, has more interior space, and can seat up to eight instead of seven, it's still much smaller than those rivals. What matters, however, is how well that interior space is utilized and Toyota does a fine job of making passengers comfortable.

Three-row seating is standard. Front passengers sit on comfortable seats with a good view of the road, but the driver's seat doesn't have enough adjustments and range of motion for an ideal seating position. The second-row is offered as a bench or a pair of captain's chairs.

The third-row seat is now wider, allowing space for a third passenger — provided they are all kids. A pair of adults will fit back there, too, but they will sit with their knees at their chins. Both the second- and third-row seats also recline to let occupants adjust the seatbacks for optimum comfort.

Highlander trails the competition in rear cargo space. With all the seats up, it has 13.8 cubic feet of cargo volume, and with the second- and third-row seats down that expands to 83.7 cubic feet. The Durango offers 17.2 cubic feet behind the third row and 84.5 cubic feet of max volume, and those numbers are 24.4 and a whopping 116.3 for the Traverse. The good news is all of the Highlander's seats fold down easily to create a fairly flat load floor.

On the road
The Highlander has always offered a pleasant driving experience, and the 2014 Highlander is even better. A new double-wishbone rear suspension frees up some room in the rear and helps the Highlander track more predictably through turns. The steering is also improved from the last model. It has some decent heft and is nicely direct though without a lot of feel. However, the vehicle is also wider, and you can feel that width with a little bit of lean in corners. As in the past, the suspension smooths out all but the most jarring bumps, and engine noise is subdued. In terms of driving dynamics, the Highlander is middle of the pack in an improved midsize crossover market.

The base 4-cylinder engine isn't up to snuff compared to the V6s offered by both Toyota and the competition. It lacks power and doesn't offer much fuel economy benefit. A full-out zero-to-60 mph sprint takes a leisurely 9.7 seconds. Add a full load of kids and groceries, and the 4-cylinder will likely struggle to get out ahead of traffic.

The 3.5-liter V6 engine, on the other hand, is a pleasure, propelling front-drive Highlanders from zero to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds and all-wheel-drive models in 8.2 seconds. The 3.5 V6 is also buttery smooth, and its new 6-speed automatic transmission is right-now responsive. Considering that there is only a one mpg penalty for choosing the V6, we think it is the obvious choice.

The Hybrid carries a premium of roughly $5,000 for another eight mpg, and it is also slightly quicker, taking 7.7 seconds to get from zero to 60 mph. The Hybrid powertrain is more responsive off the line, where the immediate torque of electric motors helps most. However, the CVT never shifts, creating a somewhat numb feel during acceleration. Turn the key, and the Hybrid's gas engine usually doesn't start until you get on the throttle. The gas engine also shuts off at stoplights, but it starts up again and gets you moving as soon as you step on the accelerator.

Right for you?
Three-row crossovers like the Highlander make great family vehicles, and the Highlander offers a Hybrid version that beats the competition for fuel economy. A more luxurious interior and increased passenger capacity make the 2014 Highlander a more inviting place to be, but rivals like the Dodge Durango and Chevrolet Traverse offer even more space in vehicles that are arguably more stylish.

(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)

Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.