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Driven: 2014 Toyota Highlander is all new but keeps what made it popular

Toyota's all new 2014 Highlander is currently the heart and soul of their family car line. With three rows and seating capability of eight, Highlander is all new for 2014, with a dramatic style a bit more striking than the previous edition.

Toyota Highlander gets all new styling inside and out
Toyota Highlander gets all new styling inside and out
Sam Haymart
Toyota Highlander gets all new styling inside and out
Sam Haymart

It's engines and transmissions are largely carried over from the previous generation but with some refinements including its six-speed automatic transmission. The rear suspension is redesigned with multiple links which gives more room, allowing for three-across in the third row.

At first glance Highlander has much more drama with a faster rear roof line and appears to be up on its haunches with larger overhangs. The face is all new with HID headlights and a large trapezoidal grille which ties nicely into them with a sweeping chrome bar.

The side profile is much sleeker and flowing than the last generation Highlander, definitely more upscale and sophisticated in feel. There’s black plastic cladding along the wheel arches and lower front and rear fascias better protect against the long term wear off-road contacts.

We tested the XLE which is the mid-grade Toyota says they will sell the most of. It has features like a flip up rear window as well as a power lift gate. Machined 18” premium wheels are added as well as fog lights. You also get unique chrome roof rails which are integrated into the body structure for better aerodynamics.

The interior of the Highlander also received a complete makeover with an emphasis on soft touch materials, more versatility, increased seating options and most importantly all-new technology features. You will see at first sit, a wider and more horizontal dash design with large center screen infotainment system.

There's a unique shelf that spans from the center console to the passenger side to hold gadgets or other road trip goodies. It's got a handy pass-through for USB cables right above the dedicated jacks down below in the center console ahead of the shifter.

The center console also offers up a unique roll-top opening for the storage area which is positively huge. The doors slide open both forward and rearward, and when closed make a comfortable soft armrest.

As you look around the cabin you notice a distinct raising of the bar in terms of luxury, evident in two-tone trims, french stitching in the seats, and a fashionable selection of color combinations. Familiar to Toyota faithful however will be switches and controls, which are Toyota standards.

Seating options range up to 8 passengers with three across for the third row a feature afforded by a new rear suspension design. Our Highlander was optioned with second row captain’s chairs which had a handy flip up tray between them which can be folded down for center access to third row.

Front seats are of course very comfortable with the driver getting power adjustments, the passenger front remaining a manual seat. The steering wheel has tilt and telescope adjustments and plenty of controls for audio and trip computer functions.

The only area we really found fault with was placement of the infotainment touchscreen. It’s too far away requiring you to lean from the seat to reach it. Its placement also has it in direct sunlight most of the time, the glare making its back-lit graphics hard to see.

Aside the placement issues, the touchscreen audio system with navigation and Entune suite of applications is very easy to use and works well compared to many if Highlander’s peers. Menu functions and adjustments on the go are easily grasped.

An option on the Highlander sure to be popular with kids and parents alike is a rear-seat BlueRay and DVD entertainment system which comes with two pairs of wireless headphones.

The rear cargo area with third row seats up is somewhat minimal, but they fold down flat rather easily in a 60/40 split which gives a much more generous space. The 2nd row seats can also fold down, increasing capacity more.

Toyota spent a lot of effort reducing noise and refining the chassis of the new Highlander, given its place as a family cruiser. A thicker windshield, increased chassis stiffness and sound deadening. This leads to a rides quiet and comfortable around town and on the highway.

The suspension is tuned for a middle of the road ride, not sporting but not too soft. It’s a perfect blend for a family hauler that may spend hours on road trips. Steering too is balanced for an all-around comfort oriented driving character. Highlander is well insulated from crosswind buffeting and is very stable on the freeway as well.

Under the hood is Totota’s popular 3.5 liter DOHC V6 with 270 horsepower. For 2014 it comes standard with a 6-speed automatic transmission in both front-wheel drive as well as all-wheel drive models. This V6 is quiet and powerful, a pair of traits most of its competition only get one of. It revs smooth and sewing machine like with a healthy growl when prodded.

The EPA rates the Highlander all-wheel drive model at 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined. In our week of testing we observed 20.5 mpg combined with the air-conditioning on at all times, so a little better than advertised.

With competitors like the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, and Hyundai Santa Fe it now seems to offer parity in terms of features and available packages. Thus we found the 2014 Highlander to be much more an attractive an feature packed than the previous generation which had become a bit staid. There's a lot more storage bins and cubbies inside, more technology options it needs to stay competitive, but in total retains its trusted and true "Toyotaness".

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