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Driven: 2014 Toyota Highlander Limited AWD is true to SUV roots

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Today we took a fully loaded 2014 Toyota Highlander Limited Platinum crossover SUV off the pavement into an odyssey of dust, rocks and adventure. Did it measure up to the non-boring marketing Toyota has been washing it with?

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Our black-on-black Highlander looks almost too nice to get dirty. In fact it really looks more at home dropping off a celebrity on the red carpet. It has handsome 19” Chrometec wheels which are actually clad with a plastic chrome cover over an aluminum wheel. The look is significantly upscale.

Competing with the likes of the Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder, the 2014 Highlander is all new in styling with a healthier dose of chrome and sculpted lines than last year's model. While the previous generation wasn't boring by any means, the new Highlander has a lot more presence.

The 2014 model grows 3” longer than the previous generation, yet retains its 109” wheelbase. This contributes to its heftier silhouette, as much of that size increase goes to the rear to make room for now three third row passengers.

On this top trim level, there are integrated chrome roof rails in which a variety of accessory crossbars can be attached. Out back is a power rear lift gate with flip up rear window, very handy when out exploring or camping.

The cabin had generous trappings like soft aromatic leather seats with contrast French stitching, accent color soft trims and warm wood-grain appliques on the dash and door panels. Going Platinum on the Limited brings you the driver technology suite of radar based cruise control, pre-collision system, lane departure warning, and automatic headlamps – offerings the last generation Highlander was missing.

There was also a large panoramic sunroof with opening front panel, a very cool touch that brightens up the otherwise dark interior. Front seats were heated and ventilated, the rear captain's chairs and steering wheel also heated.

Optional second row captains chairs feature both sliding and reclining adjustments, and can fold down out of the way for ease of access to the third row. The third row of seating got wider for 2014, now making room for three passengers courtesy of a new rear suspension design.

This makes the space wider which also translates to more cargo space in the rear. With several ways to fold the rear seating both third and second rows, you can accommodate any number of cargo and passenger scenarios.

The dash design is handsome to look at with a full width goody shelf for whatever you bring with you. It's padded so things should stay put while on the go. In the center is a large touchscreen navigation and audio system with Toyota's Entune app suite.

The JBL Green Edge sound system offered up bass thumping sound but we found the database used for the NAV system to be a little out of date. We searched a store, and followed its directions for a half hour only to find the place had closed over a year ago – a bit frustrating.

The only big disappointment with the interior is that the touchscreen infotainment system is mounted too far from the driver requiring a lean forward reach to use. Additionally, its angled such that it's in the sun's glare most of the time, making it often hard to see.

New for 2014 is Toyota's Dynamic Torque Control all-wheel drive. This system is in front-wheel drive mode most of the time to save fuel. When needed due to slippage or under full acceleration, the system can deliver up to 50% of the torque to the rear axle on demand.

The Highlander's 3.5 liter V6 is silky smooth and with its 6-speed automatic transmission makes for a willing friend whether out here crawling around on the trails or on the highway. The EPA rates the 2014 Highlander Limited AWD at 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined. We achieved about 19.5 mpg in our testing.

It's a little less than the EPA published rating, but keep in mind the air-conditioning was on at all times, and most of our driving was off-road.

Driving the Highlander off the pavement showed some positives however starting with an exceptionally solid body structure. On gravel and washboard roads the doors held solid in their frames and the ride was free of crashing and rattling from the suspension.

Because the fully loaded Highlander Limited only has 19” wheels with 55 series tires, it tends to offer a better ride and more confidence off-road than some competitors. Many of its peers have 20” plus wheels which have low profile tires which ride rougher and can be more fragile in the rough.

Handling on the rougher trails proved nimble and sharp, allowing the Highlander to be easily placed where you wanted it to avoid hazards like boulders or tree branches. While it's a good sized crossover SUV, it never seem too big.

What I like best about the Highlander is that you can still use it like an SUV. With 8” of ground clearance and a 5000 lb towing capacity it allows you far more capability than a car, allowing you to confidently go further out into the wild.

In all we found in our second stint with the 2014 Toyota Highlander that its strengths are pretty commendable in its class. It offers up more style, versatility and space than the last generation, but the real story is in its capability. As tested our Highlander was top of the scales at $44,450.

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