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2014 Toyota Highlander first drive gets our attention without Muppets

New Highlander in Creme Bulee Mica
New Highlander in Creme Bulee Mica
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2014 Toyota Highlander Limited Platinum

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Toyota featured the Muppets in their Super Bowl commercial on Feb. 2 to grab consumer attention for their new 2014 Toyota Highlander - but they really didn't need to as this third generation Highlander grabs attention all by itself with new styling, premium materials, innovative features, new technology, improved power train, and a very quiet driving experience.

New Highlander Limited Platinum at Mission Santa Barbara in Calif.
New Highlander Limited Platinum at Mission Santa Barbara in Calif.
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In early January, we traveled to Santa Barbara, Calif. to do a one day first-drive of the newest generation mid-size three-row SUV Highlander which Toyota has redesigned and upgraded measurably to challenge the considerable competition in the segment.

After several hours in the new 2014 Highlander, we came away very much impressed with the improvements that Toyota designers and engineers have packed into this new Highlander - aiming at providing a very capable and multi-featured vehicle that addresses the needs of the contemporary family.

The new Highlander is better in every area than previous generations and deserves a serious look if you are in the market for a three-row mid-size SUV that can seat up to eight and meet just about all of a family's everyday and recreational needs.

To offer a broad range of features and functionality, the new 2014 Highlander starts with being available in four well-equipped grades: LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited. Each will offer both front-wheel (FWD) and all-wheel-drive (AWD).

All Highlander grades feature a 3.5-liter V6 engine and new six-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission that offers selectable manual sequential shifting including a snow mode. The V6 delivers 270 hp and 248 lb.-ft. of torque with expected fuel economy of 19/25 mpg City/Highway with an average of 21 mpg for the FWD. The AWD fuel economy is one mpg less.

The LE grade is also available in a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine and the Limited grade is available with a hybrid power train. The fuel economy rating for the 2.7L (FWD only) is 20/25 mpg City/Highway with an average of 22 mpg.

Our first-drive test car for the day in Santa Barbara was a 2014 Highlander Limited Platinum FWD in a very rich Creme Bulee Mica exterior color riding on 19-inch Chromtec alloy five spoke wheels (18-inch is standard on other models) .

As the top-of-the-line model, this first drive Highlander came fully equipped and delivered, including options, for $42,990.

Standard features on the Limited trim level include: projector-beam halogen smoked-chrome accent headlights, LED Daytime Running Lights (DRL), color-keyed heated power outside folding mirrors with turn signals and blind spot warning indicators and puddle lamps, Chromtec roof rails, power adjustable liftgate with flip-up hatch window, integrated fog lights, backup camera with path projection and three-zone automatic climate control with controls at each seat row.

Also included are Optitron instrumentation with blue illumination, blue LED ambient lighting on interior of doors and in the in-dash shelf, soft-touch upper door trim with wood-grain accents, leatherette trimmed armrests, satin chrome interior door handles and 4.2-inch color driver configurable LCD Multi-Information Display in the instrument panel.

Seating is leather trimmed front (heated and ventilated) and rear with eight-way power adjust on the driver seat and four-way at the passenger seat.

Infotainment in the new Highlander is provided through the Entune Premium JBL Audio with Navigation and App Suite. It includes the Entune Multimedia Bundle with 8-inch high resolution touch-screen and split screen display, AM/FM CD player, MP3/WMA playback capability, 12 JBL Green Edge speakers, auxiliary audio jack, USB 2.0 port with iPod connectivity and control, advanced voice recognition, hands-free phone capability, phone book access, music streaming via Bluetooth wireless technology, Entune App Suite, Intelligent Touch controls, SiriusXM Radio, HD radio, HD predictive traffic and Doppler weather overlay.

New Highlander features we really like include the soft-touch in-dash storage shelf running from just under the center stack to the passenger door with cable management and slide preventers, very large center console with dual roll-top entry enabling secure storage of large items such as purses and electronics, second row side shades, folding side table with cup holders for the second row captain's chairs, one-step sliding second row seats that recline, plus extra room (3-inches) in the second row seating area and 34 percent additional cargo storage gained as a result of the new double-wishbone rear suspension and wheelbase engineering improvements.

Our Limited Platinum was also equipped with the Tow Package which provides 5,000 pounds of tow capacity and supports a tongue weight of 500 pounds which is well within the recreational needs of most urban families.

The Platinum Package had the Driver Technology Package included with Safety Connect, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and Pre-Collision System, Lane Departure Alert and Automatic High Beam Headlights.

The Platinum Package also added Power Panoramic Moonroof, heated steering wheel and heated perforated leather second row captain's chairs.

Also available is a Rear-seat Blu-Ray DVD entertainment system with nine-inch display, remote, RCA jacks and wireless headphones in the XLE and Limited trim levels.

The MSRP for the new Highlander LE will ranges $29,215 for the LE four-cylinder FWD to $43,590 for the Limited V6 AWD with Platinum Package. The Highlander Hybrid Limited will have a MSRP of $47,300, with the Hybrid Limited with Platinum Package carrying an MSRP of $49,790. Highlander MSRP’s do not include the Delivery, Processing and Handling (DPH) fee of $860.

The new 2014 Highlander is in production and will be arriving at dealerships in February 2014.

Stop by and test drive one for yourself. You should be very pleasantly surprised at how much value you are going to get in the new Highlander.

Sorry, but the Muppets are not available as an accessory.