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2014 Toyota Highlander Test Drive written by Bob Plunkett

2014 Toyota Highlander Road Test Review

by Martha Hindes

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A highpoint while driving Toyota's revised 2014 Highlander utility vehicle was to crest Charleston, South Carolina's marvelously sculptured Ravenel Bridge that spans the Cooper River. It is one of the most spectacular sights in a town where no building can be taller than the highest church steeple.

A fitting highpoint, we thought, as we departed the city's Market Pavilion Hotel for the kind of exploratory tour a typical Highlander driver would take. Toyota was highlighting a revision meant to bring more drama, excitement, enthusiasm --   and men – than this staple utility vehicle has ever enjoyed among American buyers.

This is the third generation of the Highlander, that for several years has brought a loyal following of committed Toyota buyers – the kind who wouldn't consider anything but a new Toyota when the old one is ready for pasture. But even among those stalwarts, it never quite energized into the gotta have car-based sport utility. Anyone who knows the Highlander is probably familiar with those dissing remarks of old: "inferior interior," "not enough flair," "boooorrrrring" and so on. Toyota must have been listening.

Our first look at this next gen Highlander came at the doorstep of Charleston's premium hotel, adjacent to the infamous marketplace of the mid-19th Century, part of the city's storied history, now filled with tables of curios and souvenirs. It is ranked as among the finest in the South and as one of world's top 100 hotels according to Travel + Leisure's 2013 international rating. The marbled facade, properly attired doormen and genteel, placid setting were a fitting backdrop for this energized entrant into the hotly-contested crossover utility wars where Highlander wins the position as the latest refreshed 2014 version right out of the gate.

This somewhat unexpected backdrop confirmed the feeling that this was anything but yesterday's Highlander. Its appearance? Handsome and sophisticated, with expanded lines adding length and breadth and a slightly lowered roofline to eliminate any hint of lumbering utility service. It has a clean, sculptured look while gaining the appearance of authority thanks to the bolder, trapezoidal grille treatment. You get the sense this is a vehicle meant for lifestyle use for both male and female drivers, not merely as a means to get from here to there. You're sure of it when using the one-touch rear liftgate that memorizes the height you want it opened. Think of putting groceries, golf clubs or shopping finds in the trunk while avoiding a sudden spring downpour without getting soaked. The slightly bulging gate might allow an additional item or two.

As we taxied (not a misnomer) away from the hotel, we were set for urban adventure, including sharing roads with Southern drivers who seemed several grades politer than the ones usually found at our Northern home territory. Mmmmmm. Smooth. A very luxurious ride gave it a definite southern comfort feel. This isn't the kind of venue where one would expect to be thinking of paddle boarding, slicing around corners, blowing past an express road big rig or blasting off from a standstill spewing grit in one's wake.

Rather, the feeling in the Highlander was definitely up market, with handsome interior, completely re-done to shush the critics of previous years who have knocked it for lacking quality. Not so this time. We found it airy thanks to a broadened windshield and panoramic moonroof. Leather interior and wood grain trim give it a touch of elegance. Despite its morphing from a seven to eight passenger model (exemplified in new Muppets advertising), it includes necessary storage space such as deep center well for a large purse or computer case. Toyota gained some interior room by thinning down seats somewhat, but that didn't impact their comfort. Over two days of driving we found them completely comfortable, both in front and in rear seating.

And an unexpected element was a tray slot extending across the front at the bottom of the dash that everyone we talked to found ingenious and welcome even when we had trouble describing it. We could envision it storing everything from a pack of gum to an iPhone with its charging cord feeding down through a slot to the USB port below. Second and third rows had added leg room thanks in part to the 4 inches of overall extended length of the vehicle.

We cruised toward our driving route across a layer of cold, wet pavement that's a "ho hum" condition for us, but can strike panic in someone south of the Mason Dixon line unaccustomed to any ice at all on a road. (This was a day after the southeastern seaboard had been paralyzed by unusual winter snow and ice.) The Highlander accommodated as expected, fully in control with the exception of brakes on the front-drive model that don't bite with the force we would like. They felt (should we say?) a bit mushy when applied with the authority needed for a sudden stop. We gave them deference while driving around, allowing for a deficit. (We later found the AWD brakes more compliant.)

The redesigned Highlander for 2014 comes in four grades, LE, LE-Plus, XLE and Limited, all in front-wheel or all-wheel-drive.

Our first test was in the front-drive Limited Premium edition, with heated steering wheel among amenities, that checks in at $42,130. It rides on the same 3.5-liter V-6 powerplant generating 270 HP and 248 lb.-ft. of torque as all but one of the gasoline-fired Highlanders. All are mated with Toyota's new six-speed automatic transmission with selectable manual sequential shifting. Mileage ratings are 19 MPG city/25 highway with front drive or 18/24 with all-wheel-drive.

A 2.7-liter, 185-horsepower four is available on the entry-level LE model to satisfy those wanting to come in a shade under the $30K price range and opting for mileage gains (20 city/25 highway front-drive) over driving thrill. A hybrid version, starting at $47,300, also is available.

The six-foot member of our second-day trio of drivers took the challenge and climbed rearward into the "upper deck" seating (row three) accessible with help from a sliding second row, and found he actually could sit there  (sans two seatmates) in touring comfort for a while. We expect in real-world driving, it would accommodate the more junior grade siblings of the pack. In colder weather, second row passengers could turn up seat heating, a nice, high-end touch.

Since ugly weather (for the south) dampened the city's charm and crimped our driving routes for a while, three of us played hooky for a few hours and drove to the outskirts. Despite traveling on express roads or back alleyways we were impressed by the quiet designed into this revised Highlander. We chatted easily and freely back and forth with no annoying noises to interrupt. Toyota had succeeded masterfully in isolating out any of those disruptive noises that can make a long drive wearying. Instead, we had an easy flow of conversation, humor and jokes without missing any of the punch lines, for a Lexus-quality quiet.

And getting back to the issue of Charleston's numerous bridges that allow access to the islands and peninsulas that make up the area. On our way back from a side trip to the World War II aircraft carrier museum, the permanently-moored USS Yorktown, we discovered that icicles dripping from the cable stayed spires of the nearly 800-foot high Ravenel Bridge were icing the bridge surface.

We had experienced some mild torque steer with the front-drive version a day before during heavy acceleration, but had no doubt the more compliant all-wheel-drive edition would master such conditions. Even so, Charleston’s squad cars blocked entries to bridges we could have negotiated with no problems. But Highlander's long list of standard and available safety equipment would have given us confidence even if we weren't familiar with icy driving. Those include eight airbag systems, pre-collision, rear parking sonar, blind spot warning, smart stop technology and lane departure warning with automatic high-beam headlamps.

So, left with a long, unfamiliar detour as afternoon rush hour was building and threatening our upcoming airport departure what to do? The easily readable 8-inch, touch-screen navigation system, the jewel in the Highlander's impressive tech package, provided a 30-mile gridlock detour. And we made it. So we give a hats off to the bridge for adding some unexpected excitement to our adventure.

For more information on Toyota Vehicles, click here.

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