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2014 Toyota Highlander revamp neglects improved driving experience

The Toyota Highlander's ho-hum appearance is transformed for

The Toyota Highlander's ho-hum appearance is transformed for 2014 with a beefier stance, bulging fenders and bold front styling. Credit:

Toyota went back to the drawing board to redesign its aging and stylistically devoid Highlander with a more exciting SUV for 2014. When tested the previous-generation Highlander against five other 2011-2012 model-year competitors in a $37,000 SUV comparison, its bland exterior and interior were complaints voiced loud and clear by our experts compared to the more polished competition.

Fast forward to 2014, and you can't call the Highlander boring looking any longer. The Highlander's ho-hum appearance is transformed for 2014 with a beefier stance, bulging fenders and bold front styling. Its presence was big on the 2013 New York International Auto Show floor where it debuted, and it looks just as good rolling down the California roads on which I recently drove the 2014 during a media drive event.

Part of the transformation includes dialing up the interior styling while adding thoughtful features for modern families who need more room for cargo, people (now standard seating for eight) and an assortment of technology that families desire. The redesign checklist also included a revised driving experience that Toyota was convinced it had to enhance.

That new driving experience isn't the car's most appealing attribute, however, even with an assortment of promising new chassis and suspension improvements, so it's good the new SUV does so many other things well. It is exceptionally family friendly, packed with new features and versatility including— finally— more cargo room behind the third row.

Toyota picked curvy canyon and coastal roads in California to demonstrate the Highlander's new handling chops. Driving a 2013 and 2014 back to back, the 2014 exhibits higher levels of road grip and an enhanced steering response through an extremely thick steering wheel. It's more athletic when digging into a corner, though I wouldn't call the Highlander "fun to drive." The 270-horsepower V-6 doesn't have the immediacy or punch of a lighter, more-powerful three-row SUV like the 290-hp Hyundai Santa Fe, which is a "little" ball of excitement among other similar three-row SUVs— a six-cylinder Highlander LE with front-wheel drive is 4,244 pounds, while a V-6, front-wheel-drive Santa Fe GLS is 3,933 pounds.

An adverse effect of the Highlander's newfound dynamics is a choppier ride over rough roads. Suspension movement of the 2013 is better isolated from occupants, while the 2014 transmits more road imperfections through the chassis and into seats. The 2014 Highlander makes up the loss in ride quality with a quieter ride than the 2013 and a more substantial feeling over rough roads with fewer rattles, squeaks and chassis flex.

I briefly spent time in the four-cylinder Highlander with front-wheel drive, which Toyota expects to account for 5 to 10 percent of sales, and the all-new Highlander Hybrid. The volume-seller V-6 is the most refined of the bunch and best handling with all-wheel drive. Both the four-cylinder and Hybrid V-6 are a little rough around the edges as far as engine noise and vibrations. The Hybrid's V-6 rattles to life and revs high when at a stop, which is audible from across a parking lot. The Hybrid's gas mileage is relatively unchanged for 2014, down 1 mpg in city ratings to 27 mpg but maintains its 28 mpg combined rating.

The most notable change isn't felt behind the wheel though; it's appreciated when opening the cargo hatch. Cargo room behind the third row is vastly improved from the previous Highlander's skimpy bookshelf of a ledge that had trouble even carrying groceries, let alone a stroller or golf bag. The cargo area is now rated at 13.8 cubic feet behind the third row, up from 10.3 cubic feet. Toyota's trickery to increase cargo room involved moving all three rows of seats forward, adding length behind the rear wheels and using a more compact rear suspension.

The newfound room also allowed Toyota to increase third-row width and add an extra seat in the third row for a maximum capacity of eight occupants in standard configuration— captain's chairs with room for seven are also available. The third row still doesn't fit adults with as much comfort as the larger Chevrolet Traverse, but it's good in a pinch. There are also new one-touch folding second-row seats to both driver and passenger sides. Previously, only the passenger seat folded and slid forward via the one-touch level.

Utility is important but the interior gets as dramatic a change as the exterior. Think Toyota Avalon quality with a stitched dashboard, steering wheel and soft-touch, high-quality materials in prominent locations. Those areas that aren't textured, stitched or covered are still on par for the class. Even the base LE Highlander exudes the almost luxurylike niceness of the higher-optioned Limited trims.

Technology is a huge focus in the 2014, from how well Toyota's Entune multimedia system works to the Highlander's ability to suck up multimedia devices. A ledge below the climate controls keeps phones and music players in place while providing a pass-through for the charge cords. There should be no more Medusa-like dangling of cables.

Working the Entune system on the optional 8-inch touch-screen with voice commands is also impressive, while a massive center storage bin between the front seats can devour anything else plus size, like a purse, iPad or Blu-ray collection for the available rear-seat Blu-ray player. And when you forget that Blu-ray at home, an interesting new feature called Easy Speak transmits the booming voice of an angry mom or dad through the rear stereo speakers via the Bluetooth mic to keep rowdy kids in check. How much more family focused can you get than providing a feature that allows parents to yell at kids? 

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