Highlander has had decent driving dynamics through the first two generations, and this new Highlander improves the experience in nearly every way. First of all, Toyota has performed magic in calming NVH (noise/vibration/harshness), delivering a supremely quiet and calm cabin. Then, the rear suspension has been redesigned, which has vastly improved cornering and overall stability on the road. Electric power steering is dialed in, and provides decent road feel without the numbness that sometimes accompanies the technology.
Of the three engine choices on Highlander (I4, V6 or Hybrid), the V6 hits the sweet spot with decent acceleration, smooth operation and good power. Beside a slight price advantage, there’s little reason to consider the four-cylinder Highlander. It gives up towing capability and performance for a minimal gain in fuel economy (1 mpg city over the V6 FWD). The Hybrid is more powerful and responsive than the gas-only models, but its continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) limits towing usefulness, and the Hybrid is loaded down with so much additional equipment that the price is out of this orbit.
- Three good engine choices
- Near luxury levels of available options
- Simplified packaging
- Robust towing
- Attractive exterior design
- Ouch levels of price, especially for the Hybrid
- No trailer sway control
- Trailer hitch is a dealer add-on
- Third row is still cramped for adults
- Too nice to get dirty with gear
Toyota has simplified Highlander’s packaging for 2014. Each step up the ladder includes a lot of standard equipment, making selecting the right Highlander a much simpler proposition. Upper trim levels approach luxury levels of equipment (and price tags). Hybrid models are only available as upper trim models, which means that they are a lot more expensive than the base model.
- LE: $29,215 (I4 FWD) $31,775, (V6 FWD), $33,235 (V6 AWD)
- LE Plus: $33,995 (V6 FWD), $35,455 (V6 AWD)
- XLE: $37,295 (V6 FWD), $38,755 (V6 AWD)
- Limited: $40,895 (V6 FWD), $42,355 (V6 AWD)
- Hybrid Limited: $47,300 (AWD)
Toyota has done a great job rethinking Highlander, and the third generation Highlander is a big improvement over the outgoing second gen vehicle. For every day driving, Highlander can take the place of most minivans or full-size SUVs, and for light towing and hauling, it can be a solid choice.
There’s some stiff competition in the mid-size, seven-seater arena. Toyota has targeted Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and Honda Pilot, each of which has its merits. I’d add Dodge Durango, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia to the mix as well. Toyota has the advantage with the only Hybrid in the bunch, but it’s only an advantage if you’re willing to pony up $47,000 plus for the privilege of driving a hybrid. Save a full load of bucks and buy a set of hybrid badges to apply to your V6 Highlander. Nobody will ever know.
If you’ve never considered a Highlander before, now is the time. I’d consider it the new class leader, and a vehicle worth driving.
Do you have a dedicated tow/haul vehicle, or does your daily driver do double duty? Would you spend an additional $5,000 (or more) to get a hybrid that improves your fuel economy by 9 mpg city/4 mpg highway?