Charleston, S.C.- On a warmer-then-average stretch of May temperatures in Carolina's 'Low Country,' Toyota provided the opportunity for select Chicago media folk to enjoy a 'slightly deferred' regional test drive of its all-new, third-generation Highlander through the historic cobblestone streets of Charleston, South Carolina.
The mid-size Highlander crossover burst onto the scene in 2001 and enjoyed a second-generation makeover in 2008. These earlier generations were assembled in the automaker's home market of Japan. But good vibes beheld the Midwest when Toyota announced third-generation Highlanders were to be built in Princeton, Indiana.
Nestled in the southern portion of the Hoosier State, Princeton was already home to Sienna minivan production and the large Sequoia sport utility. A $430 million investment put forth welcomed Highlander to its new digs. Production of the third-generation effort, measuring three inches longer and one-and-a-half inches wider, began in December of 2013. Wheelbase (distance between front and rear axles) remains unchanged at 109.8 inches.
Besides adding girth, major upgrades include a stylish dashboard, improved sound-impeding insulation and technology tweaks appealing, approachable and usable by a mass audience, not just savvy techies.
This five-door mid-size crossover is one of a handful with a standard third row. As with Toyota's Sienna minivan, 2014 Highlander shoppers have a choice of either a three-person second row bench (accommodating up to eight vehicle travelers) or two captain's chairs (seven-passenger total). Another shared trait; both are available with front-wheel-drive or all-weather-ready all-wheel drive.
Highlander once again offers the choice of two returning gasoline powertrains: a 2.7-liter double overhead cam, 16-valve four banger churning out 185 horsepower or a 3.5-liter double overhead cam, 24-valve V-6 generating 270.
Toyota remains the world's largest manufacturer of gas-electric hybrid vehicles. Since the 2006 model year, Highlander offered a four-cylinder gas-electric hybrid powertrain improving miles per gallon in city driving to 27, but with a price premium as Highlander Hybrid starts at $47,300. Gas-electric hybrid versions of Highlander are also assembled at the Princeton, Indiana plant beginning with this 2014 effort.
During the Chicago Auto Show this past February, Bob Carter, Senior Vice President for Toyota, announced approximately 29,000 Indiana-assembled Highlanders will be exported outside the U.S. for sale in Australia, New Zealand and Eastern Europe. Through April, year-to-date Highlander sales are up 23 percent (a total of 48,254 units) compared with the same 2013 time period.
Toyota's up-market Lexus division continues as the standard bearer for interior solitude with engine and road noise out of harm's way of the interior cocoon. These noise reductions techniques are shared thought the family, including Highlander's 30 percent expansion of silencing insulation coverage of the floor region. In addition, acoustic-type glass is employed to reduce exterior noise.
Trim level count remains at four in 2014 but with changed nomenclature: LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited. All come with the choice of front-wheel or dynamic torque control all-wheel drive. Only the base front-wheel-drive LE is available with the 2.7-liter, four-cylinder. All others feature the 3.5-liter V-6 now coupled with a new six-speed automatic transmission (replacing an outgoing five-speed). Hybrid versions are available only in top-shelf Limited trims. Second-row captain's chairs come standard in Limited and optional in XLE; a three-row bench is standard in remaining trims.
Helping simplify the purchasing experience, LE and LE Plus trims come 'as is' with no factory options. Mid-grade XLE offers an optional rear DVD entertainment system with nine-inch screen and two wireless headphones. Limited editions also offer the rear entertainment package, along with a couple more factory bundles: a new-for-2014 technology package (dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert) and platinum package (two-row panoramic moon roof, heated steering wheel).
Performance Logistics, based in Charlotte North Carolina, fittingly helped the cause by supplying a fully-loaded, Limited Highlander with technology and premium packages during the Charleston stay. With a $42,130 starting price, the bottom line ended at $42,945 after $815 destination charge. The lowest priced Highlander, a four-cylinder front drive version, starts at $29,215, only $195 more than a 2013 model. Segment competitors include the mid-size Mazda CX-7, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mitsubishi Outlander and Ford Explorer among others.
The instrument panel includes two large, flat circular blue-and-white analog gauges flanking a 4.2-inch information display (cruising range, odometer etc.) with toggle select button on the three-spoke manually tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel. Push-button start, right of the steering column, comes standard. The flowing dashboard sports a softer side with an indented lower lip (an in-dash shelf) snaking from the steering wheel past the low-slung, right side glove box. This rim accommodates cellular phones, coins, lip balm, sun glasses or any small storage item. An upper brow atop the dash center is home to the digital clock. Between is a multi-purpose info screen (navigation, station presets, standard rear backup camera) and a lower climate control panel with two temperature dials and push panels for fan speed and direction.
An arching, half-moon style arm rest resides between supportive and comfortable front captain's chairs (heated and air cooled perforated leatherette variety in Limited trims). Doubling as a storage bin, it's got enough girth to swallow medium-sized man purses (or lady's varieties) along with ever-shrinking lap top computers. Access is gained via dual top-sliding panel doors.
Another area Toyota historically stays ahead of the curve; easy-manual-slide middle-row seats traversing along designated floor tracks. Three inches more of maneuverable leg room now fills this gap with tilt-forward second-row backrests. Larger exterior dimensions transfer to an airier third row accommodating three riders. Last model year, two seating positions were the norm. With surprisingly decent headroom, row three is best suited for two 80th-percentile adults, but three tweens could coexist nicely if behaving themselves. The first two rows feature ginormous headroom. Second-row captain's chairs include long, narrow, inboard folding trays with beverage holders. Row three seat backs fold flat onto seat cushions if more cargo room is desired, and retract up via back-side pull straps.
The height-adjustable rear hatch with standard wiper, rises up from the button up with good head clearance. Expect a standard power hatch with flip-up window in all trims sans the manually-powered base LE. The temporary spare tire stows outside, under the vehicle's cargo region. With the third-seat prone, a usable, welcome 13.6 cubic feet (three cubic feet more than last year) of space is available along with access to a long, shallow and covered storage area below a floor cover.
The fuel tank holds a rather large 19.2 gallons of regular, 87 octane petro. Gas mileage for the higher-volume V-6 checks in at 18 miles per gallon city and 24 mpg highway with all-wheel drive; average for the segment but better than 2013 thanks to the updated transmission. Expect one mile more in each category with the front drivetrain.
Visually, this third-generation effort remains recognizable as a Highlander thanks to a prominent, trapezoidal grille with large, circular Toyota logo. Rear tail light structures wraps around from back to side with a chiseled, three-dimensional styling as the housing protrudes outward complimenting sculpted side body panels. Nine exterior colors are available.
Handling tilts toward a smooth luxury setting rather than a harsher sport-type setting. Slightly elevated seating positions provide good visibility levels. On the highways surrounding the peninsula city the V-6 provided ample acceleration with little vibration. It's a logical choice for Suburban Chicago families not keen about minivans or dolphin sighting along the Atlantic coast.
2014 Toyota Highlander
Price as tested: $42,945
Wheelbase: 109.8 inches
Length: 191.1 inches
Width: 75.8 inches
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Curb weight: 4,508 pounds
Powertrain warranty: Five year/60,000-mile
City/Highway economy: 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway
Built: Princeton, Indiana