December 24, 2013 10:45 AM | By Jeremy Sinek for MSN Autos

2014 Toyota Highlander first drive



2014 Toyota Highlander (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)
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  • 2014 Toyota Highlander (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)
  • 2014 Toyota Highlander (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)
  • 2014 Toyota Highlander (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)
  • 2014 Toyota Highlander (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)
  • 2014 Toyota Highlander (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)
  • 2014 Toyota Highlander (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)
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2014 Toyota Highlander

The Highlander ain’t broke, but Toyota fixes it anyway

2014 Toyota Highlander (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)

Carmel, Calif. -- To showcase the new 2014 Highlander, Toyota sent us over some of the same roads that Chevrolet chose to preview of the 2014 Corvette last summer. Coincidence? Of course it was. Nobody in their wildest imaginings is trying to suggest the new Highlander is the Corvette of midsize SUVs.  C’mon.

But still, what we learned about the third-generation Highlander along that winding pavement is still worth knowing. If listless steering and stodgy handling ever deterred you from considering the Highlander in the past, you’ll now have to find some other excuse. Which, frankly, unless you’re a diehard devotee of Detroit iron, won’t be easy.  The outgoing second-generation Highlander still had a lot going for it, and its 2014 replacement is the same only more so.

I always thought the previous version was handsome in a conservative sort of way, but for 2014 the Highlander has gotten serious about appearances. Longer, wider and lower, the new proportions enhance its stance while a bold trapezoidal grille and colour-keyed rear spoiler add visual impact to the shape.

2014 Toyota Highlander (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)

The added 69 mm of length is mostly aft of the rear wheels, where it helps expand cargo room behind the third-row seat by 34 per cent, from 290 to 390 L (though it’s still somewhat below the class average). Under the rear floor, a new double-wishbone rear suspension takes up less space than the previous Macpherson struts, which allowed Toyota to install a wider third-row bench with room for three occupants. That makes the Highlander an eight-seater when equipped with the standard bench seat in the second row.

Gone, however, is the former 40/20/40-split second-row seat with its removable and stowable “20” portion. Highlander now reverts to a more conventional choice between a 60/40-split bench (with slide and recline capability) or captain’s chairs. Increased forward travel for the middle seats provides easier access to the third row, while other new aspects of load-worthiness include a height-adjustable power tailgate with flip-up rear window on all except the base model.

Roomier than the numbers say

2014 Toyota Highlander interior (© Photo: Jeremy Sinek)

Surprisingly, Toyota’s specs say the ’14 Highlander has lost about an inch of combined front/middle/rear legroom. Maybe that’s a typo, because the second row still supplies comfortable sprawl space to spare, or you can slide the seat forward to a compromise position that shares out the legroom to allow average-height adult males to sit in all three rows simultaneously. They’ll need to be skinny, though, to sit three-abreast at the back of the bus; the third row may be almost 85 mm wider than last year’s, but it’s still narrower than those in rival eight-seaters such as the Honda Pilot and GM’s Acadia/Enclave/Traverse trio.

Up front, comfort at the wheel is easy to achieve, but don’t expect one of those traditional high-and-mighty SUV driving positions.

On the powertrain side, the previous 2.7-litre four-cylinder base engine has been banished in Canada (though it continues in the U.S.) but on its way out the door the four-pot gifted its six-speed automatic transmission to the carryover 3.5-litre V6, which previously was hitched to a five-speed. Like the former “four,” the V6 is paired with front-wheel-drive on the base LE trim.

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