Toyota’s success in America stems from many things—a reputation for quality and low maintenance, sensitive pricing, a broad dealer base, consistent advertising and so on and so forth. Above all, however, might be the company’s feel for exactly what it is we want or need to drive. If Toyotas are down-the-middle mainstream . . . well, so is vanilla, the best-selling ice cream. It’s familiar, poses no challenges, and can be quite satisfactory.
That’s Toyota in a nutshell, and this 2014 Highlander in particular. Like vanilla ice cream, it gets the job done—the job description here being “pretty big and comfortable but still affordable family vehicle for all seasons that’s gotten even better for 2014.”
Highlanders can accommodate as many as eight persons in three rows of seats, with air bags, cup holders, lights, vents and power outlets aplenty. All models but the base LE version keep everyone comfy with three heating and cooling zones, while fending off claustrophobia with a huge moonroof overhead. (There’s precious little elbow room in that optional eighth seat, in the middle of the third row, but you expected that.)
Our Highlander is the mid-level XLE edition with all-wheel drive, floor mats, a cargo net and a suggested price of $38,703. Motivation comes from a 3.5-liter V-6 gas engine. The transmission is the usual fluid-drive automatic with six forward speeds that can be shifted manually and has a snow setting to reduce wheel spin. In normal driving, an amber ECO light shows in the dash; this indicates the transmission is short-shifting to cut fuel consumption. Adding throttle puts out the light and brings all 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque into play.
The default mode for AWD Highlanders is really front-wheel-drive, with slip sensors to send power aft as needed, but four-wheel-drive also can be locked in via a switch on the console. With the six-cylinder engine and AWD, towing capacity is set at 5,000 pounds and the fuel-efficiency ratings are 18 miles per gallon in city driving, increasing to 24 MPG or better in moderate, steady highway cruising. Slippery surfaces and off-roading aside, the biggest everyday benefit of all-wheel drive is that it keeps the Highlander’s front tires from squealing or torque-steering under power.
This is only the third generation of the Highlander since its debut in 2001, and it’s a step up. The vehicle shares its platform with another Toyota, the best-selling (ultra-vanilla) Camry sedan, but for 2014 the Highlander edges closer to the Lexus RX 350 in refinement. Even at full throttle, little noise gets into the cabin, and the ride is not only cushy-but-controlled, it also imparts some of the Lexus’s forged-from-bar-stock solidity. The new Highlander got a redesigned rear suspension too, which seems to make it a bit more agile, while on the interstate it tracks like an arrow. Considering that its drivers tend to be more concerned with maneuvering through parking lots and ferrying car pools than carving up mountain roads or trekking across Mongolia, the Highlander fulfills the mission well.
In keeping with its goal to supply ice cream—I mean cars—for all needs and budgets (and to stave off those upstarts from Korea), Toyota makes four flavors of Highlander, from the basic $30,000 LE with a 185HP four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive to the deluxe-yet-frugal $48,000 gas-electric Highlander Hybrid Limited. (Toyota also sells six other SUV lines!) Naturally, each price hike brings with it more and more features, conveniences and comforts, from a power liftgate and keyless ignition and locking/unlocking to a backup camera, a color touch-screen and Toyota’s Entune navigation and infotainment system. Every state-of-the-art safety system is standard or available as well.
We might try to be smart alecks and say that the most radical things on the new Highlander are its mid-dash tray with the unique pass-through for a smartphone cable, and the PA system that lets the driver yell at the unruly mob in the back seats without turning around, but that would be ignoring the dozens (hundreds?) of improvements recently applied just about everywhere throughout the vehicle. Even vanilla, it seems, can be made tastier.