Google the word ‘nondescript.’
The search engine may not pull up all previous-generations of the Toyota Highlander, but it probably should.
I passed an older model on the way to picking up my 2014 tester. This mid-size SUV was and still is a capable family hauler, but with its meek lines and timid proportions, would be hard to spot in a busy parking lot.
Until now, Highlander’s badging has been about the only clue to its identity.
But today’s Toyota lineup has been steadily moving the styling needle from ‘bland’ to somewhat bold. I say “somewhat” because it wouldn’t pay to alienate the automaker’s core demographic.
Now joining this company-wide makeover is the all-new 2014 Highlander.
It wears a more angular look than its predecessor, one that is decidedly more masculine, with its bold trapezoidal grille fronting a lower, wider and longer body with chiseled fenders and sculpted door panels, and rolling on optional 19-inch alloys.
The Highlander can be had in both conventional gas-powered and hybrid models, with the former starting at $31,680 for the front-drive LE and topping out at $45,100 for the all-wheel-drive Limited model.
My Hybrid tester, as you’d expect, starts higher up the pricing ladder. The base LE begins at $43,720 and the Limited, as tested, is priced at $52,695. All models get AWD.
Each Highlander Hybrid also benefits from a lengthy content list that includes six speaker audio system with 6.1-inch touchscreen, three-zone climate control, heated front captain’s chairs (with eight-way power for the driver), backup camera, smart key with pushbutton start, steering wheel audio and voice recognition controls, automatic headlamps, power liftgate and 18-inch aluminum wheels.
The standard second and third rows are 60/40 split bench. Both recline, and the second row has plenty of fore/aft travel to make life easier for those in back.
While there’s ample room for large adults in the middle row, the back bench is tight for both head and legs. Best left for the kids.
My tester for the week was the top-trim Limited, which gets fold-flat captain’s chairs with collapsible tray (with cupholders) in the second row. There’s a tradeoff, however, as it only carries seven, while other models manage eight, but it does provide seat heating in the second row, along with perforated leather upholstery.
Occupants up front also get seat cooling, with eight-way power adjust and memory for the driver.
Overall, the interior benefits from plenty of soft touch, thickly padded armrests, attractive simulated-wood trim on the doors and dash, and a nice combination of materials, tones and textures that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lexus.
This includes an equipment list leaves out little in terms of technology and creature comforts: 12-speaker JBL audio system, eight-inch touchscreen, navigation, heated steering wheel, rear door sunshades, panoramic moonroof and 19-inch alloys.
And there’s a load of driver aids like radar cruise control, lane departure alert, blind-spot monitor with cross traffic alert, and a pre-collision system.
Under the hood is a 3.5-litre Atkinson Cycle V6 paired with a high torque electric motor and battery pack. These work together to deliver 280 net system horsepower, which is 10 more than the conventional model. Torque for the gas burner is 248 lb/ft, but isn’t published for the hybrid.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that electric motors deliver instantaneous torque, so when you stomp the pedal there’s no lag. Acceleration is robust when needed.
But those willing to spend the big bucks for a hybrid aren’t as likely as me to sacrifice its fuel economy for a fleeting bit of tomfoolery - at least not too often.
That being said, its 6.8/7.2/7.0L/100km (city/hwy/combined) NRCan rating is a bit optimistic. My actual was 9.3 L/100km combined, which is still impressive for such a large and heavy vehicle – especially when driven without much heed to being green.
Also contributing to the hybrid’s fuel-sipping ways is an electronically controlled CVT and intelligent all-wheel-drive system that operates in front-drive mode until the added traction from its rear wheels is needed.
Towing capacity for the Hybrid, at 1,587 kg (3,500 lbs), is bested by its gas-powered sibling (2,268 kg/5,000 lbs). And with only eight inches of ground clearance, it’s certainly no off roader.
But prospective buyers aren’t likely to take the Highlander far from the asphalt, and it’s still more than capable on rough gravel and rutted cottage roads.
Cargo capacity is competitive in the new model, with more space behind the third row than before (385 litres vs 290).
That’s enough for a load of groceries, but with today’s smaller families, most will leave the back bench folded flat for a more usable 1,189 litres of space. If you’re hauling furniture or appliances, drop the middle row for a maximum of 2,339 litres.
I recently drove the gas-powered Highlander as well, and found the overall experience comparable – except at the gas pump. My ‘real-world’ average of 12.6L/100km combined city/hwy driving was typical for this kind of vehicle, but nonetheless created more pain when topping up the tank.
Either way, the new Highlander is a big step up from its predecessor. Which was still pretty good, although its bland personality made it seem like the vehicle you settled for when its more dynamic sibling, the 4Runner, was beyond your budget.
That has all changed for 2014.
With its larger proportions and more aggressive styling, not to mention upgraded interior, Highlander no longer has to play second fiddle.