When Toyota introduced the Highlander in 2001, it was one of the first true "crossovers," and the midsize SUV has had a long and successful run. For 2014, the Highlander has been redesigned with a bolder look and higher-quality cabin. Our tester was the hybrid version, which gave us a case of sticker shock for a nonluxury family hauler.
Appearance: The new look is sleeker and more athletic. The Highlander gains a more macho black-slatted trapezoidal grille similar to the Tundra pickup's. The grille is trimmed with chrome, and a horizontal bar extends out on each side of the Toyota badge into the slender upswept headlights. Character lines sweep back along the body, which is accented by high wheel wells. Our tester's paint — Ooh La La Rouge Mica — is a rich burgundy color that really pops in the sunlight, along with the 19-inch Chromtec alloy wheels.
Performance: The Highlander has Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive System, which pairs a 3.5-liter V-6 with electric motors for a combined 280 horsepower. There is good low-end torque thanks to the electric system, so acceleration from a stop is outstanding for a vehicle of this size and weight. The hybrid model comes with standard all-wheel drive and a CVT gearbox. The Highlander hybrid mostly operates as a front-wheel driver, but the standard AWD kicks in if more traction is needed. We found that the CVT seems to hesitate under acceleration and the regenerative brakes can be a bit grabby. Otherwise, the driving experience is composed and comfortable. The Highlander Hybrid gets an estimated 28 mpg combined (27 city/28 highway), which is good for a heavy crossover.
Interior: Toyota has ditched some of the plastic found in previous Highlanders, and the cabin now has mostly soft-touch or textured materials, along with attractive wood-grain and silver-tone trim. The comfortable leather seats have nice contrast stitching. We love the cabin's family-friendly storage, including an armrest console large enough to store a purse, camera or tablet, and an in-dash gadget shelf with a pass-through for the power cord. The only nit here: Cup holders are on the passenger side of the shifter, which sometimes makes it difficult for the driver to grab the drink. Our tester's second row had captain's chairs with a pass-through lane in between for easy access to the third row. A tray table can be folded up when the lane is in use. Especially handy: The second row slides front and back, and the seat backs lean backward. The third row, as you might expect in a midsize SUV, is for kid-sized passengers. Both rows fold flat with a 60-40 configuration, but with all the seats up, there's barely enough room for a small grocery run. The Entune infotainment system has onscreen apps icons that are large and easy to use. The buttons flanking the 8-inch display also are large and intuitive, but we would have liked a nav/map button.
Our 3 favorites
Trim: Chrome around the windows and roofline gives it a premium feel.
Moonroof: Huge and panoramic. Also, side window shades.
Color: Ooh La La Rouge Mica — silly name and sophisticated color.
Cross-traffic alert: Good to have when you're backing out of a parking space.
Confident ride: Good low-end torque thanks to the hybrid system.
Storage space: Center console bin for bags and valuables, in-dash shelf for little things.
The bottom line: The Highlander has desirable features for families in an attractive package and should be among the top choices for a people mover. But, even with its good MPG, the hybrid will take more green to go green.