Update: Tom test drove a Highlander Hybrid earlier this year, but recently had the chance to test drive a Highlander LE as well. This post has been updated to reflect both vehicles.
While the Highlander’s last generation was getting a bit long in the tooth, it continued to sell well. It had a reputation for reliability and while I wasn’t a fan of driving them, I couldn’t argue with the utility and everyday usability they brought to the table. With the all-new 2014 Highlander, Toyota promised big changes from top to bottom and they have definitely delivered on that.
Pricing: 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid XLE
Base price (Hybrid XLE trim): $46,145
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $47,935
Pricing: 2014 Toyota Highlander LE V6 AWD
Base price (LE trim): $34,180
Options: $2800 Convenience package
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $38,770
I spent a week each in an LE AWD and an XLE Hybrid Highlander – for the purposes of this review, I’ll refer to them as the LE and the XLE for the most part.
All pictures inserted into the review are of the XLE Hybrid. The pictures of the LE are in a gallery at the end of the review.
The new Highlander is a big vehicle, of that there is no doubt. It seems that Toyota has tried to add some brutish charm to the exterior. There’s a gaping new grille which nicely integrates its chrome moustache into the headlights – it’s a nice front-end signature. The sheet metal all around has been treated to some more angular lines, perhaps to attract more male drivers?
It’s actually wider and longer too, and rolls on some serious boots – 245/60 rubber on 18-inch rims and the XLE hybrid takes it up a notch to 245/55s on 19-inch rims. Overall, I’d say it certainly strikes a more masculine pose than it did before. It’s a decent looking SUV, to be sure, but frankly I don’t think it’s very interesting to look at. I think the grille will catch some by surprise, but after that, it’s unlikely to catch many second looks.
Getting into the upper trim Highlander XLE is easy with its keyless entry system. Huge changes come to the Highlander’s interior as well. I was never a big fan of the previous one, especially as the years went by and the competition moved to nicer, soft-touch materials and fresher designs. Well, the Highlander doesn’t need to hang its head in shame any longer. There’s some interesting sculpting happening a la Avalon, and you’ll find soft-touch plastics wherever your hand might fall. The large spacious interior benefits from a handsome two- or three-tone colour scheme – I really appreciated the lighter-toned trim in the XLE which makes the interior a pleasant, airy place. With that said, the lighter colour does seem to pick up dirt and clothing dye quickly. My review vehicle had less than a 1000 km on it and the driver’s seat cushion was already stained, as was the centre armrest. Also, I take issue with the fake stitching they’ve added to a number of the interior trim areas – it’s a small nitpick, but I felt irritated every time I looked at it. Small quibbles aside, it is a really nice interior – one of my favourites right now. Fit and finish seemed very good, although I heard occasional plastic on plastic rattling over some of the harsher bumps.
The steering wheel felt good in hand, and I love the mute button on it. Behind it are typical Toyota hybrid gauges separated by a driver information screen – in the XLE, it’s a nice crisp full-colour one. Heated seats – leather in the XLE – are pretty but look very thin in terms of padding, but I’m happy to say they ended up being very comfortable and even offer a reasonable amount of bolstering. It seems a bit chintzy for Toyota to only make the driver’s seat power-adjustable at this price – especially for the XLE.
Front and centre in the dash sits a large (6.1-inch for the LE, 8-inch for the XLE) display that’s bright and easy to read. It’s certainly not the prettiest user interface but it works well and is controlled by touch and a few buttons surrounding the screen to access the main functions. The screen handles audio, phone, vehicle settings and some fuel economy history – the XLE adds navigation to the mix. The sound system is one of the best I’ve heard lately. A testament to engineering and a lesson that other manufacturers could learn from – it’s an unbranded 6 speaker system that blows many other big-name ones out of the water. Both of these trims gets a tri-zone automatic climate control system – dual-zone up front and full control of the rear zone too.
I found the Highlander to be pretty weak on driver assistance technology – there’s a backup camera and that’s about it. For this kind of money and this size of vehicle, I’d like to see blind spot monitoring and parking distance sensors. The XLE gets a couple of extras inside – if you care about sunroofs, there’s a standard sized one overhead, and it has a push-button ignition.
Second/Third Row Seats
Looking back from the front seats, the Highlander appears cavernous. Because it is. Both the second row and the third row have three seats each, complete with head rests and seatbelts. The extraordinarily spacious second row seats slide and recline – move them all the way back and I (at 5’10″) had about 10 inches of knee room! Headroom is excellent as well.
You get a separate automatic climate control panel at the back of the centre console, as well as a 12V plug and a small drop-in tray for a smartphone, etc. The middle seatback folds down to become an armrest with dual cupholders. The second row also has two sets of LATCH anchors for kids’ seats. Our three children were very happy sitting in the second row, and it is one of the rare vehicles that is wide enough to accommodate three children’s seats width-wise in the second row. Appreciated by adults and kids, the XLE had manual sunshades for the rear side windows.
The third row is meant for kids or for occasional adult use – the lower seat cushions are quite short and close to the ground, which makes sitting on them uncomfortable for adults, but our kids were fine back there. A nice touch – the third row seats recline too.
The Highlander provides excellent storage around the cabin including a massive, deep centre console bin that hides beneath two scrolling lids – it’s big enough to smuggle a couple of baby koalas in and includes a 12V plug and organizational tray. Toyota adds good door bins, a handy change bin under the dash and one of my favorite features in a long time – an open storage shelf that goes across the width of the entire dash. Very useful!
Accessing the trunk is done by opening the power tail gate or popping the window, which opens separately, allowing you to quickly drop in or grab things from the cargo area. The trunk is very large, and even with the third row up, you have a usable 390 litre space. Fold them and there is a 1198 litre trunk behind the second row. If you really need to move a ton of stuff, you can fold the second row down too and you’ll have an almost unbelievable 2356 litre (2370 in the LE) space to work with. Both second and third rows split 60/40.
Under the Hood
The Highlander LE gets Toyota’s venerable 3.5-litre V6, carrying over with its 270 horsepower at 6200 RPM and 248 lb.ft of torque at 4700 RPM. It gets a 6-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive.
The Highlander’s hybrid drivetrain is a far cry from the Prius’, although conceptually they are the same. The Highlander gets a sizeable 3.5-litre V6 under the hood and coupled with the electric motor, the system puts out a net 280 horsepower and 215 lb.ft of torque. As you might expect, the power makes its way through an electronically-controlled CVT and out to all four corners.
A big 8-seat all-wheel drive SUV with a massive battery pack isn’t going to be a flyweight. Even knowing all this, I was taken aback at the Highlander’s curb weight of 2,190 kg (4,828 pounds). That’s some serious flab. The LE comes in at a slightly less horrifying 1925 kg (4,244 pounds).
The LE gets fuel efficiency ratings of 11.1 L/100 km (21 US mpg) in the city and 7.9 L/100 km (30 US mpg) on the highway. We ended up with an average of 11.5 L/100 km (20 US mpg) during one of our typical weeks. The weather was warm, and most of the driving was slow commuting with a few sprints down the freeway and a decent highway jaunt.
The whole point of a hybrid is fuel efficiency, and I was wondering how it would do, considering the weight it’s dragging around. The Highlander is rated at 6.8 L/100 km (35 US mpg) in the city and 7.2 L/100 km (33 US mpg) on the highway. During a week of heavy, slow and often snow-bound commuting and a few freeway runs, I ended up averaging an astounding-for-a-vehicle-in-this-class 8.8 L/100 km (27 US mpg). This while making absolutely no effort to drive economically.
The LE’s gas tank holds 72.5 litres, while the XLE makes do with a smaller 65 litre one.
I found the Highlanders had plenty of power during all driving situations, including passing on the highway. Get up and go was even more impressive in Sport mode. The LE’s Sport mode holds on to gears longer and has a more aggressive throttle response. I did take issue with the major torque steer in the XLE Hybrid when I really stepped on it. It was very noticeable and disconcerting.
The ride was firm, but very well sorted-out and provided excellent comfort around town and on the open road. While the Highlander’s handling is secure and predictable, it is very clear that the vehicle does not like changing directions. It feels top heavy and wallows into any corners, regardless of your speed. I found the steering to be truly awful. Feedback is limited and the experience is pretty lifeless, which is somewhat forgivable in this class. However the extraordinary heaviness of the XLE’s steering was surprising and required a serious amount of effort, making situations like low-speed 3-point turns in a parking lot quite painful. Equally interesting was the fact that the LE’s steering effort was nicely weighted.
While the all-wheel drive system was transparent on dry roads, we were treated to a freak snowstorm while I was reviewing the XLE and I wasn’t that excited about the system on slippery surfaces. I know front-wheel drive based slip and grip systems are where we are headed, but I still prefer a more balanced system. The LE’s brakes were effective and powerful. As expected, the XLE’s brakes are typical hybrid fare though I found them very grabby in this application – perhaps more than usual for hybrids.
The vehicle was very quiet, even at highway speeds, and a number of passengers commented on this. Visibility out of the front of the vehicle is pretty good and shoulder checking is acceptable but the rear view is restricted somewhat by the second row headrests. Pop up the third row headrests and you won’t find much use for your rear window. Oh, and the Highlander can tow too – up to 5000 pounds for the LE and up to 3500 pounds for the XLE.
Toyota certainly didn’t do things by half-measure with the new Highlander. Changes are vast, inside and out. They’ve built a serious family hauler, carrying on with a smart new vehicle that brings a lot to the table in terms of comfort, utility and even fuel economy when you consider the XLE Hybrid. I just wish the driving experience were a bit better sorted in terms of the steering effort and the torque steer issues in the Hybrid model.
WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was a mixed bag. She loved the space for the kids and in the trunk, and really liked the interior as well. However she wasn’t smitten with the driving experience and said this wouldn’t be the vehicle she’d want to own to replace her minivan.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the 2014 Toyota Highlander. While it’s a great vehicle overall, the purchase of a Hybrid XLE would raise one big question for me – is it worth the $6200 premium over the gas-powered Highlander XLE? Or better yet, the $9165 over the already-well-equipped LE? It would certainly take quite a while (many years actually) to recoup the savings at the gas pump. But that’s up to the buyer, and I’m sure we’ll see plenty of the hybrids on our roads before long. All things considered, it’s an excellent offering and I think anyone shopping in this category will find much to like – whether they opt for the hybrid or not.
Pictures of the Highlander LE
Blog provided with permission from Tom Sedens, a local automotive blogger in Edmonton, Alberta, and member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). For more vehicle reviews, visit wildsau.ca.