2014 Toyota Highlander

Midsize crossovers like the Toyota Highlander tend to play a thankless role in the life of today's modern family.

That's really too bad. With the ability to hold several hyperactive kids and tons of cargo while keeping everyone safe and comfortable in all kinds of climate conditions day in and day out, they're true heroes in the lives of hundreds of thousands of families across the country. Yet their car-apathetic owners often immediately forget about them as soon as their work is done. And nearly all midsize crossovers are thoroughly ignored by enthusiasts whose eyes begin to glaze over at first mention of the phrase "third row."

Toyota is looking to soften the blow somewhat by giving its midsize crossover, the Highlander, a big redesign for the 2014 model year. With a bold new look, updated suspension and a refreshed interior focused on comfort and convenience, Toyota aims to make the Highlander sportier to drive and more striking in appearance, because, as the marketing team explains, "families are going places and they want to get there in style."

So has the Highlander finally ditched the dull and become something truly desirable to own without sacrificing its heroic nature? I headed to Carmel, CA for some seat time along the gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway to find out.

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The biggest change to the 2014 Highlander is obviously its exterior appearance. Toyota has been pursuing more aggressive styling within its entire model line for some time now, and the Highlander has finally received its due. This new-generation crossover is about three inches longer and a half-inch wider than the outgoing model, and its stance has become much more aggressive, with a lowered roofline and sculpted door panels. The front fascia is striking in the way it integrates with the new trapezoidal grille, wraparound headlamps and chiseled fenders. And in the back, the new design of the liftgate, taillights and bumper is cleaner and more attractive.

The Highlander doesn't stand out quite as much Toyota might want it to.

I'm a fan of this Toyota's look overall. It's sleeker, more modern and certainly more athletic. But even so, the Highlander still looks a lot like other vehicles in this segment. Put it next to a Ford Explorer or Nissan Pathfinder (two other recently redone crossovers), and the similarities in stance, pillar design and roofline are obvious. A lot of this has to do with safety, aerodynamics and cabin packaging, of course, but the reality is that the Highlander doesn't stand out quite as much Toyota might want it to.

As before, the standard Highlander comes with two different engine options. This time out, the 2.7-liter four-cylinder produces 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, while Toyota's workhorse 3.5L V6 makes 270 hp and 248 lb-ft. The V6 is a smooth operator, but for an all-new vehicle, the Highlander is not particularly powerful by class standards. Both engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, along with the buyer's choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. How many wheels you want driven will affect the Highlander's fuel economy, with the V6/FWD model at an EPA-estimated 19 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway, the V6 AWD at 18 mpg city and 24 highway, and the four-cylinder/FWD model 20 mpg city and 25 mpg highway.

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As is Toyota's way, there's also a gas-electric model. The Highlander Hybrid pairs the same-size V6 running on the Atkinson cycle with a high-torque electric drive motor-generator, affording additional power and fuel efficiency over the standard Highlander. The drivetrain, which includes an electronic continuously variable transmission, has impressive numbers: 280 hp and 27 miles per gallon city and 28 mpg highway. Those fuel economy figures are actually the same as the previous generation Highlander Hybrid, even though the vehicle has increased in weight by about 100 pounds.

None of these drivetrains are particularly thrilling, but they certainly get the job done.

I probably don't need to tell you that none of these drivetrains are particularly thrilling, but they certainly get the job done. Most Highlander buyers will opt for the V6, says Toyota, and that's the right move. This is a big, heavy vehicle (the V6 AWD can weigh up 4,508 lbs) and that extra power is an asset when it comes to climbing hills and merging onto freeways, even though selecting it means sacrificing some fuel economy.

I didn't have any complaints about the Highlander's handling, which is surprisingly good for a larger crossover. The steering feel is sportier than that of the previous generation and body roll has been minimized, attributes that allowed me to feel quite confident on the snaking roads that run along the cliffs near Big Sur. Any vehicle that allows the driver to take those hundred-foot-high turns at speed without breaking into a cold sweat is good in my book.

2014 Toyota Highlander

A big player in keeping the driver cool on the road, too, is the standard Star Safety System, which includes the usual suite of electronic safety nets, such as anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and so-called Smart Stop Technology to assuage fears of unintended acceleration. Improved visibility courtesy of the repositioned A-pillars helps driver confidence, as well.

It's a very pleasant, near-luxury experience.

Other available safety features include rear parking sonar, blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, auto high-beam headlamps and radar-based cruise control with pre-collision system.

New spring rates and shock absorbers combined with the Highlander's MacPherson front suspension and double-wishbone rear suspension also result in a very smooth ride. Toyota has also improved the Highlander's noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) so that road and wind noise are minimal. It's a very pleasant, near-luxury experience. Honestly, if I was blindfolded and told I was behind the wheel of a Lexus crossover, I'd probably believe it.

Toyota has made a number of improvements to the Highlander's interior, including increased spaciousness along with a number of comfort and convenience features. Surfaces are softer to the touch and, on higher grades, there are premium materials all over the place, including (simulated) woodgrain trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and high-quality knit roof lining.

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All models feature a new in-meter-cluster Multi-Information Display. Toyota's Entune infotainment system is also standard on all trims, but has more functionality on higher models trims. It's a good system, all in all. I experienced minimal lag when navigating between menus and the graphics are much better than those on many other systems. On higher trim levels, Entune can come with XM satellite and HD radio, an app suite for programs like Yelp!, a premium JBL audio system and navigation.

My favorite new feature on the Highlander is Driver Easy Speak.

My favorite new feature on the Highlander is Driver Easy Speak. When it's engaged, the driver's voice is projected through the speakers, allowing him or her to scream at the kids all the way in the back when they start putting food in each other's hair. It saves strain on one's vocal cords and really gets the message across to the little ones, especially if the vehicle is equipped with the optional JBL speakers.

Even on the higher grades, the Highlander has a couple of components that have no business being in a new model in 2013. The first of these is the plastic seat-heater adjuster knob, which looks and behaves like the volume control on an old Sony Walkman. The second is a digital clock that appears to have been taken from a cheap microwave. These two parts can be found in numerous Toyota models – including those in its luxury arm. It'd be easy to assume that Toyota prepaid and found themselves with a warehouse full of these cheesy clocks, but the truth is that they are bizarrely prized for their ease-of-use by exactly those sorts of repeat customers who fill out J.D. Power and Consumer Reports surveys.

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I had some problems with the ergonomics of the cabin, too. Most notably, the infotainment screen is a long reach from the driver's seat. So much so, in fact, that every time I wanted to change the radio channel or switch to the navigation instructions, I'd have to lean way over and briefly take my eyes off of the road. The way the dashboard is designed makes it feel much roomier up front, but it comes at the cost of convenience. Of course, it's better to use the redundant controls on the steering wheel, but they don't cover all of the head unit's functionality.

[Cargo space] is a little bit smaller than the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot or Hyundai Santa Fe, and well short of the larger Chevy Traverse.

Because the overall length of the Highlander has increased by about three inches while employing a new dashboard and seat design, the Highlander is roomier than ever. Up front, head, shoulder and legroom are superb. The second row, which comes in the form of either a three-person bench seat or two captain's chairs, is also nice and comfortable. Ingress and egress to the third row has been improved, and sitting back there is much more pleasant than it was with the previous generation. The third row still isn't a great place if you're an adult, but if you're generally sticking kids back there for shorter journeys, it should work just fine.

Cargo space is rated at 78.6 cubic feet. That's a little bit smaller than the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot or Hyundai Santa Fe, and well short of the larger Chevy Traverse. At least the third row can easily fold down in a 60/40 split and there's a one-touch power liftgate with selectable memory height settings, a super feature for people of shorter stature.

The Highlander can be had in one of several grades, each of which comes with different levels of comfort and convenience features: LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited, and all grades offer both FWD and AWD. The 2.7L four-cylinder, however, is only available on the LE trim and the Hybrid only comes in Limited trim.

2014 Toyota Highlander

Pricing for the Highlander starts at $29,215 (plus $860 destination) and climbs all the way up to a whopping $49,790 for a Hybrid with all of the bells and whistles. Interestingly, Toyota says that household income for Hybrid buyers is nearly double that of standard Highlander shoppers. Perhaps that's why Toyota has decided it can get away with offering the greener crossover in premium-only form and charging almost $50,000 for it. The markup makes for an unfortunate reality that Hybrid buyers will probably never make their money back in gas savings. But, hey, being eco-friendlier always requires at least a little sacrifice, right?

Toyota says that the XLE will be its most popular trim level. The XLE I tested, which was in addition to a Limited, Hybrid and LE, came with a few extra options, such as navigation, and cost a middle-of-the-road $40,170.

All in all, the Highlander's combination of safety, comfort, space, attractive styling and predictable driving dynamics makes it a solid candidate for the family on the go. It's still not a terribly exciting vehicle, and it never will be, but Toyota's strategy of keeping the Highlander close to its roots while making improvements both inside and out means it will continue to play an important role in the lives of men, women and children across the nation. Even though it may never get the recognition it truly deserves.