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.

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 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 without sacrificing its heroic nature? I headed to Carmel, Calif., to drive it in four-cylinder, V6 and hybrid form in order to find out.

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The Basics (As Tested)

Sticker Price: $29,215 - $43,590

Invoice Price: $26,673 - $39,798

As Tested Price: $40,170

Engine: 3.5L V6

Power: 270 hp, 248 lb-ft of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Fuel Economy: 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway

Seating: Seven or eight people

Cargo Capacity: 78.6 cubic feet

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Exterior Design

Toyota has been pursuing more aggressive styling within its entire model line for some time now, and the Highlander has finally received its due. Its stance has become much more aggressive, with a lowered roofline and sculpted door panels. The front 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.

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. 

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Interior

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, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and high-quality knit roof lining.

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.

I had some problems with the ergonomics of the cabin. 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.

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Passenger And Cargo Room

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 something like 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.

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Driving Dynamics

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.

The ride is very smooth and Toyota has 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.

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Technology And Infotainment

All model feature a new in-meter-cluster Multi-Information Display. Toyota’s Entune infotainment system is 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.

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.

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Bottom Line

All in all, the 2014 Toyota Highlander is a solid midsize CUV, much improved from the blandly styled and only moderately comfortable previous generation. I walked away from my time in Carmel with a newfound appreciation for these types of crossovers that I had barely given a second thought to over the years. They’re workhorses, capable of handling almost anything the modern family can throw at them.

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.

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