Scott Sturgis’ Driver’s Seat: Toyota Highlander not boring, with plenty of room

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Three rows and the truth: 2014 Toyota Highlander vs. 2014 Nissan Rogue vs. 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe. 

This week: Toyota Highlander XLE V6 AWD

Price: $38,703 (including some small options, like floors mats, cargo net and bumper applique)

Marketer’s pitch: “For boring, we ain’t got no room.” Or for grammar. Or syntax.

Conventional wisdom: likes the “refined interior appointments; quiet, compliant ride; stellar V6 with new six-speed transmission; seating for eight; fresh technology offerings” but not the “lackluster four-cylinder engine; feels bigger on the road than previous Highlanders.”

Reality: Enough space for a load of Muppets. But how about Big Bird?

Even higher: The Highlander comes to the year 2014 with a new look after a redesign. It’s more Toyota-like, a fat thing with angles and a big rear.

Up to speed: If you’re in a hurry, the Highlander accelerates quickly for its category. The 3.5-liter V6 creates 270 horsepower and gets the vehicle up to highway speeds in what feels like no time.

On the road: Handling is just OK, like most crossovers. Unlike Edmunds’ editors, I found the ride fairly bouncy.

Slick situation: Rain handling was actually a challenge. The Highlander wanted to hydroplane in normal drive mode during a moderate rainstorm; I actually switched it into snow mode to get better traction. I wondered how it would respond to the monsoons we can get.

Nice ride – for the driver, at least: The seats are inordinately comfortable. The driving position is nice and high, but only because I had the power seat that goes up and down. Like many crossovers and SUVs I’ve tested, the front-seat passenger will definitely not be afforded the same commanding view, as the nonpower seat is not quite as adjustable up and down.

Play some tunes: The stereo controls appear to be straight out of the Sienna, which is not a bad choice to copy from. Two knobs outside the LCD screen stand in the usual spots for volume and tuning. But changing the source requires getting into the touch screen, and hitting the button twice if you’re in map mode. External buttons also switch between navigation and audio, as well as other functions.

Keep cool: The heater controls are also a lot like those from Big Brother Sienna. Knobs control separate heating units for driver and passenger, and buttons operate the rest.

Friends and stuff: The Highlander does have plenty of room for the family. In fact, the test vehicle actually had seating for eight people.

For eight regular-sized people, a la the Sienna? Not so fast. The third row is snug. The old knees are in the face, even with the middle seats scooched all the way to the front. But even there, the middle row is afforded a comfortable position, at least for the 5-foot-10-inch Mr. Driver’s Seat. Still, the rear seats make it useless for our family because Sturgis Kids 1.0 through 4.0 have their growth spurts mostly in the past.

The tray under the dash is a nice place to hold stuff, but the USB ports are really hard to reach. The center console has plenty of room.

Cargo capacity: Fold down all the seats and you’re presented with a nice, flat cargo area — plenty of room for a bike.

In and out: Upon entry or exit, the middle row moves to make room for the third-row victim — er, passenger.

Shifty: The gear selector is nicely located for changing from P to D. But when it comes to shifting while driving, it’s actually a little less comfortable. Even then, the shifting then only allows you to limit the gears — it’ll shift automatically down and up to the number selected. But, on the bright side, the six-speed transmission offers supersmooth shifts.

Night shift: The interior lighting is good, but it does interfere with the nighttime driving just a hair.

Looking backward: Rear visibility is not bad for a crossover. It came with a backup camera, standard for this trim level.

Fuel economy: Twenty-one mpg over one long trip to Washington, then mostly on secondary roads.

Where it’s built: Princeton, Ind.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports puts the Highlander’s predicted reliability in the above-average category.

Next week: Nissan Rogue also grows up a bit as well.


Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at

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