Preview: 2014 Toyota Highlander reaches for higher ground

Third-generation Highlander hikes utility and ride comfort for the same or lower prices

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CARMEL, Calif – The original 2001 Toyota Highlander may not have been the first mid-size crossover (how soon everyone forgets the AMC Eagle wagon).

But sporting an SUV-like body on a Camry platform, and with optional four-wheel-drive, the Highlander offered the style of an SUV and most of the functionality, but with a vastly better ride, comfort, amenities, driveability and fuel economy.

The third-gen 2014 Highlander arrives later this month or early next month, with increased utility, improved ride comfort, a higher-quality interior, and what Toyota perceives to be more expressive styling.

Prices start at $31,680 for the base-level LE front-wheel drive.

That’s the same number as last year’s entry-level model, except the new one has the 270-horsepower, 3.5-litre V6 engine instead of the 2.7-litre four that was standard last year.

The four is still offered in the U.S., but not in Canada – interesting, in that Canadians are usually thought of as being more fuel-economy-conscious.

But it seems Highlander is viewed as an alternative to a minivan down there, so the lower-end powertrain is acceptable.

Toyota Canada feels the improved economy in the V6 will assuage the conscience of Canadians who would rather have the smoothness, quietness and performance of the bigger engine in their semi-luxurious crossover.

The four-wheel-drive LE model is $34,180, which is $1,180 less than the comparable 2013 model.

For an extra $2,800, the Convenience package adds popular goodies such as three-zone air conditioning, eight-way power driver’s seat with adjustable lumbar support, heated front seats, power hatch lid with adjustable height (handy for apartment dwellers with underground garages) and a flip-up glass panel in the hatch lid (hello, 1986 Ford Taurus wagon).

The XLE ($39,900) and Limited ($45,100), both with four-wheel drive only, add increasing levels of luxury stuff.

The hybrid variants, again in LE, XLE and Limited trim levels, are as yet unpriced. But given Toyota’s hold-the-line-or-better pricing strategy, they likely won’t be far off last year’s $43,400, $49,670 and $52,450, respectively.

In the hybrids, the 3.5-litre V6 engine and three electric motors (two at the front, one at the rear) provide a net of 280 horsepower, divided as the system dictates between front and rear wheels.

As before, the Highlander is based on a passenger car platform shared by Camry and its cousins.

The wheelbase is identical to the 2013 Highlander. But longer overhangs add 75 millimetres to the overall length, which, along with a 15-millimetre increase in width, creates a more spacious cabin, notably a 34-per-cent increase in cargo space behind the third row of seats.

Suspension is by MacStruts in front, multi-link independent in the rear.

That fuel economy improvement is thanks in no small part to the automatic transmission, now with six speeds, one more than last year’s V6 Highlander, but well below the nine in Jeep’s new Cherokee.

The transmission ratio race is on, and Toyota has fallen a bit behind.

The powertrain enables a useful 5,000-lb. trailer towing capacity in gas-engined models; the hybrids are restricted to 3,500.

Most customers will surely opt for the Dynamic Torque Control automatic part-time four-wheel-drive system, introduced in the new RAV4 last year.

It nominally runs as a front-drive to minimize fuel consumption. But under acceleration or in certain cornering conditions, it can divide motive power front:rear from 100:0 to 50:50, to optimize grip and control.

A Lock mode keeps both axles engaged for rough going, at speeds up to 40 km/h.

A Snow mode starts the car in second gear to limit torque and reduce the chance of wheelspin.

The interior in the Limited versions I tested looked and felt of good quality.

The middle row seats three, except in the Limited trim, where you’ll find a pair of captain’s chairs.

The third row of seats is, as always, limited – it will be mostly kiddies back there. It is dead simple to fold it down to increase luggage space.

A shelf in the lower reaches of the dash is specifically designed to hold the miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam of our electronic world – cellphones, iDevices, associated cables and wires.

It looks like the dash top on my old BMW 2002, but is no less clever for that.

The centre console bin is large enough to hold a purse of considerable bulk.

The EasyTalk feature consists of a microphone that allows front-seat riders to be better heard in the second row – I’m guessing, “You kids shut up or I’ll…” Needless to say, there is no provision for the back seat occupants’ voices to be similarly amplified.

You could hardly expect a crossover to fill you with visceral delight as you motored down the road. Not even in lovely Carmel, Calif., where our route took us down to Big Sur, which was suffering from wide-spread brush fires. We could smell the smoke from our coffee break rest stop, but couldn’t see any.

But the V6 engine provides smooth power, remaining decently quiet throughout the usual rev range.

The transmission shifts unceremoniously, the ride is fine, the electric power steering is a bit light and vague, but again, this isn’t a car for apex-strafing. It will more than satisfy anyone who is looking for a vehicle of this nature.

The operation of the hybrid is accompanied by a variety of whirs and whispers, which would likely be unnoticeable if we were more used to a hybrid and weren’t specifically listening for them.

In electric mode, it is, of course, nearly silent.

The electric regenerative braking system is better integrated, and more progressive, than in most hybrids.

In summary then, the new Highlander builds nicely on the strengths of the old. It looks nicer, inside and out.

It rides and handles better, gets better fuel economy, has more stuff in it and costs no more and, in most cases, less.

2014 Toyota Highlander

Price: $31,680 to $45,100, hybrid models TBA.

Engine: 3.5 L V6, hybrids with three electric motors.

Power/Torque: 270 hp/248 lb.-ft., hybrids: 280 net hp.

Fuel Consumption L/100 km: 11.1 city, 7.9 hwy.(FWD); 11.5, 8.2 (AWD); 6.7, 7.2 (hybrid).

Competition: Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Journey, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder.

What’s Best: Classy interior, novel and useful storage features, quiet comfortable ride, strong durability image.

What’s Worst: Third-row seat still tight, “more expressive” styling a matter of opinion.

What’s Interesting: I’m glad they don’t use the Japanese or Australian model name here – Kluger just wouldn’t cut it.

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