HighlanderHybrids1Starting in 2011, the Toyota Highlander became a pretty nice minivan alternative.  That 2011 refresh added split-folding third row seating, so the flexibility for my family was just enough to tempt me from a decade of driving a minivan.  I liked it enough that I bought one, and over 3 years later, I am not disappointed in the least.  With fuel economy of my hybrid above 35 mpg in warm months and averaging almost 31 mpg overall, I’m still impressed with the previous Highlander in almost every regard.  The only question was what Toyota could possibly do to improve the 2014-2015 Highlander.  Or, as some still feel about the current Sienna minivan, could it actually be worse in terms of seating children than the previous model?

What You Get:

On paper, it looks like a nice improvement.  In terms of safety, it’s one of only a few 3-row SUVs to qualify for BOTH an IIHS 2014 Top Safety Pick+ rating AND a 5-star overall NHTSA safety rating as well.  Plus, it now has a full complement of advanced safety features available, something a few competitors still lack.  Equally important for families, Toyota made it a few inches longer, almost an inch wider and increased the cabin room significantly.  That’s great news for fitting extra cargo behind the third row (below, left), for fitting rear-facing carseats or just for long legs up front.  For example, even a tall driver will have legroom with a Britax Advocate installed behind them, while a very tall rear-facing model like the Graco HeadWise 70 (below, right) leaves enough room upfront for an average adult.

2014HighlanderCargo1 2014HighlanderBritaxAdvocateGracoHeadwise70

A rear-view camera and hands-free bluetooth phone connectivity are now standard on all trims!  Equally important, advanced safety features are now available for the first time.  Blind-spot warning, cross-traffic alert and Toyota Connect (collision notification and emergency assistance) are available standard on Limited models only.  The optional Driver Technology or Platinum package offers forward collision mitigation with autobrake, earning it an “Advanced” level of protection from the IIHS.  These packages also include lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control and automatic high beam adjustments.  The lack of those features were among my main concerns in the previous version and all those I tested worked as expected.  It’s a shame that Toyota didn’t include more of these features standard or at least optional on lower trim levels.

Styling is greatly improved, both inside and out, especially for the Hybrid trim.  Handling seems to be improved a bit, though compared to the numb steering of the previous model, it would be hard to do any worse!  Fuel economy is also improved slightly for non-hybrid models, thanks to a new 6-speed transmission and updated AWD system.  Controls and gauges are well thought and overall the cabin and electronics are improved across the board.

What’s not improved?  Fuel economy in the hybrid model, for one.  It’s actually very slightly lower (27 mpg city vs. 28 mpg city).  This is very regrettable, as there should have been some focus to increase hybrid fuel economy slightly.  Why not have an affordable hybrid trim with a smaller gas engine, elimination of 4WD and further reduce weight by eliminating things like power seats and the spare tire?  The full size spare is replaced by a compact unit, a plus or minus depending on your needs.  Perhaps a tradeoff for improved handling, the new version doesn’t seem quite as quiet or smooth riding as the previous model.  The handy second row stowable middle seat is gone, a notable omission if you opt for the 7-passenger model.  But for those who select the second row bench, there are now more options for 3-across and adjacent carseat installations.

Overall, Toyota did respond to nearly all my complaints with the previous Hybrid model, with one big exception.  For all the improvements, you have to pay over $50,000 to get one.  That’s because for 2014, the Hybrid only comes in Limited trim and you must get the driver’s tech or platinum package to get all the advanced safety features.  Combined with the fact that Limited trims do not offer the 2nd row bench for 8-passenger capability, that means most families won’t even consider the hybrid.  BIG shame on Toyota.

2014HighlanderConsoleOther changes?  The huge front console storage is nice, though it ate up two of my valued cupholders.  I really appreciated the cell phone tray in the dash (photo, right). The folding 2nd row cupholder/tray is great if you opt for the 2nd row captain’s chairs on higher trim levels.  The Navigation and Infotainment system are more intuitive and easier to use than most others I’ve seen in the last year.  Bluetooth phones pair and import contacts easily and stream music with no hassles.  Toyota did a great job on the interior and electronics overall.  The sound quality of the JBL system is just average, though.

Highlander Hybrid Fuel Economy:

For those electing to buy the pricey hybrid trim, you shouldn’t be disappointed in the gas mileage.  Though it slipped a hair for 2014, it’s still relatively impressive for a heavy 3-row SUV that can tow 3500 lbs., has AWD and a 280hp V6!  In warmer weather, it’s rather easy to exceed the EPA estimate of 27 mpg around town.  It takes just takes a few driving style changes to achieve fuel economy up to 35 mpg city or more, perhaps even 40 mpg under ideal conditions with careful driving.

2014HIghlanderFuelEcon

On the highway, I tend to be much closer to EPA estimates year-round.  Like all hybrids, fuel efficiency suffers when temps approach freezing and can be much worse in severe cold.  And as they say, your mileage may vary…

Though previous reviewers of my test vehicle combined for a paltry 27.5 mpg overall, I managed 38 mpg for 150 miles and over 36 mpg after a few hundred miles.  That shouldn’t be difficult to match with a few changes to your driving habits.  You can find some great articles online about maximizing hybrid fuel economy, or “hypermiling.”  Some of these may seem extreme for typical drivers, so I’ll simply give some key things to avoid in order to exceed those EPA estimates:

  • Avoid keeping steady pressure on the accelerator.  This is the biggest change from a regular car.  Switch to “Eco” mode and adjust foot pressure to hold the sweet spot where the gas engine is off and you are just maintaining your speed or “gliding” on electric mode anytime you are going 45 mph or less.  This will be where you maximize your fuel economy around town.
  • Avoid quick stops.  Coasting and slow braking recaptures the most energy if you anticipate stops well in advance.
  • Avoid jack rabbit starts.  Brisk but modest acceleration is key, so you can get back to coasting or gliding sooner.  You’re gonna hit the next red light anyway.
  • Avoid running Auto climate control all the time.  Make sure the heater and A/C are off unless needed.  Make use of the climate controlled seats and “windows down” feature when possible!
  • Avoid short trips.  You use the most fuel when the gas engine is warming up, especially when it’s cold.  Combine short trips whenever possible.
  • Avoid under-inflated tires.  Keep them at or preferably somewhat above the minimum recommended pressure, but don’t exceed the maximum cold pressure limit of course.
  • Avoid speeding.  Stick close to the speed limit, especially when it is 45 mph or less (where you can glide with the gas engine off), or on highways above 65 mph.  This not only improves fuel economy, but is safer for you and your children!

By avoiding those mpg pitfalls, you’ll be getting better fuel economy around town than what most sub-compact cars can do!  You also won’t be a moving road block like some extreme hypermilers that you may see on the roads.  Even if you have kids like I do, resulting in lots of short trips and more frequent climate control use, you can still manage to routinely get 30-35 mpg around town.  I average almost 31 mpg year round in my similar 2011 Highlander Hybrid, not bad for having Chicago winters.  In warmer climates with longer commutes and fewer short trips, that could be exceeded.  By comparison, I also tested a standard Highlander XLE trim with an EPA rating of 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway and 20 mpg overall.  In similar conditions, I managed 18.5 mpg around town, just above the estimates.  While not as impressive as the hybrid using nearly half as much fuel, that is still relatively good for a midsize SUV with AWD and a large V6.  The base LE model with the 4-cylinder engine and 2WD does a little better on paper.

The Drive:

This section will be brief.  Toyota did a great job.  Even though it’s bigger and heavier than before, it still has decent routine handling for the class.  No, it’s not car-like, but it is better than many larger mid-size and full size SUVs.  Road feel is definitely improved, possibly at the slight expense of a little road noise.  Even so, it’s pretty quiet overall and offers a smooth ride as well.  Seats are very comfortable in the first and second row.  The CVT in the hybrid is very smooth, as is the 6-speed in the standard model I tested.  Overall, a nicer ride than most minivans and the Limited trim really almost feels like a luxury class vehicle.  It should, given the price tag.

Acceleration is still excellent for a heavy, midsize SUV.  Emergency braking is very competent, though routine braking on my test vehicle was sometimes uneven and a little “grabby” as I slowed to a stop.  Emergency handling won’t remind you of a sedan, but it’s still acceptable for its class.  Visibility is better than average also, at least with the rear head restraints down.  The standard backup camera helps as well.  I really enjoyed driving it just as much as the previous version.

Fitting your Precious Cargo:

Fitting your children more easily is the biggest improvement from the previous Highlander. The interior space is increased.  2014HighlanderPegPerego435There’s more legroom to go around and the 2nd row seats have more adjustment forward and backward than before.  That means that in most cases, there should be enough flexibility to adjust the seats to fit passengers and rear-facing carseats in the back, while still leaving enough legroom up front.  I had no issues fitting a larger infant carseat like the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 behind the passenger seat, while leaving enough legroom up front.

In the second row, the two captain’s chairs present few difficulties.  From the LATCH anchors to the seatbelt stalks, I had no particular problems installing carseats. 2014HighlanderRFtetherPerhaps the only drawback is the lack of shoulder belt height adjustments.  Both captain’s chairs have LATCH with a top tether anchor on the back of the seat.  A third top tether anchor is in the middle of the third row.  In 8-passenger trim, the 2nd row bench seat has three top tether anchors, for a total of four with the one in back.  In either trim, there is a nice spot under the front seats to attach a rear-facing tether accessory strap for convertible carseats that allow their use (photo, left), including various models from Britax, Combi and Diono.

In 8-passenger trims, the captain’s chairs are replaced by a bench that is a bit more carseat friendly than the previous Highlander.  The middle seat in the second row is modest, but can accommodate narrower carseats.  This bench folds 60/40, with the smaller section on the driver’s side.  That makes it ideal to put adjacent carseats in the center and behind the passenger.  2014HighlanderThreeAcrossThe only problem with this arrangement is that the buckle stalk for the passenger-side seat in the second row is very short and could end up partially under a carseat installed in the center.  That can be a problem depending on your configuration of passengers and carseats, due to the crossover of seatbelts on the passenger side.  With a rear-facing Diono Radian in the middle, there is enough room to access that buckle stalk for another carseat there, like the Graco Snugride 30 plus Recaro Performance Sport shown here.  Unfortunately, a wider carseat in the middle may make it nearly impossible for a younger child in a booster to buckle themselves on the passenger side.  The driver’s side has no such crossover issues with the middle seat.

The third row seat is vastly improved and is essentially identical for 7-passenger and 8-passenger trims.  It also fits three, though is narrower than the second row.  There is no LATCH back there, but Toyota did thankfully include one top tether anchor in the middle.  2014HighlanderBritaxFrontier90Seriously, though, for a vehicle targeted to families, Toyota should take a lesson from the Honda Odyssey and Pilot and add more spots with LATCH.  Fortunately, even though the middle seat is narrow, there is no crossover of buckle stalks.  It is possible to do a 3-across in back with very narrow seats, such as a Clek FoonfCombi CoccoroBubblebum booster or Diono Radian.  Even a large seat like the Britax Frontier 90 fits in the middle (photo, left), though it will compromise room the other seats, especially on the passenger side.

Access to the third row is also improved.  In the 7-passenger version you get a center aisle that is easy for kids to navigate.  It has a fold-down armrest that replaces the stowable middle seat from the previous version.  Both 7 and 8-passenger models offer greatly improved access from the doors.  The outboard seats tilt and move forward giving a wider path than before, now on both sides.  It’s easy even for an adult to get in back.  Despite that, the third row seats are best for kids and pre-teens.  Like most midsize SUVs, the seat cushions are relatively low to the floor, meaning taller teens and adults will have limited thigh support.  Fine for short trips, perhaps, but uncomfortable for a road-trip.

 

One note: Toyota’s manual prohibits a passenger wearing a seatbelt (including a child in a booster) from being seated in the center seat of the 2nd or 3rd row when there is a carseat installed next to them on the passenger side seat.  This is due to concerns about a taller carseat possibly affecting the operation of the center seat’s shoulder belt.   Based on information from Toyota, I understand that this does NOT prohibit installing two adjacent harnessed carseats or three-across harnessed carseats in either row.  It also would not apply to the driver’s side seats in either row.  This restriction affects a few other new Toyotas as well, so check your owner’s manual for details.

Fitting your Other Cargo:

There’s now a lot more space behind the third row, much more competitive with other midsize SUVs.  Still not as nice as a minivan or a Ford Flex, but enough for small luggage on a short trip or a folding stroller and a few grocery bags.  2014HighlanderCargo3Both second and third row seats can fold independently on each side, and all have some recline adjustment.  While folding the seats is relatively easy, there is no power folding and there are no handy folding levers at the rear hatch, like the previous Highlander.  The head restraints must be lowered manually to fold.  With the third row or second row folded, the cargo space is cavernous with a wide opening.  Higher trims get a power lift gate.  You can also open just the glass section independently.

Top Ten Likes:

  1. 2014HighlanderIIHS Top Safety Pick+ and NHTSA 5-star overall rating
  2. Fuel economy good for its class, especially hybrid model
  3. Improved interior and styling
  4. Improved third row access and comfort
  5. Improved fuel economy on non-hybrid models
  6. Good visibility, standard backup camera and hands-free bluetooth
  7. Cellphone shelf fits my Galaxy Note; pass through slot for charging cable
  8. Controls and NAV/Info systems are better than most
  9. Solid acceleration, handling and braking for a midsize SUV
  10. Smooth, quiet ride and comfortable seating; ventilated in front, heated in front and 2nd row (some trims)

Top Ten Dislikes:

  1. Minimum complement of 2 LATCH + 1 extra top tether in 7-passenger trims
  2. Advanced safety features only on Limited trim, making it $45K to $50K (hybrid)!
  3. 2014Highlander8passcrossover2nd row bench passenger side seatbelt buckle stalk placement
  4. Third row still not comfortable enough for adults
  5. Entry level price now almost $30,000
  6. Stowable second row middle seat no longer available
  7. Hybrid “EV Mode Currently Not Available.” Happens a lot.  Bleh.
  8. Hybrid version only in pricey Limited trim with no 8-passenger option
  9. The rear 120V/100W plug-in is nice, but a couple USB charging jacks would be great for all those phones and tablets.
  10. Quirks: The “hard” buttons on the side of the touchscreen should have feedback, optional running boards seem unnecessary and always look dirty anyway, access to Nav and Eco screens require access through the Apps menu.

The Competition:

The main contender for safety honors in this category for 2014 is the new Acura MDX with the Advance Package.  It is among a very few select vehicles that boast top safety ratings in every single individual crash test result plus a full set of advanced safety features.  In AWD trim, the MDX will set you back over $5000 more than the Highlander Limited with Platinum Package.  Plus, you’ll be using premium gasoline and buying nearly twice as much of it around town compared to a Highlander Hybrid.

The Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid does offer similar versatility and fuel economy to the Highlander Hybrid for over $12,000 less.  It has a solid NHTSA 5-star overall safety rating, but lacks some advanced safety features and is not yet rated by the IIHS in all tests.  Those advanced safety features can be found on the similar Infiniti QX60 (stay tuned for our review next month), but it is also not yet rated by the IIHS.

Mainstream competition for 3-row SUVs includes the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, Dodge Durango, Nissan Pathfinder, Hyundai Santa Fe (review coming soon) and GM trio (Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia).  None of these models are currently IIHS Top Safety Picks, either due to lack of test results or marginal/poor small overlap frontal crash test performance.  Of these, only the Explorer and GM Trio have 5-star overall NHTSA safety ratings, while only the Durango currently offers a full complement of  available advanced safety features including frontal crash mitigation with autobrake.  The Honda Pilot is still arguably the midsize SUV class leader in terms of flexibility for seating child passengers in back.

The 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander (review coming soon) also touts great overall crash testing results.  In 2WD trim with the 4-cylinder engine, it is a relative bargain and also gets similar EPA fuel economy ratings to the Highlander Hybrid, though typical drivers are much less likely to exceed those estimates as they might in a hybrid.  Unfortunately,  it is much less refined and much smaller than the Highlander, making it less versatile for many families.

The Verdict:

Bigger and mostly better, the all-new 2014 Toyota Highlander is now more competitive in size to top rivals like the Hyundai Santa Fe. With great overall crash test results and advanced front crash protection available, it has a nice safety advantage over popular models like the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot as well.   In fact, in terms of crash protection and safety features, the new Highlander Limited (with Platinum or Technology package) is a standout for midsize SUVs with a third row of seating.  The hybrid version adds class-leading fuel economy as well.

The Highlander is definitely much more family friendly than before, with the 8-passenger trim being among the better models in its class for seating kids.  The middle seat in models with a second row bench is superior, if somewhat less handy, than the stowable version in the previous model.  The third row is a great improvement as well, and is now on par with most other midsize SUVs.  Improved fuel economy of 19 city, 25 highway and 21 overall makes the 2WD, 3.5L V6 almost as efficient as the base 4-cylinder engine.  That makes the LE Plus trim the sweet spot for families who want the flexibility of 8-passengers and also some nice standard features like an adjustable power rear hatch, backup camera and bluetooth hands-free calling.  Overall, just the safety and fuel economy alone make it one of the sweetest midsize SUVs, and all the other improvements are icing on the cake!  If you are looking for a safe family hauler that isn’t a minivan or monster SUV and leaves you some room in the garage, start with the new Toyota Highlander.  “No room for boring”.

Thank you to Toyota and STI for providing the Highlander XLE-V6 AWD and the Highlander Hybrid Limited used for this review.  No other compensation was provided and all opinions are my own.