Starting 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.
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.
Other 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.