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2014-2015 Toyota Highlander & Hybrid Review: Kids, Carseats & Safety

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.

Bigger is Not Always Better: Lexus LX570 Video Review

The Lexus LX570 is a full size sport utility vehicle, something of a departure from the midsize models I usually review.  As a vehicle with limited appeal in terms of sales, this review will be limited mostly to photo and video content.  Please stay tuned over the next few weeks for our reviews of the 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe, Toyota Highlander and Mitsubishi Outlander.

 


Gallery:

Here are a few examples of some carseats I installed.  Left, a Britax Frontier 90 Combination Harness Booster seat and a Britax Advocate Convertible Carseat in the second row.  Center, a Britax Parkway SGL in a third row seat.  Right, a Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 Infant Carseat in the second row.

LX570BritaxAdvocateFrontier LexusLX570ThirdRowLegroom LexusLX570PegPerego435

Top Likes:

  • Relatively quiet interior and smooth (adjustable) suspension
  • Seating is heated/ventilated and very comfortable
  • Good towing capability at 7000 lbs.
  • Decent interior space for a full-size SUV
  • Heavy duty 4WD off-road capability
  • Second row seat is fairly practical for carseats
  • Mark Levinson audio is good, but not worthy of the brand name
  • Plenty of power, but throttle is somewhat twitchy from a stop

Top Dislikes:

  • No crash safety testing from IIHS or NHTSA
  • Minimal advanced safety features are optional
  • Dismal Fuel Economy 12 mpg city, 17 mpg highway.  I managed under 13 mpg around town.
  • Awful handling.  It’s a land whale, and drives like it.
  • No LATCH or top-tether in 3rd row.  Un-excusable at this price.
  • Third row seats fold awkwardly upward
  • Third row middle seat is over a split and very narrow.
  • Second row monitors project into seating area, could interfere with space for rear-facing carseats
  • More expensive and less practical than some competition
  • Quirks: Satellite radio cuts out periodically, even with clear, unobstructed sky.

 

Conclusion:

The Lexus LX570 is a niche vehicle.  Yes, it has heavy duty towing and off-road capability, being based on the same platform as the Toyota Land Cruiser.  But will more than a few people really be taking an $80,000+ luxury SUV to tow their camper over boulders and mountain streams?  Apparently less than 5,000 per year have even bought one since it was refreshed for 2013.  My pick in the full-size luxury SUV category is the Mercedes Benz GL Class Bluetec.  For over $10,000 less, nicely equipped with every advanced safety feature, it is superior in almost every important regard.  The Audi Q7 TDI and Infiniti QX60 Hybrid are other fine luxury choices that are very flexible for families with children and get a lot better fuel economy for a much lower price tag.

2013 and 2014 Ford C-Max Video Review: Kids, Carseats & Safety

2013 & 2014 Ford C-Max Hybrid Video Review: Kids, Carseats & Safety

2013-14FordCmax

Looking for a smart, economical vehicle that doesn’t say “Prius” on it?  Something that has a reasonably well-designed back seat for kids and carseats?  If so, the Ford C-Max should definitely be on your short list!  For 2014, you can expect slightly better fuel economy, thanks to improvements in the powertrain and aerodynamics.  Even so, because of some issues with the EPA ratings, the new labels will indicate a decrease to 45 mpg city, 40 mpg highway and 43 mpg overall.  For those familiar with driving a Prius or other hybrid, this drop may not be a disappointment in real world driving.  For example, I achieved just over the EPA ratings of 47 mpg around town for a 2013 model with some basic hybrid driving techniques; slightly better than the Prius V I tested in similar conditions.

 

 

The 2nd row of the C-Max is one of the better setups I’ve seen in a compact vehicle.  The lower LATCH anchors are easy to find.  The seatbelts and LATCH anchors don’t overlap.  The buckles are not too short, such that they are difficult for kids in boosters to buckle themselves like in a Prius.  All head restraints can be removed if necessary to fit a taller carseat.  The middle seat, while narrow, can still manage a 3-across with careful selection.  Overall, it’s slightly wider and much nicer than the standard Prius in terms of fitting kids and carseats.

Perhaps the only major downside is that there is not a lot of legroom back there, like any compact car.  It’s about the same as the standard Prius, but the seat cushions seem lower to the floor.  So, adults may find it a bit cramped in back.  If that’s an issue, the roomier Toyota Prius V does offer adjustable 2nd row seats that are more comfortable for older passengers in terms of legroom and also space for a rear-facing carseat.

 

 

The C-Max comes only in a 5-door hatchback, which is great if you want to fit a stroller and some groceries.  The only oddity is that the top tether anchors are fabric loops on the back of the seat, NOT to be confused with the sturdy-looking metal cargo hooks on the floor!  Fabric loops are perfectly fine, just something to note when you are looking for metal anchors.  As for the hatch, the optional power assist feature is great.  My son liked being able to open the lift gate. :-)

 

Carseats:

As mentioned, the 2nd row setup of seatbelts and LATCH is very intuitive.  Ford is also to be commended for allowing the top tether system to be used up to the maximum limit indicated by the child safety seat manufacturer.

Below, left, I tested a Britax Advocate convertible carseat.  Installed rear-facing, it left adequate legroom for a 5’10″ driver in front.  With a Recaro ProSport combination seat on the other side, a small adult or narrow booster would still have room in the center seat.  The same applies to the Cosco Scenera and Graco Nautilus I tested, below, right.  Finally, at the bottom, you can see the locations for attaching a front-facing (left) and rear-facing (right) tether system.

New Federal Regulations Regarding LATCH Weight Limits – What Parents Need to Know

We’ve been waiting for clarification of this final ruling for an entire year and we’re just getting details this week – days shy of the Feb 27, 2014, implementation date. Many CPS Technicians and advocates have been aware that these changes were coming but we were also aware that there were petitions pending so we were all waiting for the final word from NHTSA. There was much speculation that implementation of these changes would be delayed or that NHTSA would increase the weight limits, but none of those things happened.

So… in a nut shell, here is what parents and caregivers need to know:

There are two changes to federal safety standards going into effect this week that will affect some carseats manufacturered on or after Feb 27, 2014. First is a new label requirement. While that doesn’t sound like a big deal – it actually is. NHTSA has ruled that carseats with a 5-point harness should not be installed using the lower LATCH anchors if the combined weight of your child and the carseat exceeds 65 lbs. In these cases, you should discontinue using the lower anchors in your vehicle to install your carseat and switch to a seatbelt installation instead when your child reaches a certain weight. The label will tell you at what point you should make that switch.

The concern is that the lower LATCH anchors in your vehicle may not be strong enough to restrain a very heavy child in a very heavy carseat under severe crash loads. It makes sense – mass is mass regardless of whether it’s the mass of the child or the mass of the carseat. Both are going to exert forces on the lower LATCH anchor bars when they are loaded in a crash.

If your carseat was manufactured before Feb 27, 2014 and the 5-pt harness has a weight limit of more than 40 lbs. please check your carseat instruction manual for guidance on LATCH weight limits. There may or may not be limits listed  - Dorel and Evenflo don’t generally list LATCH weight limits but Graco and Britax do. Also check this link to find out if your vehicle manufacturer has LATCH weight limits

Since parents probably don’t know how much their carseat weighs, going forward NHTSA is going to require the carseat manufacturers to “do the math” for you if there is any chance that the combined total of kid weight and carseat weight may be more than 65 lbs. Many carseat manufacturers are already listing LATCH weight limits on their seats with high harness weight limits.  Pictured below is the current Chicco NextFit label. The NextFit is rated up to 65 lbs in the forward-facing position but it weighs almost 25 lbs. Therefore according to the NextFit instructions you must switch to a seatbelt installation (plus tether) once your child reaches 40 lbs.

Not all carseats will have LATCH weight limits but it will be the responsibility of the carseat manufacturer to list one if necessary. For example, Graco knows exactly how much each of their carseats weigh and they know the maximum weight limits on the 5-point harness for each of their seats too.

  • The Graco ComfortSport harness is only rated to 40 lbs. and the seat itself definitely doesn’t weigh more than 25 lbs. so the new label requirement doesn’t apply to this seat. You can use LATCH (rear-facing or forward-facing) to the weight limits of a ComfortSport without concern.
  • The Graco Classic Ride is rated up to 50 lbs. with the harness but the seat itself weighs less than 15 lbs. so once again – the new label requirement doesn’t apply here and you can use LATCH (rear-facing or forward-facing) to the weight limits of a Classic Ride.
  •  A bigger, heavier seat like the Graco Nautilus will require this new label that tells parents when to switch to a seatbelt installation. The 5-point harness on the Nautilus is rated up to 65 lbs. and the seat itself  weighs about 20 lbs. so the label will probably tell you to discontinue installation with the lower LATCH anchors and switch to installation with seatbelt (plus tether) once your child weighs 45 lbs.

It’s up to you to keep track of how much your child weighs and to make the switch to seatbelt plus tether once your child exceeds the listed LATCH weight limit. It’s important to point out that this new requirement addresses weight limits for the lower anchors in your vehicle but does NOT impose a weight limit on the tether anchor. This is important because we always want you to use the tether if a carseat is installed forward-facing in a seating position that has a designated tether anchor.

  051Q2448_M    

Currently there are no infant (rear-facing only) carseats that are so heavy that they could exceed the new 65 lbs. combined LATCH weight limits.  So if you have a kid in a rear-facing only infant seat – don’t worry about these new limits.

However, there are a few exceptionally heavy convertible seats that also have high rear-facing weight limits and consumers who buy these seats (manufactured after 2/27/14) will find labels and instructions telling them what the LATCH weight limits are for rear-facing (and separately for forward-facing). Convertible seats that will be required to have rear-facing lower anchor weight limits will include Diono convertibles, Graco Smart Seat & Clek Foonf.  In some cases the rear-facing LATCH weight limit could be as low as 25 or 30 lbs. child weight.

The second change to federal safety standards that is also being implemented this week involves testing with the new 10 year old Hybrid III dummy. This dummy weighs about 78 lbs. and is 51″ tall. Any carseat manufactured after Feb 27, 2014 that has a 5-point harness rated beyond 65 lbs. will be required to fit this 10 yr old dummy and also be required to pass certain crash test performance standards using this dummy. Since the 10-yr-old dummy is huge – it won’t fit in most convertible seats, which is why you’ll see many carseat manufacturers backtracking on the maximum weight limits of their convertibles and some higher-weight combination seats too. Seats that may have been rated to 70 lbs. or higher in the past may now have a weight limit of 65 lbs. Some manufacturers have already backtracked to 65 lbs., others will be doing so shortly as the new requirements are phased in this week.

The Britax Frontier 90 and Pinnacle 90 will retain their 90 lb. harness weight limits as those seats are already tested with the 10 yr old dummy. We know Graco is working on a new Argos 80 (we reported on it from ABC) which will be taller than the current Argos 70 combination seat and will be reinforced to pass testing with the new dummy. When we have more details about other higher-weight harness combination seats, we will share them here.

10 year old Hybrid III dummy

 

Want to know more? Dive deeper with our 2nd article on the new LATCH limits.

Top Tether Limits for Carseats

It’s crazy.  The “secret list” parents must consult to determine whether or not the top-tether component of the LATCH system can be used for an older child.  Apparently, some automakers are unsure of the strength of their hardware, so they adopted unpublished weight limits.  Other companies expect parents to know the exact weight of their child seat, and then subtract it from 65 to determine the weight limit for the child.  Simple, huh? Is that a child with 10 pounds of winter clothes or no clothes?

To work around the confusion, some advocacy organizations had suggested that unless both carseat and vehicle owners manuals clearly specified a higher limit, parents should be instructed to use a very low 40 pound limit.   Of course, there was nothing in most vehicle owner’s manuals to support this, causing some to wonder why we are trying to fear parents away from using top tethers!  What to tell a parent who bought a $300 carseat with a 5-point harness system rated to 80 pounds?  “Sorry, ma’am, you can’t use that critical safety feature past 40 pounds for your taller child who needs the tether the most.  And I really can’t tell you why, but I’ve heard the company that made your car might have said so.

Fortunately, some auto makers have been willing to go farther!  Many now allow use of the top tether, an important safety feature, up to the maximum weight limit specified by the child restraint manufacturer.  For example, Volkswagen recently adopted this guidance, making it much simpler for parents.  The fact is that many parents don’t use the tether as it is, and those who do rarely realized that there were obscure limits for their use.  No wonder why!

NextFit tethered

Why are some auto makers causing parents to doubt the strength of these anchors and why are they making it so confusing?  We don’t know, but we do extend our appreciation to the following manufacturers who have adopted a more common sense approach and make it simpler for parents!  These car makers defer to the child restraint manufacturer instructions for top-tether weight limits when used with a seatbelt for installation:

Audi
BMW
Chrysler *
Coda
Dodge *
Ferrari
Fiat
Ford
Hyundai
Infinity
Jaguar
Jeep *
Kia
Lexus
Lincoln
Lnd Rover
Maserati
Mercedes Benz
Mercury
MINI
Nissan
Ram *
Rolls-Royce
Scion
Smart
Subaru
Toyota
Volkswagen
Volvo

 
Weight limits for use of the lower anchor component of LATCH vary considerably. Please consult your owners manual(s) for official guidance.

* Select models only. The National Child Passenger Safety Board now has a complete list on their website.

Source: National Child Passenger Safety Board and Safe Ride News LATCH Manual.