The Toyota Highlander, like most large crossovers, is a schizophrenic, compromised hodgepodge of design, technology, and functionality. It's hard to love, but also hard to dislike.
(Full Disclosure: My wife wanted me to drive the Toyota Highlander XLE so badly she claimed she was too tired to go any further, and the death of our children would be on my hands when she careened off the road, believing a best Western was a castle of ice cream for My Little Ponies.)
Taking the reins of our new 2014 Highlander XLE (FWD) just south of Houston, only a couple of hundred miles into the 400-plus mile trip from Austin to Baton Rouge, approximately 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday, I settled in for the remainder of the trip. It was Angus' (named after Merida's horse in Brave, because 3-year old) first proper road trip, and actually the first time I'd spent any noteworthy time behind its wheel in the four months we'd owned it. With two kids asleep in the captain's chairs behind, my wife nodding off beside me, a random mix of 200-odd Lucero songs coming out of the front speakers, and 300 miles of road ahead, I punched the start button. So, what's this mom-mobile all about?
Here it is. Smoother than a 4Runner, more chiseled than a Venza, less door-slidey than a Sienna. The Highlander is a big honkin' car. But it's actually pretty well proportioned, all things considered. I dare say it's mildly handsome. Compared to the jellybean-era nostalgia of the Chevy Traverse or the SUV in training styling of the Santa Fe, the Highlander has its own look going on. It shares the same modern Toyota grille and taillight treatment as the new Sienna, Camry and Corolla. The 18" wheels fill the arches nicely, the beltline is low for modern standards, and there are intelligent features like lifting glass in the tailgate and smart-touch door locks in the front handles. It is what it is. A bigass station wagon fronting as an SUV.
This is probably the second reason you opt for the Highlander, after "where are we going to put the damn kids?" The interior is shockingly great. I mean, it's a Toyota so that weird duality of austerity and quality they're so adept at is apparent from the second you open the door, and compared to every other CUV in this segment, the Highlander was at the top of the list with regard to interior appointment. The Ford Explorer and Edge were in the same grouping, but for slightly different reasons (the Fords felt somewhat "badass" as opposed to "nice"). Everything else had a decidedly low-rent or even agricultural disposition, particularly the budget oriented Santa Fe.
The driver's seat has full power control, including lumbar adjustment and an extendable thigh support. It's eminently comfortable over the long haul. The steering wheel telescopes and thankfully has a wide, chunky lever that doesn't hide under the column. The center armrest/console is mammoth. The salesperson demonstrated its capacity by dropping my wife's purse into it, along with her iPad, sunglasses, and emergency diaper stash.
What auto journos can't shut up about is the shelf. Really? Why, yes. It's genius. With the cord pass-through for your phone charging cable, this is now home for your wallets, keys, snacks, phones, pistols, pens... whatever. It's also integrated nicely into the overall design, so it's not a tacked on "accessory" like in old GM trucks or my Alfa. I wish to see this feature in all future cars. Make it so.
Our Highlander has the optional rear captain's chairs. Both of our girls are in car seats, and access to the third row usually requires seats flipping forward - more or less impossible with the seats installed. Having captain's chairs means there's a pass-through to the third row, even if it also means sacrificing a spot.
The third row is where you put the people you want to die a slow death. Cramped leg room, diminished headroom, and generally sub-standard comfort in the actual seats. Works in a pinch when Grammy wants to go to lunch with us but doesn't want to follow through Austin traffic.
Loads of rear storage with the third row stowed, which is a snap, by the way. With the seats up, you have enough depth and width for 7 or 8 grocery bags, or space for a couple of suitcases. It's not quite minivan-like in its ability to swallow everything you own or have produced from your loins, but it's still as much as we need, and then some.
Overall, build quality is impeccable. No plastic moulding flash, no crummy stitching, few hard chintzy plastic surfaces. Everything has an admirable heft to it. The seat leather isn't Maserati-quality, but compared to the GM or Hyundai, it's world class. Honda still seems to be the leader of the pack when it comes to leather quality, comparing to the Pilot we drove and my mom's 2013 Accord EX-L. Still, dried kefir wipes right off with minimal effort and no staining, and that's really why you get leather when you have kids.
The 3.5 liter V6 in the new Highlander is rated for 270 horsepower. Ours being a FWD model, we allegedly get to 60 in about 7.5 seconds. That's... actually pretty quick. Put your foot down and you're at interstate speeds halfway down the ramp. It also makes power pretty much on the range, so passing speed can be achieved with not a whole lot of playing chess beforehand. Handy.
That grunt comes at a price - 18 MPG around town (if you drive like my wife), and maybe 26-27 on the highway cruising between 65 and 70 with cruise control on. I noticed that once we got onto the 80 MPH Texas highways the reported MPG number took a drastic dip, losing 2 MPG over less than 100 miles. We ended up at 24.3 MPG for the return trip. My wife's cumulative average, after 4,800 miles, is 18.7 MPG. Not horrible, but certainly not great.
It stops. Pretty well, I might add. There's noticeable brake dive when you really get on them, as you will outside of Houston at 10 p.m., but none of the fidget you'd expect from a car that weighs two and a quarter tons. No ABS shudder. Not too grabby. Slightly spongey. Honestly, better than you'd expect in a decidedly non-performance oriented vehicle. Safety first. Its for the kids!
This is going to be a contentious rating simply due to the subjective nature of ride quality. For a large family vehicle, I want smoothness, and the Highlander doles it out in creamy, marshmallowy dollops. I could describe the new Highlander's ride in the same terms a spa would describe their treatments. The thing is, as comfort oriented as it is (and this car is a monster road trip machine) it never feels too floaty. Normally, when a car is sprung for comfort, you have a disconcerting disconnect between the wheels and the road. Toyota has dampened the ride to ekranoplan-like levels but also retained enough control that you never feel like you're on a trampoline about to be double bounced into low earth orbit. It's not going to ever satisfy anyone with sporting ambitions, but also, why the hell would you buy this car for reasons approaching "sporting"? Dumbass. Get a GTI.
Gods, I loathe electric steering. The Highlander is so overboosted and so disconnected I have no other option but to trot out the old "feels like a video game" analogy. But it does. And I will. The steering wheel is a pointing device. That's it.
However, it changes lanes with alacrity and is fully capable of maneuvering you and your muffins out of danger with far less drama than you'd expect. If you expect to be vaporized in a fuel-air explosion, that is.
The 2014 Highlander has a six-speed autobox with a manual shift "sport mode" (sport in quotes with great intent). There is nothing remarkable about it, other than the smoothness with which it shifts. You will barely notice when cog swaps happen, unless you put your foot to the firewall. Again, this is probably what you want from a car like this.
The manual shift mode is superfluous. No paddles, just slide the shifter to the left, then nudge forward to upshift and back to downshift. It'll let you approach the redline before decided enough is enough and revoke your hooning license, and you might get to 60 a couple of ticks more quickly. What, you think this is a GTR? Get a life.
Toyota Entune is a travesty. You will end up using your iPhone to interface with the entertainment system rather than the car's interface, which is the worst kind of menu-within-a-menu bullshit that BMW discovered was The Worst Thing Ever more than a decade ago. It's unintuitive and needlessly complex. We ended up just using Waze on our iPhones, connected via hardwire (BlueTooth works fine) for navigation, and Siri for pulling up music. Which is a shame, because the display is large and rife with potential. I also appreciate the inclusion of some actual buttons around the screen for quick access to the main features.
We didn't opt for the rear seat infotainment. We have iPads and headrest mounts. Problem solved. There's also a built-in power inverter for the second row. Score.
Thankfully, HVAC is dead simple with rotary dials for temperature, a sync button to bring all three climate zones together, and buttons for fan speed. As it should be. Second row occupants have independent controls in the center console and vents overhead and in the console. Again, easy peasy. I don't know if you consider HVAC toys, so I won't really include these lovely features into the score.
The steering wheel controls are just enough to do what you want to do - volume, phone, index through dash info, which is displayed between the speedo and tach on an iPhone-sized LCD. Control stalks are easy to reach and use. You go, Toyota.
Bassy. We don't have the upgraded Bose system, although it's fine. It works. Thankfully our iPhones are happy to play via either the hardwire or BlueTooth setup.
Just get a minivan. My wife refused to consider one, and for some practical reasons and not just "I'd rather be caught in flagrante with our custodian." Size (as in, lots that we probably won't need) and maneuverability around town being chief among them.
We paid $35,800 for our brand new 2014 Highlander XLE, which had just started showing up on the lots when our limping Camry bit the dust. That's a good price, but it's still many dollars for a compromised vehicle. And I don't necessarily mean compromised as in worthless. It's a Venza with a third row, a Sienna without the unused space, a 4Runner without 4-wheel drive and a truck ride. It's smack in the middle of the spectrum, and it works well enough for us. But it's not a be-all, end-all solution to your family transportation issues either. The Santa Fe is a lot cheaper. The Explorer is generally cooler. Any minivan will tick all of the practicality boxes. Do your homework.
I'll go on record as saying I'd have preferred a Mazda5 or a Nissan Quest, but by acquiescing on this decision I get to buy whatever I want (within reason) when my time comes. It's a compromise. Like the Highlander.
Total - 61 Jalopopoints