How The 2014 Toyota Highlander Got It Wrong

Front 3/4 view of the 2014 Toyota Highlander
The 2014 Toyota Highlander. 

I've busted car manufacturers in the past for being overly cautious...so worried about messing up what's good in their vehicle in a re-design that they pull back and don't go far enough.

I may need to stop that.  Less than a year ago, I reviewed the 2013 Toyota Highlander and said about the only thing wrong with it was that it was "GeneriCar".  I also mentioned that the auto show photos of the 2014 model looked like they slapped a Tundra grille onto a Venza.  I wish it were as simple as that.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the '14 Highlander hits me as one homely machine, nose-heavy in the extreme. And the back 3/4 of it is nowhere near as svelte as a Venza.

Rear 3/4 view of 2014 Toyota Highlander
2014 Toyota Highlander. 

But, in an attempt to lessen the blockiness, Toyota's designers did throw in some curves at the rear...and reduced the amount of room for people and things.  The new Highlander is less commodious than last year's, beginning with the least amount of headroom I've found in this big a vehicle in a long time.  I'm five-eleven and a half, and with the seat adjusted to its lowest position, my hair was just clearing the headliner.

Interior view of 2014 Toyota Highlander
2014 Toyota Highlander interior.
The new instrument panel may look cleaner than last year's, but the layout has definite drawbacks. I have fairly long arms, but couldn't reach the touchscreen or the tuning knob for the radio from the driver's seat without leaning out of my seat, which compromises control and keeping one's eyes on the road.  It is the first car where I found the controls on the steering wheel to be a necessity and not a convenience.

The good news?  Well, the EPA mileage estimates are up a bit, from 17 city/22 highway to 18 city/24 highway, largely thanks to a new 6-speed automatic transmission.  And, especially in Limited trim, exceptionally well equipped (click here for the standard equipment list).

Base price for our all-wheel drive tester was $43,590, which included the Platinum Package (Safety Connect, pre-collision system with dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with automatic high beam headlights, panoramic moonroof, a heated steering wheel, and heated perforated leather captain's chairs in the second row). Skip the Platinum Package and you can start at $41,100. Go with front-wheel drive and $39,640 is where you start.

Bottom line, with $860 delivery, processing and handling fee: $44,450.  The Phoenix bureau was recently in an all-wheel drive XLE (one trim level lower) that started at $37,500 and wound up at $40,840.

The real bottom line: In a competitive segment like 7-seat crossovers, good looks, passenger and cargo packaging and ease of use are all major factors.  The 2014 Highlander isn't as good at those as the vehicle it replaces, nor as good as some of the competition.