When it comes to family vehicles, mid-size crossover SUVs are pretty much the norm these days. Larger and more practical than a sedan, but not as big and bulky as a minivan or large truck-based sport utility, the crossover falls into that “just right” category.
And almost every automotive brand is player in the segment. From Kia to Buick, these commodious vehicles with lots of seats but a car-like ride are numerous. Just bop your way through a large auto mall and you’ll see many.
One vehicle really got things started back in the year 2000. Toyota took elements from their Sienna minivan and Camry sedan and created the Highlander. It was an instant success, and spawned a lot of imitators.
In the years since, Honda created the Pilot, General Motors shifted their mid-size SUV focus from body-on-frame (truck type) to unit construction (car type), and even Ford moved the vaunted Explorer to a new platform so it too could be a crossover.
The Highlander eventually got a hybrid version, and was redesigned mid-decade to keep it fresh and add that all-important third-row seat to better stay competitive. But one thing that it still lacked, even in its second iteration, was a little bit of style.
Somebody in management at Toyota must have noticed this and demanded changes, because the new 2014 Highlander is actually a bit of a stunner, and not just compared to the previous example.
New wrap-around headlights highlight Toyota’s current “face” that is also evident in the smaller RAV-4 introduced last year. The high style continues at the rear, though in all honesty, there’s not much to be done style-wise with a vehicle that can carry a lot of cargo.
The newness translates inside as well, with a couple of clever touches. First is a mid-height shelf that runs from the center of the dashboard all the way across the passenger side. It’s perfect for holding small items, and keeping them within easy reach. And, toward the left end, there’s a pass-through for USB or power cables, both of which can plug in just below it.
There’s also a huge center console storage compartment with a roll-top style door. It’s big enough to hold a handbag, or just a ton of stuff. Between this and the shelf, it’s obvious that there were some working mothers on the product planning team.
And if you get one of the top trim levels of the new Highlander, a really clever feature will save you from having to turn around and shout to your kids riding in the second or third rows. “Easy Speak” uses the hands-free microphone above the front seats, as well as the rear speakers in the sound system. Touch an icon on the display screen, and your voice is carried to the rear.
The 2014 Highlander drives very nicely, and most all of the ones built will have a 3.5 liter V6 making 270 horsepower. There is a 4-cylinder engine available in the base LE model, but it’s really only there so that Toyota can offer a sub-$30,000 variant of the vehicle. Could be popular with fleet buyers, but you aren’t likely to find any at the local dealership.
And as in the previous two generations of the Highlander, there is a hybrid version available for 2014. For many buyers, a having a hybrid is a plus, and the Highlander Hybrid gets a combined EPA rating of 28 miles per gallon, the best of any mid-size crossover SUV. But it’s not necessarily for the frugal, as the hybrid model is only available in the premium Limited trim level.
For those who can get by with a non-hybrid Highlander, prices range from just over $30,000 for an LE grade model, and climb all the way to $43,590 for a Limited with the Platinum package. The Highlander Hybrid is $47,300 or $49,790 with the Platinum package.
These days there are many crossover SUVs available, but the Highlander that started it all back in the 2001 model year is still around, and better than ever.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @ABC7DaveKunz, Facebook: ABC7DaveKunz