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First Drive: 2014 Toyota Highlander (Review)

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The midsize SUV segment is one of the hottest segments with many buyers ditching their midsize sedans and boring minivans for the added versatility that an SUV provides. Toyota knows this and has just introduced its all-new 2014 Toyota Highlander SUV, which marks the introduction of the third-generation of the popular SUV. Buyers have several choices in this segment from the Ford Explorer, to the Nissan Pathfinder and Honda Pilot, so Toyota has pulled out all the stops to make sure the Highlander stays at the top of the segment.

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Compared to the last two Highlander generations, the all-new 2014 Highlander gets an exterior that is bold and somewhat more masculine than before. The last Highlander's styling was easily forgotten, but since Toyota is trying to inject a bit more excitement into the styling of its models, the 2014 Highlander is no longer the wallflower of the segment. Toyota describes the Highlander's styling as "Sleek on Strong" with its bold grille, angled headlights and more defined side panels. From some angles the 2014 Highlander does look more "minivan-like" than a traditional SUV, but its styling is a big improvement.

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With its styling fixed, Toyota also addressed one of the big complaints about the last Highlander - the way it drives. The 2014 Highlander is offered with the same 185-hp 2.7L four-cylinder and 270-hp 3.5L V6 engines as the second-generation Highlander, but changes to the six-speed transmission's programming, updated electric power steering and a sportier suspension set up, yield dividends in the way the new Highlander drives. Compared to the last Highlander, which suffered from numb steering and a floaty ride, the 2014 Highlander feels more competent on the road.

If you want a Highlander Hybrid, Toyota still offers one at the top of the lineup with a 3.5L V6 and three electric motors that generate a total 280 horsepower. Its powertrain is the same system in the second-generation Highlander and is rated at 27/28 mpg, which is a slight improvement over the all-wheel-drive 3.5L Highlander that is rated at 18/24 mpg. The 2.7L equipped Highlander is only available with front-wheel-drive and is rated at 20/25 mpg, while the FWD 2.5L V6 has a 19/25 mpg rating.

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As an alternative to a minivan, the midsize SUV needs to have plenty of room for families. With that in mind, the 2014 Highlander is larger than before and now has room for up to eight passengers. The 2014 Highlander now has more legroom, hip room and cargo capacity than before. The 2014 Highlander's interior also gets a long list of new features like three-zone climate control, Toyota's Entune infotainment system and a new Driver Easy Speak system that uses a microphone to amplify the driver's voice to passengers through the rear speakers.

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With three different powertrains to choose from, which should one is best? The 2014 Highlander is now slightly heavier than before and with every seat occupied, it will be one heavy SUV. This means that the 2.7L four-cylinder is not really an ideal choice due to the fact that it will constantly be straining and even though it is rated one mpg better in the city than the V6, it should be overlooked. Toyota even knows this and expects less than 10 percent of Highlander buyers to actually choose it. At the other end of the spectrum, the 2014 Highlander Hybrid looks better on paper with its 27/28 mph rating and 280 horsepower, but that hybrid technology comes at a premium with the 2014 Highlander Hybrid starting at $47,300. This leaves the 3.5L V6 as the best all around choice.

Pricing for the 2014 Highlander will range from $29,215 for the LE four-cylinder FWD to $43,590 for the Limited V6 AWD with Platinum Package and tops out at $49,790 for the Hybrid Limited with Platinum Package.

Pros: Roomier interior, improved driving dynamics, up to 5,000 pound towing capacity
Cons: Hybrid version has high entry price, four-cylinder isn't a good match

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