Mountain Wheels: All-new Toyota Highlander gets a tough-looking makeover |

Mountain Wheels: All-new Toyota Highlander gets a tough-looking makeover

Mountain Wheels

2014 Toyota Highlander XLE V6 AWD

MSRP: $37,500; $39,302

Powertrain: 270-HP 3.5-liter V6 engine, CVT six-speed automatic transmission

EPA figures: 20 mpg combined (18 city, 24 highway)

If you were able to look back over a decade of car reviews and profiles that I’ve done for the Summit Daily News, you’d see that Toyota had long been a very important part of that equation — yes, that and my ridiculous fixation with Jaguars, Favorite Car of Silverthorne, of course.

More recently, that connection with the once-unstoppable Japanese auto giant has become a vaguer proposition for many of us car writers. So what I’m going to tell you about the new Toyota Highlander may also sound a little disjointed and impersonal, but like you, I’m getting all my info off the Internet, supplementing a few lonely hours in said car itself.

I assume there’s a name for the unifying aesthetic that’s emerging in the looks of the Highlander, the ultra-angular Tundra and last year’s RAV4. I cannot tell you what that might be, but in Highlander’s case, it’s a slightly jarring reinvention of what used to be one of my favorite, mid-sized SUVs.

Principally, Highlander’s lines make it feel much larger than it did in the past, and perhaps that’s the point in hammering home its three-row, seven-person family-hauling status and its strong attributes versus the equally improved (again, from what I’ve heard) Dodge Dakota and any number of seemingly interchangeable General Motors SUVs.

It’s 3 inches longer but just a half inch wider and the roofline is actually lower than before; the A-pillars were moved and the rear quarter glass size improved, both for better visibility while rolling along.

I had the ill fortune to time my suburban/highway drive of the Highlander with a tremendously ugly windstorm and despite the car’s impressively capacious attributes, it was also incredibly prone to bobs and shakes in those side blasts (so maybe be careful during one of those ground blizzards near Jefferson on Hwy. 285).

Mileage came out right in the middle of EPA estimates (I got 21 mpg; sticker says 18 city, 24 highway) for the largest of the vehicle’s engine choices, a 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, with the all-wheel drive option. A 2.7-liter four-cylinder is an option on a lower-grade, front-wheel-drive LE model, getting you 25 on the highway, and the Hybrid edition (one of my favorites, back in the old days) is said to be good for about 28 combined mpg.

Overall ride was supportive and well-sprung, and the six-speed automatic transmission worked in a predictably easy-going fashion. The raised profile still makes extremely sharp corners a less wise prospect, but it’s got a good, grounded overall feel.

And for Highlander, the story is all about people-hauling capability, and certainly has that in droves. The second row is enormous, with the curved front seatbacks adding to the acreage, and second-row seats also recline, flatten easily and slide back and forth. That makes it easier to access a third row with nearly 4 inches more room, putting it in almost comfortable territory. On top of this, there’s a full third more behind-the-third-row-seat storage than before, when hauling both kids and groceries. As one does. Seating is universally comfortable and moderately sport-edged in the front.

Highlander gets its own version of the very major interior makeover seen on the RAV4, though there’s no pillowed dash here, thankfully. Instead, you get a low-hanging arch of storage under the dash, like a Muppet’s mouth, with a contemporary re-take on all of the other details. An extremely bright white, red and blue (in that order) color scheme for the instrument gauges will keep you wide-eyed.

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