Living in the San Francisco Bay Area has many perks, but few are as celebrated as the natural beauty that surrounds the place I call home. For surfers, there are miles of coastline just minutes away from most places, including some of the best surfing spots in the world. Skiers and snowboarders can take a relatively short drive to Lake Tahoe on a whim to catch the latest batch of freshly fallen powder. Bicyclists have hundreds of miles of challenging terrain. I could go on. The point is that there are plenty of people just like me in their mid-twenties and beyond who are taking advantage of the best California has to offer. But how do they get to these locations in the first place? Usually it’s in a car that’s far too small for all their gear (and passengers).
Toyota seeks to solve that problem with the roomy 2014 Highlander, which seats eight passengers and has plenty of cargo space for all your gadgets, gear, and luggage with room to spare. I recently had the opportunity to put the Highlander through its paces in Carmel, and here are my first impressions.
The 2014 Highlander is more aggressive than its predecessors, with a lower front end and pronounced styling on the side panels, hood, wheel wells, and rear. Chrome trim lines the windows and top of the vehicle, giving it a sophisticated look while remaining rugged. It’s definitely the type of vehicle that would look just as at home in the mountains as it does in the city.
Highlander follows in the footsteps of the 2014 Corolla with its bold horizontal styling and chrome metallic accents. A 6.1-inch high-resolution touch-screen display comes standard on the LE and LE Plus, with an 8-inch high-resolution touch-screen display standard on the XLE and Limited grades. The dash has a built-in shelf with a pass-through, allowing you to feed charging cables from the USB/12V plug-ins to your mobile device, which comfortably rests on a nonslip coating. It sounds like a minor feature, but the shelf is a brilliant addition to this year’s model because it solves two problems: (1.) where to put your smartphone when you get into the vehicle, and (2.) driver distraction. Since the phone is neatly tucked away under the dash, you’re less likely to reach for it while driving.
In addition to a redesigned dash, the Highlander also has an available panoramic moonroof, 18-inch alloy wheels (standard), and an enormous center console. To prove how large the console really is, the Toyota team packed a demo Highlander with 58 juice boxes. From a practical perspective, you could comfortably fit two laptops and a purse with room to spare. Something the new generation of Toyota owners will appreciate.
Aside from standard features, the 2014 Highlander has add-ons that set it apart from the competition. For starters, there’s ventilated seats, which allow you to personally control the temperature on your side of the vehicle for added comfort. I notoriously overheat, and the ventilated cooling was something I really appreciated. A rear-facing camera and motion sensors make backing up easier than ever, especially for drivers with small children and pets. Blind-spot monitoring technology senses unnoticed vehicles, triggering indicators on the driver- or passenger-side mirror. If you’re really into driver technology, there’s an additional package that includes a pre-collision system with dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alerts, automatic high-beam headlights, and Safety Connect—Toyota’s proprietary roadside-assistance, car-safety, remote diagnostics, and communications platform.
Toyota’s Entune Audio system continues to evolve, and with apps like iHeartRadio, Bing, Pandora, OpenTable, and Yelp, the next restaurant, gas station, or song is at your fingertips. The system also offers navigation and weather features. Toyota is very aware of driver distraction, and in order to operate the navigation system, your vehicle must be in park. Apps are a little different and can be controlled by a passenger; however, advanced voice controls make it easy to browse the system hands-free. Entune is also Bluetooth-compatible, so you can leave the cables at home. We tested its connectivity and had no interruptions in play during our ride-and-drive. The app suite is easy to navigate and generally intuitive with a small learning curve that should take most people minutes to get used to.
Our group took the fleet of Highlanders along California Pacific Highway 1 to an artichoke farm for a quick lesson on the state’s agriculture industry followed by lunch at a major producer of fresh vegetables in Northern California. If you know anything about Carmel and Big Sur, it’s that the scenery is incredible and the roads are a combination of sprawling mountain passes and straight shots next to miles of crops and open land. This made for a fun drive in the quiet, comfortable, and fast vehicle. When I say quiet, I mean it. Compared with similar cars in its class, the Highlander blocks out a considerable amount of exterior noise. The seats were also roomy and comfortable from the start, so few adjustments were needed.
At one point we came to a stop at a T-shape intersection where finding a break in traffic was pretty difficult. I advanced when I sensed a small window of opportunity, and the Highlander had more than enough power to safely make the turn.
The 2014 Highlander is a great vehicle for a wide range of drivers. Weekend warriors will appreciate the styling and dependability of a workhorse that caters to their adventurous lifestyle while handling the city just as well as the great outdoors. Young families will take notice of the amount of cargo space Toyota was able to fit into one car, and added features like center console space, available entertainment packages, and pre-collision technology will make road trips and vacations easier on everyone. Highlander is also really fun to drive, with its six-speed transmission and double wishbone rear suspension. At $29,215 for a base-level LE, I’d be surprised if this year’s model doesn’t outsell its competition and other options in the Toyota portfolio.
LE – $29,215/(V6)$30,520/$31,980 | LE Plus – $32,740/$34,200 | XLE – $36,040/$37,500 | Limited – $39,640/$41,100 | Hybrid – $47,300