December 23, 2013 By Richard Russell
CARMEL, CA — Toyota started a trend in 2001 when it introduced the Highlander. Based on the Camry platform, it was arguably the first uni-bodied, car-based SUV and a new term was coined to describe it and the dozens like it that followed — CUV or Crossover Utility Vehicle.
Unlike the more rugged body-on-frame SUVs bristling with off-road prowess, CUVs fit the urban lifestyle replacing the minivan in many cases as the do-anything vehicle. They are tall and most have all-wheel drive, but they are more highway friendly and refined.
The Camry-based Highlander was joined over the years by a veritable explosion of competitors from virtually every major manufacturer. As a result the Highlander currently struggles to stay in the top ten on the sales charts for this segment. Time for a makeover!
The third-generation Highlander, due to arrive at your local Toyota store toward the end of January, rides on the same platform as the outgoing model and uses the same engine, but otherwise is new inside and out. It has a new body, interior, transmission and all-wheel-drive system. The steering and suspension have been re-engineered and there are some slick new features — standard and optional.
The 2014 Highlander is 75 mm longer, 15 mm wider and stands 30 mm lower. The majority of that extra length can be found aft of the third-row of seats where cargo space has increased.
The new frontal appearance partially apes the new Tundra pickup with a trapezoidal grill flanked by large headlights that wrap around into the fenders resulting in a more aggressive look. The A-pillars are repositioned and the rear hatch, bumper and tail lights are redesigned.
But it is inside where the bug changes can be found. The Highlander has gone from boring to lively with flat plastic panels replaced by a contemporary horizontal treatment with pleasant contrasting shades and surface finishes. Soft touch materials abound and the both base and upscale information screen(s) are larger.
At the bottom of the new dash lies one of those “why doesn’t everyone do this” features — a tray that runs more than half the width of the car. It is shallow but provides handy storage for any number of items and devices within easy reach. If you put your smart phone or digital music player there, you can run the charging cord through a slot supplied directly above the various inputs for charging or sending music to the in-car system. Slick!