CARMEL, Calif. -- The fast-growing mid-sized crossover segment has become a three-way battle among the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. Toyota hopes that with a 2014 redesign the Highlander can gain segment supremacy.
The basics: Although its engines remain the same, the Highlander gets dramatic changes to the sheet metal, interior design, all-wheel-drive setup, rear suspension and content levels.
The body panels are more sculpted and chiseled, with more angularity than before, and the hoodline appears chunkier. The overall length grows nearly 3 inches, with most of that going into the second- and third-row seats and cargo area. The Highlander is offered in seven- and eight-seat configurations.
Powertrain choices are a base 185-hp, 2.7-liter inline-four; a 270-hp, 3.5-liter V-6; and a 280-hp three-motor hybrid mated to the V-6. The same six-speed automatic transmission is shared by the four- and six-cylinder engines; only the final drive ratio is different.
A one-hour test circuit from Carmel to Big Sur returned 31 mpg for the hybrid, 27 mpg for the inline-four and 23 mpg for the V-6 with front-wheel drive.
The rear suspension was changed from a multilink design to a trailing-arm double-wishbone setup. By shortening the shock towers, Toyota made more room for the third-row seat and cargo area. Plus, the double wishbones are more dynamically responsive.
Notable features: Packaging improvements include more efficient use of space in the center stack, allowing for a soft-touch tray to stow cellular phones with a pass-through for power cords.
The center console can fit either a large purse or as many as 58 juice boxes. That's about 8.3 juice boxes per kid in a fully loaded vehicle. To ensure the driver can hear a request for a specific juice, Toyota increased the amount of sound insulation in the floor and used acoustic glass for the windshield.
Standard features include 18-inch wheels, eight airbags, Bluetooth connectivity, backup camera, daytime running lights, rear-zone climate control and a 6.1-inch touch screen. One cool optional feature, "Easy Speak," channels the driver's voice through the car's microphone and speakers to enable communication with back-seat passengers without shouting.