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2014 Toyota Highlander XLE V6 AWD equals family-friendly value

Our full review of the V6, all-wheel-drive 2014 Toyota Highlander XLE explains why we think this may be the best family car value in the world.

In my humble opinion, there is nobody more qualified than me to review the 2014 Toyota Highlander XLE V6 AWD. About seven and a half years ago I drove into a Toyota dealership in a Subaru Outback and came home with a brand new 2007 Toyota Highlander Sport. At that time the “Sport” was the value Highlander, having since been replaced with the XLE trim that Toyota now uses for many of its vehicles.

In Toyota talk, XLE means value. Family car value. This is the trim level you buy if the car is to be your daily driver, your spouse’s daily driver, and maybe the vehicle your kids will grow up with. Having been the exact type of person that buys a new Highlander, I can attest to its many benefits and hope to convey to you why I think, after testing it, it may in fact be the best large “value” family vehicle in the world at any price.

This size vehicle comes with three rows of seats. The XLE I tested, had a middle bench seat that can seat three, as well as a third row bench that can also seat three. Add in the two buckets up front, and you get 8. This number used to be the private reserve of maxi-vans like the Toyota Sienna and the ginormous SUVs built in ever shrinking numbers by GM and Ford. Frankly, the vehicle is an extremely comfortable four passenger, and in fact the Limited comes with captains’ chairs in the middle row, reducing the capacity to 7, but not changing the real-life usability much.

Having owned a Highlander in the snow-belt of the Northeast I can tell you that the type of AWD employed by the 2014 Highlander XLE is perfect for snow, though I did not test this exact car in the snow. It will always push the car ahead. You will not get stuck. Over muddy roads and rough soccer field parking areas in downpours you will never need to worry. Pulling your boat and trailer up a slippery slimy boat ramp will be no problem. If you are the one in a million Highlander owner that wants to ask more of that AWD system there are a lot of special buttons you can press to pretend you are English Gentry crossing a muddy bog on the way to your castle. Downhill assist and that sort of Jeepy stuff. We will now return to the story for the other 99.99 percent of drivers.

The 2014 Highlander is a smash hit for Toyota. It is selling at about 12,000 units per month pace in the US market and climbing. The highlander was up 20% this month over last May’s sales of the older generation. It is outselling all its real competitors. Those mainly include the Honda Pilot (see our comment under safety about that vehicle), the all new Nissan Pathfinder (down 15% in May despite being new), and the Chevy Traverse. The Ford Explorer is the only vehicle we could find to mention that can beat the Highlander in overall sales.

2014 Highlander XLE Exterior Design
Outside the new Highlander retains its familiar look, but it has changed a lot since the original Highlander. Please see our full comparison story of the 1st generation Highlander versus this new 2014 Highlander. It looks big and tough and more masculine than past Highlanders which seemed targeted at a female LL Bean shopper. The rims look great in the smoked metal alloy color used.

In back we see a smallish rear glass. Don’t worry, the standard back-up camera works great and you will use it a lot. One cool feature of this new crossover is that the rear glass can now pop open. It lets you instantly open it to grab the soccer bag rather than let the power tailgate do its thing. The tailgate opens slowly and steadily for safety. The rear wiper is still mounted low, and in sight, unlike the pricier Lexus RX 350 which neatly hides its rear appendage.

I like to fold my side mirror manually. I like to keep it out of traffic when I park on the street and to keep it out of the way for people weaving hockey bags through rows of parked SUVs in icy parking lots. This new car has an easy to fold, and easy to pop back, side mirror. Kudos Toyota for not making that a power accessory I have to pay for, or for making it rigid and thus prone to damage.

This is not a sports luxury vehicle so we won’t dwell on styling. Look at the photos. If you like it, you like it. My trying to explain why you should is silly.

Interior Design
The front seats are power for the driver in the 2014 Highlander XLE, and heated for both front occupants. They are covered in leather, but not perforated or ventilated. I found the front bucket seat to be very comfortable. Next to the seat is a HUGE compartment. You could put 8 candlepin bowling balls in it or two footballs. Across the lower part of the dash is a “cell phone” tray. My boys though that was smart. It is rubberized so the phones don’t rattle like they would in the cupholder. I loved it because my kids put their iPhones in the door grabs on my 2007 Highlander and they rattle until I tell them to take them out. Ahh progress.

We’ve already mentioned that the Highlander XLE has a middle bench seat and can seat 8. My boys are now 5’8” and 5’5” tall. The two of them could sit in the third row without a problem. That is to say, no more problem than any two kids sitting side by side. Normally I yell and scream at them to stop fussing and poking each other. It never works. I used to think they couldn’t hear me well. Toyota thought that too, and has added a nifty loudspeaker kind of device called Driver Easy Speak. It plays the commands and threats you issue to the youngsters over the rear speakers so they can’t pretend to not hear you. See photo above for results.

Three grade school kids could fit in the third row in a carpool situation. The middle is very spacious and three adults could comfortably sit side by side. There is a huge amount of legroom for the second row.

In this review I hope to explain that Toyota does many small things that make this a fantastic family vehicle. For example, the cargo area mat is carpet on one side, and rubber on the other. No need to buy an aftermarket one. If you are going to transport something messy, simply flip the mat over and it is waterproof and easy to wipe clean. A second thing is the clock. This Highlander, and all the Toyotas and Lexus vehicles I have owned in the modern era, has two small buttons next to the clock. Push one and it changes the minutes. Push the other, the hours change. Brilliant! Idiot Proof. Zero cost. Twice every year you will thank Toyota and curse the other non-Toyota cars you own. A third neat feature is found in the second row where a baby seat might go. The windows have shades that pull up from the door. This means you don’t have to suction cup those flimsy ones from Babies R Us onto the window. There are things like this that make the car family-friendly throughout the vehicle.

The XLE I tested had a navigation system that was very familiar to me. It is basically the same as my 2010 Lexus. It uses a touch screen, not a remote interface. The same lady speaks to me. I am fine with it. I would prefer to be able to input an address while moving (or lie to you and say it is for my “passenger” to be able to use). However, that is unsafe. Toyota protects me from myself. I synched the phone in one try in under 20 seconds.

The audio system is good. If you want great Toyota has that in other trims and in any Lexus. In fact, some of the audio in the company’s optional packages is way beyond great. I like Pandora and use it constantly. The system accepted my phone’s Bluetooth signal and even displayed the album art and information from Pandora, but that was it. I could advance the songs, which is key to its use. However, there is no “thumbs up and down,” and no Pandora station listings to choose from. Not a big deal, but I have to tell you the whole story, not just rave about the good stuff.

There are many cupholders and storage areas. The rear cargo area is massive and square due to the smart rear suspension design. There is a temporary spare under the vehicle. I would prefer a full size spare like that on my 2007. Let’s just be thankful that Toyota does not use run-flats.

How the 2014 Highlander Drives
When Toyota redesigned the Highlander for 2014 one of the promises made by the company was that due to the new front and rear suspension the car would handle better that the previous generation. Bill Fay, GM of Toyota North America, said at the New York Auto Show launch that the new Highlander “…provides improved handling and a smoother ride.” He went on to explain how Toyota achieved that saying “To provide a reduced roll rate and an agile driving experience, tuning was optimized on the electronic power steering… spot welds were increased for better rigidity… and coil-spring structure was improved.” Is it true? At first I wasn’t feeling it. Around town there are no surprises. However, the first time you take an off ramp a little faster than you meant to, you discover exactly what Toyota is talking about.

When pushed – a little – I’m not talking about stupid driving, but just a little more aggressively than “normal,” the Highlander comes alive. Turning it into an off ramp a bit faster than you intended results in the highlander hunkering down, as if on its haunches, and suddenly inspiring confidence. Maybe even a little bit of mischievousness. The car seems to lower itself and want to turn in. Brake while this is happening in most cars and you get a front corner tippy feeling. Not so with this larger crossover. Toyota has done some very good things to the handling of this vehicle.

Over bumps the car is stiff, but not overly so. There are no bad shakes or unsettled feelings over rough roads. The highway is where this car really shines. It goes down the road straight and easy, with no steering input. There is no lane drift and the crown of the road does not make this car drift to the side. It feels like it can drive itself straight ahead, something most cars don’t do.

My 2007 Highlander has had 6 sets of tires (it is an addiction, I admit it) and hit some hard holes. Hard enough to actually damage a tire and wheel bearing, yet the tires all wear smoothly (I rotate) and the wheel is still perfectly straight in one’s hands after 7 years. I have never paid to have it aligned. Toyota really knows how to make these vehicles handle well for family style driving.

One thing that may change someday, but for now is thankfully still the same, is the Highlander’s power. The 3.5 liter V6 is very powerful and very smooth. The 6 speed is a perfect match to it. Push this car around a bit and you will really appreciate that refined, plentiful power. Will the Highlander someday have a smaller turbo engine? I hope not, but it is the trend. I won’t comment on the 4 cylinder that can be had in some Highlanders. I have not driven it. Use caution if you choose to consider it. The brakes are unremarkable. That is a good thing.

Highlander Beats Key Rivals In Safety
From my point of view a modern crossover vehicle this size and this heavy is the safest family vehicle type. Objectively, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which conducts the most rigorous safety tests of US vehicles, gave the 2014 Highlander its highest possible rating of Top Safety Pick+. The Highlander we tested did not have the optional pre-collision system (PCS) which is part of that rating. Still, the vehicle can come however you like it to. Compared to its closest rival, the new Highlander now has a key differentiation. On the difficult small-frontal-overlap test, the Highlander scored acceptable. Speaking about the Honda Pilot’s performance in that test, the IIHS said “The Honda Pilot was the worst performing mid-size SUV in this group.”

Highlander Prices, Fuel Economy, and Value
My 2014 Highlander XLE V6 AWD had an MSRP of $38,703. Most buyers will pay about $36K. This is a great deal. Your maintenance will be free for two years and is included in the price. Mileage for this large vehicle is good at 18 MPG city, 24 MPG highway according to the window sticker. In a highway loop of about 110 miles I achieved 24.2 MPG and 24.0 MPG on separate drives. Around my suburban town, using a full tank, I achieved about 21 MPG. That is regular gas of course. Don’t ever buy a family car that uses premium. You will struggle to find a vehicle this size, in this price category, with this drivability, that can beat this MPG. If it is not enough, there is always the Highlander Hybrid, which has the best fuel economy in this size vehicle. Toyotas have excellent resale value overall, and we would expect this specific Highlander to much better than average.

The Final Word
I am biased. I own a Highlander and I am a fan of the Toyota brand, so readers should factor that into my review. However, I am not alone. This is one of the top selling vehicles of its type. Many people own them and the quality, durability, and reliability of these vehicles is well known. If you are looking for a family vehicle like this, it is hard to find one better.

Related Story - Click here to see our review of the Highlander Limited Platinum

Main Story Image Courtesy of Toyota Media


A. Brown (not verified)    July 31, 2014 - 12:39PM

I have a 2014 Toyo Highlander XLE & very much like this vehicle. However, after a car wash I discovered the back-up camera picture was distorted. When I looked at the camera itself I noticed there was very slight lateral crack across the lower part of the "bubble" of the camera. The car wash was a brushless car wash. I took the vehicle to the dealer who claims the crack head to have been caused by something hitting hit. Yet there is no chip of any kind which if a rock or road debris had hit it there would be, I believe, something more obvious than just a very slight crack.

I wondered if you or anyone else has experienced this same occurrence of the camera lens cracking????? Thanks............