Reader Review: 2014 Toyota Highlander LE AWD

Amanda Bradley is determined not to be a minivan mom.

The Airdrie-based mother of two young boys says she just couldn’t drive one. Why not?

“Because, they’re not cool,” she says.

Of course, that’s Bradley’s opinion. Others may disagree.

However, if someone does agree with her, what might they drive? According to Bradley, the freshly redesigned 2014 Toyota Highlander could suit the bill.

Introduced in 2001 as a car-based SUV, the Toyota Highlander added a comfortable family hauler to the automaker’s range. Toyota already had the truck-based 4Runner, but for those looking for a more refined ride with a quieter cabin and better fuel economy, the Highlander provided the answer.

First-generation Highlanders were produced until 2007, and these were powered by either a four-cylinder or a 3.0-litre V-6 – both with four speed automatic transmissions. In 2004 the 3.0L V-6 increased in size to 3.3L, and the bigger engine got a five-speed automatic transmission.

Toyota launched the second-generation Highlander as a 2008 model year vehicle, and in this iteration the SUV grew in every single direction.

Now in its third generation with the 2014 model, Toyota says the Highlander was redesigned from top to bottom. The new Highlander boasts what the automaker calls a ‘strong and sleek exterior’, with a trapezoidal grille that flows into a lower, longer and wider body. Toyota engineers have also lowered the Highlander’s centre of gravity, making the SUV more stable.

All 2014 Highlanders feature a 3.5L V-6 engine connected to an electronically controlled six-speed automatic transmission, and there are four trims available from the base LE, to the LE AWD, XLE AWD and Limited AWD. There are also three versions of the Highlander Hybrid – the LE, XLE and Limited. The hybrids feature a 3.5L V-6 engine and a permanent magnet electric motor linked to a continuously variable transmission.

Bradley got to spend a week in a Highlander LE AWD, finished on the outside with the excitingly named Moulin Rouge Mica, and inside with black cloth and Softex (Toyota’s synthetic leather). Base MSRP for a Highlander LE AWD is $34,180, and with the optional $2,800 convenience package Bradley’s tester, as driven, cost $38,803.45 including freight and PDI.

Bradley’s family currently maintains a 2010 GMC Acadia, a 2003 Pontiac Bonneville GXP and her old university commuter car, a 2003 Honda Civic.

“The Acadia is the family car, the Bonneville is my husband’s car, and the Honda is the frugal, everybody drives it, economy car,” Bradley laughs.

The Bradleys owned a Nissan Xterra and a Honda Ridgeline prior to the Acadia, but neither proved conducive to carrying their child seats. Room for kids, groceries and strollers, fuel economy and all-wheel drive are important aspects for Bradley when she’s vehicle shopping.

“Looks,” she says, “are kind of important, but they wouldn’t be a deal-breaker – as long as it’s not a minivan — and comfort is pretty important.”

Bradley says the Highlander was no loser in the looks department. She especially liked Toyota’s new grille, and mentioned it gave the Highlander a much more macho, even mean, look to the front end. All of her cars have been blue – not by choice – and the Moulin Rouge Mica on the Toyota was a welcome change.

Bradley is 5’6” tall, and she found the Highlander easy to enter. After getting in, it was a simple matter of moving the eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat ahead for her to be comfortable behind the wheel. Toyota’s fabric seating surface trimmed with Softex was a favourite feature.

“In all black the interior looked really sleek and more elegant than I thought it would,” she says.

Power from the V-6 engine was “amazing – it accelerated so quickly,” Bradley explains. “It responded really well, and the engine always felt very deliberate and precise, and the transmission shifted smoothly.”

Bradley says the Highlander had an exceptionally tight turning circle, and its on-road handling manners were impeccable. “It felt very connected to the road,” she says, but there were some misgivings about the ride. “You could feel every bump in the road – it wasn’t uncomfortable, but it just wasn’t as smooth as I’d expected and that surprised me a bit.”

The Highlander shone as a family vehicle, Bradley says. Her two sons, Parker, 6, and Dawson, 2, were able to climb into the vehicle themselves without help.

“Their car seats fit really well in the second row – in fact, it was probably the easiest car seat installation I’ve ever had,” Bradley says. “And, it was so easy to buckle them in.”

In the rear cargo area Bradley didn’t experiment or attempt to haul very much. However, given the overall size of the vehicle, she thought there was more room available than she initially anticipated.

On the highway the Highlander proved comfortable and quiet, but Bradley had qualms about the size of the outside rear view mirrors.

“They were big, and they were great for seeing behind me, but they made it difficult to see beyond them – that could have been a combination of my height and the placement of the mirrors, but it wasn’t great for me,” she says.

The Highlander features third-row accommodations, but with her sons in their car seats, Bradley couldn’t fold the second-row seat backs forward to gain access.

“I think the Highlander best suits someone like me, who doesn’t want to drive a minivan,” Bradley says. “But would I buy one? If I really needed access to the third row, it wouldn’t work for us right now with the boys the age they are.

“But would I recommend one? Yes. It was lots of fun to drive, and that engine provided great acceleration with the assuredness of all-wheel drive. I did like it.”

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About Greg Williams