Road Test: 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid XLE

The Toyota Highlander gets a total makeover for 2014 with just about everything new from stem to stern. Dimensionally, its overall length is stretched three inches, width grows a mere half inch, and the wheelbase remains unchanged.

The big news is styling has been has been massively improved, with its new skin looking decidedly fresh, bold and assertive. It’s as if the last generation Highlander was hustled off to an 8-month Jenny Craig diet and CrossFit camp. Gone is the nice, but dowdy appearance for a new physique that is trim and now ruggedly handsome.

The new Highlander’s trapezoidal grille is enlarged for a more truck-like presence, accented by a horizontal chrome bar and a large Toyota logo. A horizontal air intake and a pair of fog lights complete the new fascia. From the side, bulging wheel wells gives a welcome injection of athleticism.

Don’t be fooled by our 2014 Highlander Hybrid XLE’s mid-level status. Even though it slots in between the lower priced $43,720 Hybrid LE and the $52,695 Hybrid Limited, the $46,145 XLE is downright luxurious. Toyota’s already excellent interiors continue to reach even higher levels of quality of finish and feel, and the new Highlander crosses easily into the vaunted Lexus territory. The Highlander XLE ought to satisfy even the most ardent hedonists. The icing on the cake is the 2014 Hybrid XLE is priced $3,500 less than the comparably equipped 2013 model.

Toyota’s crammed a long list of luxury features into the XLE, such as leather seating surfaces, 3-zone automatic climate control, backup camera, keyless entry, heated front seats, power moonroof, power tailgate with a separate flip-up rear window, recline-adjustable second and third row seats and navigation to name a few highlights.

This is the third generation of Highlander, and the new interior takes a major leap forward in style and function over the old model. Where the old model was certainly serviceable, the interior of the 2014 XLE possesses a new sense of design integration and synthesis. Driver and passenger ‘friendliness’ best describes the new cabin. The 8-in. display/audio touch screen sits prominently in the centre of the dash, and an open shelf runs along the bottom to conveniently hold cell phones, sunglasses, 12v chargers and other paraphernalia essential for modern day survival. Controls are easy to understand, and the instrument cluster is functional. The fuel economy geek in me loved the large display showing ‘CHG/ECO/PWR’; apply too much throttle and the needle swings to PWR. This display is like a video game, persuasively encouraging the driver to be gentle with the throttle, keeping the needle in the ECO segment for the greatest fuel efficiency. It’s a simple way to modify driver behavior in a positive way.

For active households, the 2014 Highlander is a paragon of versatility. Cargo capacity increases by 34-percent, the second row has ample leg room for three adults, and the third row access is simple. The third row also holds three passengers, but is best suited to pre-teens. Adults can squeeze in, but their knees jam up against the second row seatbacks. The second and third rows are split 60/40, and when folded down, the cargo floor is flat. A power tailgate is standard, and the rear window flips up allowing fast access for throwing that single bag of groceries.

Driving the 2014 Highlander is a significantly better experience compared to the old version. Toyota claims the new chassis has a lower centre of gravity and structural rigidity has been increased. Wheeling the old Highlander was comfortable but boring, whereas the new Highlander feels sportier and more responsive. The suspension feels firmer, and the electric power steering delivers an unexpectedly good level of feedback. The (combined) gas engine/electric motor puts out an impressive 280 horsepower (10 horsepower more than the gas engine), and Toyota claims the Hybrid consumes 30-percent less fuel than the gas-only version.

While taxiing a couple of buddies to a brush clearing site, everybody remarked at the Highlander’s impressive power while merging on to the highway. Thrust comes easily and the power supply is plentiful. The Hybrid’s continuously-variable transmission is a good match for the gas engine-electric motor power system, and it helps the crossover achieve remarkable fuel economy. Our driving was split about 50-50 city/highway driving, and the Highlander Hybrid XLE delivered a very impressive 9.0 L/100 km. (That’s significantly better than the economical 2014 Kia Soul we’re testing, showing 11.0 L/100 km in city driving.)

At highway speed, the cabin is very quiet; wind and road noise are very well managed, and the suspension soaks up craggy pavement with ease.

Overall, the all-new-for 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid XLE is very impressive. As my architect friends like to say, the 2014 Highlander possesses ‘good bones.’ The new body looks terrific, the interior is much better than the previous model, and the new chassis delivers a much better driving experience.

Each new generation of hybrid Toyota has chipped away at my stubborn resistance to and general rejection of hybrid automotive technology. A simple cost-benefit analysis proves you still pay too much money for fuel efficiency gains, and that magic ‘break even’ point is more years into the future than most people own the vehicle.

NRCan’s fuel consumption ratings show the annual (theoretical and for comparison shopping purposes only) cost of running the 2014 Hybrid Highlander as $1820 versus $2600 for the 3.5-litre gasoline V6 model. The hybrid’s fuel saving of $780 dollars per year will take eight years to pay for the $6245 dollar premium it commands over the gasoline-only version. For those willing to pay that premium to drive a more environment-friendly vehicle, the 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid XLE can be highly recommended. For the rest of us, the significantly less expensive 2014 ‘normal’ gasoline engine Highlander is the more rationale choice.

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid XLE Driven by Tim Yip

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