If you’re looking for the three inches of length added to the redesigned Toyota Highlander, you’ll find it in the back. Toyota says Highlander owners demanded more space. The OEM responded by giving its midsize SUV a true third row of seating and a 34% boost in rear-end cargo volume.
The 2014 Highlander will seat up to eight passengers, depending on the second-row configuration. Buyers can choose between two captains’ chairs or a 60/40 split bench that slides up for easier access to the new third-row bench, which is wider than the outgoing two-seater. These advancements were made possible by the installation of a new rear suspension that eliminates the intrusion of strut towers into the cabin.
The exterior and interior were completely redesigned. The extra room in the back is emphasized by a new rear windshield that runs from pillar to pillar. The new sheet metal isn’t a complete departure but it has evolved.
Stretched-out headlights and LED running lights straddle a gaping front grille that, at first glance, gives the impression of a horrified scream. The fenders and shoulder line were bulked up to lend the new Highlander a more truck-like appearance.
The dash now features a standard, 6.1-inch touchscreen and a long shelf that runs from the driver’s right knee to the passenger door. The shelf houses a 12-volt outlet, a USB port and an iPod input — making it the perfect storage place for mobile devices. As is customary for the Highlander, the cabin design is sophisticated, tasteful and functional.
Toyota plans to add a slew of new standard safety features, including a rearview camera, parking sensors, hill-start assist and blind-spot and lane-departure warnings.
The new SUV retains its predecessor’s base 2.7-liter four-banger, good for 187 horsepower (hp) at 186 pound-feet (lb.-ft.) of torque. The optional 3.5-liter, 270-hp V-6 also returns, but this time with an updated hybrid option.
Paired with an electric motor, the hybrid engine is expected to deliver 280 hp and a significant boost in fuel economy. Those numbers are not yet available, but the two-wheel-drive 2013 burned a combined 22 miles per gallon with the inline four and 20 with the V-6.
The 2014 Toyota Highlander is due in showrooms in late fall or early spring. Pricing will be announced later this year; the outgoing base model starts at $29,020.