SUVs, including popular so-called crossover models, recently have overtaken sedans in U.S. sales, it recently was announced.
This was somewhat surprising news because judging from what you generally encounter on the road and especially in crowded mall parking lots, you might have thought that milestone had occurred long ago.
But according to IHS, a company that keeps track of global market and economic information, including automotive sales trends, the SUV/Crossover segment recently garnered a 36.5 share of retail vehicle registrations for the first five months of this year, surpassing sedans, which slipped to 34.5 percent.
It’s not all that difficult to see why. SUVs, mostly because of the sedan-based crossover versions, have progressed from the truck-like vehicles that ignited the segment’s popularity in the 1990s to more refined family transporters that offer both comfort and function in a stylish package.
You’ll find all three traits in the new Toyota Highlander, which is appropriate because this is the model that really introduced the world to the crossover as a 2001 model. As it enters its third generation, the 2014 Highlander gets a major upgrade in overall design and especially interior quality.
The exterior has a sleeker, sexier profile than its predecessor starting with a new front-end treatment that features a newly designed grille and wider headlamps and ending with the integrated rear spoiler and wraparound taillights. It’s slightly longer and wider than its predecessor but handles the extra inches (2.7 and 0.6, respectively) well, like a high school football player shedding baby fat to assume a more mature look.
Inside, though, is where the Highlander really shines.
It starts with the dashboard, where soft padding has replaced the hard plastic of previous generations, giving the Highlander a more sophisticated aura. The instrument cluster includes an information display between the speedometer and tach.
The center console features a large storage compartment, and to keep smaller items handier, like a cellphone, a long shelve under the dash runs from the center to the passenger door.
And there’s a plethora technological offerings such as premium audio systems, navigation, multi-information displays, backup camera (standard across the line), and rear-seat entertainment offered as either standard, depending on the model, or optional.
Toyota advertises that the Highlander’s seating capacity has been boosted from seven to eight (except on Limited and hybrid models) with extra room in the third row providing seating in the middle for an extra passenger. At least there are seat belts back there for three, but if you’re going to carry eight passengers, at least half of them should be children. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would fit in as well.
That isn’t to say the interior is overly cramped, because it’s not. It’s just that third-row seat riders are going to hope the passengers in front of them are willing to give up some of their own legroom by sliding their seats forward.
With the redesign, the Highlander lost some overall storage space with capacity with all seats folded at 83.7 cubic feet, nearly 12 cubic feet less than the 2013 model. But there is 13.8 cubic feet behind the third-row seat when all seats are in place, an increase of 3.5 cubic feet over previous models.
The standard engine on the base LE model is a 2.7-liter four-cylinder rated at 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Mated with a six-speed transmission, it delivers so-so mileage figures of 22 miles-per-gallon city, 25 highway.
Optional on the LE and standard on the other three trims (LE Plus, XLE, and Limited) is a 3.5-liter V6 that boosts power to 270 hp and 248 lb.-ft. of torque at a meager cost in fuel consumption. Mileage figures for the V6 are 19/25 for front-wheel drive models, 18/24 with AWD.
Considering the extra kick the V6 delivers — not neck-snapping but easily up to most daily challenges, it’s worth it to go with the bigger engine. The Highlander four-banger starts at $29,215 not including destination and delivery charges. You can get a V6 LE for $1,305 more.
Pricing goes all the way up to $43,590 for the Limited Platinum edition, and there are two Limited hybrid models (not reviewed here) for $47,300 and $49,790.
For more specs and information on the 2014 Toyota Highland, check out the accompanying slide show.