2014 Toyota Highlander AWD XLE
2014 Toyota Highlander AWD XLE Interior. Click image to enlarge

Originally published February 11, 2014

Review and photos by Jeff Wilson

Competition creates better products for consumers.  Okay, so this isn’t a major revelation for anyone with a bit of common sense, but it seems to apply to segments of the auto industry more than almost anywhere else.

Consider the compact and family car segments.  Every year several new or dramatically updated entries are released to the motoring public that seem to leapfrog the previous generation’s style and substance.

Like many of my colleagues, I’m not really a big fan of SUVs and crossovers.  I’d prefer to have a vehicle that doesn’t compromise handling and braking due to excess weight and a taller centre of gravity.  A compact sporty wagon – maybe with all-wheel drive – could suit every one of my small family’s motoring needs.  [Let me guess, a manual transmission is a must, and hey, while you’re at it, let’s make it a diesel…. –Ed.]

Not everyone agrees with me (and in fairness, if you’ve produced a team of children and have large pets, you’d need more space), so mid-size crossover SUVs continue to sell well.  This is where that competition thing comes into play again.

Just last month Autos.ca gathered together seven major competitors in the three-rows-of-seats group of CUVs and discovered just how badly the manufacturers want your money spent on their offering.  The top two choices – the Nissan Pathfinder and Hyundai Santa Fe XL – are new within the past year.  Each of these offers an all-wheel-drive model powered by a V6 (in our comparison we tested the Pathfinder Hybrid, but a V6 is standard equipment, and the better value) and featured up with leather, sunroof, heated seats, navigation and a solid reputation for quality for less than $40,000.

2014 Toyota Highlander AWD XLE2014 Toyota Highlander AWD XLE2014 Toyota Highlander AWD XLE
2014 Toyota Highlander AWD XLE. Click image to enlarge

Here we are only a month later with a new combatant ready to tussle with those excellent family machine choices:  Toyota’s Highlander AWD XLE at a list price of – you guessed it – under $40,000.

The Highlander is propelled by a carryover 3.5L V6 engine (the inline-four is no longer offered, but a hybrid drivetrain, unsurprisingly, will be).  With 270 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque, the Toyota’s engine splits the difference between the Nissan (260/240) and the Hyundai (290/252) and has no trouble motivating the big crossover.

What is new for 2014 is the transmission.  A new electronically controlled six-speed automatic with sequential manual shifting replaces last year’s five-speed and facilitates improvements in fuel efficiency and acceleration for the Highlander.

Although front-wheel-drive Highlanders are also still available, our test vehicle was fitted with Toyota’s Dynamic Torque Control all-wheel-drive system.  This setup continuously monitors driving conditions including speed, throttle angle, steering angle and yaw rate to distribute the necessary torque front to rear.  Favouring a FWD format until slippage is detected, the torque delivery can vary from 100:0 to 50:50, with the driver being able to monitor the distribution via a graphic on the LCD screen between the speedometer and tach.  I found this novelty particularly interesting when I put the Highlander’s AWD system to the ultimate grip test on an extremely icy parking lot.

The Dynamic Torque Control system now also features both a “Snow” mode and “Lock” mode for crawling over particularly unpleasant surfaces.  That said, serious off-roaders probably shouldn’t give up their FJ Cruisers or 4Runners just yet.

Connect with Autos.ca