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The 2014 Toyota Highlander offers three different powertrains, including a hybrid option.

The Highlander doesn’t get the kind of attention lavished on the Toyota Prius or the Camry, which continues to anchor the Japanese automaker’s line-up as the best-selling passenger cars in the U.S.

However, the Toyota Highlander represents one of the Japanese giant’s more successful forays into the truck side of the business where, despite the enormous popularity of its brand, it has encountered some disappointments over the years, notably with the tepid response to the Tundra, its full size pickup truck.

The Highlander came into the U.S. market in 2001 as Toyota was accelerating its ambitious plans to overtake General Motors as the world’s largest automaker.  It was Toyota’s entry into the fast growing-midsized utility markets and was one of the first SUVs constructed around a unibody, rather than truck-like body-on-frame, platform.  And it caught on, in part, because of the company’s reputation for building durable and reliable vehicles.

All 2014 Toyota Highlanders will come in 3-row configuration but captains chairs are an upgrade.

The mid-sized utility segment remains a healthy piece of the market, accounting for some 10% of total sales and the list of Toyota’s key competitors includes some formidable vehicles, including the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder and Chevrolet Traverse.

The third-generation Highlander is now rolling off a Toyota assembly line in Princeton, Indiana and the 2014 comes with some significant changes including an all new exterior design that is several steps removed from the boxy look of its of previous models. The sleek new exterior styling is set off by the use of LED lighting in the front and rear and a new front grille, which unfortunately doesn’t match the strength of the overall design.

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The changes to the exterior give the 2014 Highlander a more contemporary silhouette that will please a lot of Toyota’s traditional customers – and possibly appeal to those who didn’t like the relatively stodgy looks of the old model.

The interior of the Highlander also has been completely redone. For starters, the appearance and the feel have moved upscale with more soft touch material on the inside of the doors, around the center console and across the dashboard.  The headliner also has been upgraded with new material with more texture that helps enhance the overall ambience.

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Three rows of seats are standard on all grades for 2014 and second-row “captain’s chairs” are available on higher grades.

Toyota’s designers also have made good use of interior storage space. The bin in the center console is about as large as those found in a pickup truck and the instrument panel includes a small storage space that can be used for phones or even, heaven forbid, a map or guidebook.

Toyota made some significant upgrades to the 2014 Highlander's interior.

However, the Highlander also comes equipped with a new LCD driver screen that provides useful information about the vehicle, while the center console is the home for Toyota’s Entune Audio system, featuring a 6.1-inch touch screen, Bluetooth® phone and music streaming as well as an integrated backup camera and an optional navigation system.

There is also a technology package that includes lane departure warning, a pre-collision warning system as well as Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and automatic high beam headlights.

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The cabin is quiet thanks to a heavy dose of sound deadening material and the new double-wishbone rear suspension system has given the Highlander’s driving dynamics, a more stable, sedan like character that makes the vehicle more comfortable while traveling over long distances. It’s also helped create more room for passengers and cargo by eliminating the big shock towers. The electric power steering also offers some much-desired back and four-wheel-disc brakes are standard.

The reality was that while it might have been based on a car-like platform, the old version of the Highlander was more than a bit ponderous, especially when maneuvering down winding roads, and not especially inspiring on highways.  While the new version isn’t a benchmark for handling it’s nonetheless a lot more pleasant to drive, with more predictable steering and a more stable road feel.

The new 2014 Toyot Highlander delivers a more comfortable, more well-planted ride.

Toyota is offering three different powertrains on the 2014 Highlander, including a hybrid system that is quite transparent – with little of the annoying rubber banding found with some other gas-electric drivetrains. But the big selling point is likely to be combined 28 miles per gallon rating from the EPA, making it one of the most efficient vehicles in the segment.

But Toyota expects about 80% of all Highlanders to leave dealerships equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6 with Variable Valve Timing. The six generates 270-horsepower and 248 lb-feet of torque.  Performance is aided by a new six-speed transmission – again, a big improvement but not a benchmark in an industry quickly moving to 7-, 8-. 9- and even 10-speed automatics.

Fuel efficiency with the V-6 is rated at 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway/21 mpg combined on FWD models and 18/24/20 for AWD, which is standard on the XLE and Limited grades.

A 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine with 185 horsepower is also available on which the EPA fuel efficiency is rated at 20 mpg in the city, 25 mpg on the highway, and 22 mpg combined.

Prices for the Highlander start at $29,215 a destination charge of $860 for the LE grade standard with 18-inch alloy wheels, seats for eight as well as split fold-flat seats, heated side mirrors along with power and USB ports. The Limited with all the new tech gear as well as heated seats and 19-inch alloy wheels comes in at $49,750, an $860 destination.

Toyota counts on its large base of loyal customers who swear by the company’s record for quality, reliability and durability even when offered competitive vehicles that might be more stylish, well-equipped or more affordable. The 2014 Highlander suggests Toyota knows it can’t rest on its laurels to hold customers forever without starting to catch up to improvements being offered by those competitors, however.  The 2014 Toyota Highlander is not the segment benchmark but it’s in the hunt and for most loyal buyers that will be enough to keep them coming back.

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