A big thank you to Toyota New Zealand for inviting us to have a first look at the new 2014 Highlander. Here I am, barely awake, adjusting to a hot muggy Auckland morning and there sat six sleek brand new gen 3 Highlanders- lined up and just asking to be driven!
What hit me first was the wider stance, sharper and more aggressive expression accompanied with hard, direct edges flowing from the nose back. The previous gen2 Highlander was more subtle, under designed in ways and softer all round. Toyota have really tried to raise their game in the styling department, creating edges and angles to compete with the likes of what’s coming out of Europe. But also bringing in some cues of the American kind, like the squared wheel arches and use of bold shapes.
The plan was to get a feel for the vehicle. To allow us have a decent amount of drive time, we journeyed out to Toyota’s meeting point at Castaways, west from Auckland City. Taking it through the city streets and out onto the motorway, the true difference from the previous generation model started to become noticeable. The reduction in weight coupled with the added power allowed decent acceleration and it had a healthy amount of pull. Running a 3.5L V6 that generated 201Kw and 337Nm torque, towing a boat or the caravan shouldn’t be any trouble. Especially with Toyotas dynamic torque controls, you save petrol in 2WD. But when the ECU detects rough terrain it kicks the smart 4WD into gear.
Toyota’s Chief Engineer Kenji Gondo claims that this new Highlander is “beyond hero”. Meaning it will be the best at everything and go beyond what a standard family SUV offers. On the inside is where the biggest difference can be seen. No longer are there uncomfortably shaped dials and knobs, surrounded by confused trims and material combinations. Now a clean air of almost luxury can be felt, stitched leather and soft touch plastic is complimented with ambient under lighting. I say almost because there were some areas where the touch of luxury was over looked, such as plastic edges exposed and loose fitting panels. In the end it is still is an entry level SUV; not quite a Lexus, but it is definitly on the right track. The storage spaces within the driver and passengers direct reach is abundant. The arm rest console is massive, putting it lightly, potentially holding up to 25L of stuff. The flowing “shelf” along the front dash is open and well placed, great for phones and other random junk that needs quick access. One thing that really stuck with me was the ride comfort. The seats were incredibly comfortable and far more pleasant to drive in than the considerably more expensive Land Cruiser Prado. Combined with the macPherson struts and double wish-bone suspension out back, road handling was consistent and relaxing.
The day spent driving and talking with Toyota gave great insight into what their hopes and goals were with the new Highlander. The brief taste of being behind the wheel has left me wanting to take it out again, maybe on more testing conditions, in the rain and most crucially along gravel back roads to really get a feel for the AWD systems.