By Arv Voss, Motor Matters

The all-new 2014 Toyota Highlander is vastly improved, especially in the looks department. It benefits from a sleeker, yet bolder styling, along with enhanced interior appointments. Basically, everything about the new Highlander is improved from comfort to performance to efficiency.

The Highlander midsize SUV enters its third generation with a new grade strategy with four well-equipped trim levels: LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited. The LE is front-wheel-drive only, while all other grades offer both FWD and AWD.

The 2014 Highlander features a 3.5-liter V-6 engine and new six-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission that offers selectable manual sequential shifting. Along with a V-6, the LE is also available in a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine. The Limited grade also offers a hybrid powertrain.

The 2.7-liter engine is a 16-valve four-cylinder with dual VVT-I that makes 185 horsepower along with 184 lb.-ft. of torque. The 3.5-liter V-6 delivers 270 horsepower and 248 lb.-ft. of torque. Towing capacity is 1,500 to 5,000 pounds, depending on the model.

The Highlander has grown in length by approximately 3 inches while the width has increased one-half inch. The hood merges with a redesigned grille, wraparound headlamps, plus deeply chiseled and pronounced fenders to deliver a more athletic appearance.

The rear finishes with a newly designed height-adjustable liftgate with an available one-touch power open/close and driver selectable memory height settings. An integrated rear roof spoiler lip hints at performance. Acoustic-type glass is utilized for the windshield, helping to reduce noise entering the cabin. Even the panoramic moonroof design works to help reduce wind noise, even when open.

The 2014 Highlander benefits from a more premium interior design with advanced technological features. It has increased spaciousness for up to eight people and premium materials provide an upscale ambience, with most models featuring standard contrast seat stitching.

A new roll-top center console is a comfortable armrest and when fully opened is large enough to hold a large handbag. Highlander models feature a newly designed LCD in-meter-cluster Multi-Information Display available in 3.5-inch black and white or 4.2-inch color display.

I drove the Highlander LE, with some brief seat time in the V-6 Limited AWD. The starting price for the LE is $29,215.

This new-generation Highlander handles spirited driving maneuvers with aplomb. Okay, it's no sports car, but it's stable on the road, handles with an agile, on-center steering feel, and it delivers a most comfortable ride quality.

In terms of its performance capability, the 2.7-liter four-banger is surprisingly responsive without excessive noise. With a full complement of eight occupants, on a steep uphill grade, the 3.5-liter V-6 is obviously the better choice.

It is truly accommodating for the entire family. Rear seat entertainment is available to keep kids and grandkids busy during travel, and an in-dash shelf with a pass-through to USB and 12V plug-ins allows for easy cable management. Second- and third-row air vents are provided with available three-zone climate control. Limited models come with heated and ventilated front seats, with an available heated steering wheel and heated second row seats. A panoramic moonroof is also available.

The 2014 Highlander comes with a backup camera and Toyota's Entune audio system. Limited models offer advanced safety technologies such as Blind Spot Monitoring with Cross Traffic Alert, Rear Parking Assist Sonar, and an available Driver Technology Package.

SPECIFICATIONS

2014 TOYOTA HIGHLANDER LE

VEHICLE TYPE_________________ 8-passenger midsize FWD SUV

BASE PRICE___________________ $29,215 (as tested: $30,075)

MOTOR TYPE___________________16-valve 4-cylinder w/EFI

DISPLACEMENT_________________ 2.7-liter

HORSEPOWER (net)_____________ 185 at 5800 rpm

TORQUE (lb.-ft.)_________________ 184 at 4200 rpm

TRANSMISSION_________________ 6-speed automatic

OVERALL LENGTH_______________ 191.1 in.

TURNING CIRCLE (curb-to-curb)___38.7 ft.

CURB WEIGHT__________________ 4,131 lbs.

FUEL CAPACITY________________ 19.2 gal.

EPA MILEAGE RATING___________ 20 mpg city, 25 mpg highway