Toyota Highlander speaks softly, carries big stick

At the first press conference of the two-day media preview of the 2013 New York auto show, Toyota cautiously lead off with a base hit.

The reveal of the 2014 Highlander crossover comes at a fortuitous moment in what Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager of Toyota Motor Sales, labelled a “product renaissance”. That rebirth comprises the freshening or introduction of seven models in the lineup of the world’s largest automaker.

The Highlander was last revised nearly six years ago, subsequent to a revision of the Camry sedan, with which the crossover shares a platform. It plays a significant role in Toyota’s lineup, competing against the likes of car-based crossover vehicles like the Honda Pilot and the new Nissan Pathfinder.

The new model scales up the exterior cues introduced on the remade-for-2013 RAV4, and its interior breaks little ground to those familiar with the cabin of the outgoing model. It also carries forward Toyota’s extensive, acronym-centric roster of safety features relating to braking, traction and stability.

Scant data was released on the show floor about the third-generation Highlander’s powertrain, but the new model will retain the current vehicle’s 2.7-litre four-cylinder engine and optional 3.5-litre V-6, with power being routed to the drive wheels through a standard six-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive will be standard across the board, and all-wheel drive available with the larger engine choice.

In New York, where Highlander Hybrid taxis roam the streets among battle-weary Ford Crown Victorias, also came the announcement that a gasoline-electric hybrid model will, not surprisingly, fill out the Highlander range. (But given Nissan secured an exclusive contract to provide its NV van to New York taxi drivers beginning late this year, don't expect the Highlander Hybrid to join the medallioned ranks.) Preliminary specifications note that the 2014 Highlander Hybrid will make use of a 3.5-litre V6 driving the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission, abetted by a high-torque electric motor driving the rear wheels. Output and fuel consumption figures are forthcoming, but it’s safe to expect the new model will at least match the outgoing Highlander Hybrid’s 28mpg city/28mpg highway.

Built exclusively at Toyota’s factory in Indiana, the Highlander is expected to reach showrooms in early 2014, with pricing to be confirmed closer to its sale date. Though the Highlander’s presence in New York may have seemed pro forma, Toyota has a well-documented history of transforming would-be base hits into inside-the-park home runs.