Maybe the Muppets weren't such a good idea.
Toyota, for those who missed the Super Bowl ad, has enlisted the help of Jim Henson's finest to sell its all-new Highlander SUV.
This would be a hoot except for one awkward fact: This thing holds Muppets a lot better than actual people.
The new Highlander has less head- and legroom in the third row than the previous generation model. In fact, it has less space back there than nearly all of its SUV and crossover rivals. That's disappointing, particularly because the outside of the Highlander is actually about 3 inches longer.
So you may have an easier time fitting Animal, Rowlf and Pepe the King Prawn in the way-back seat than your friends and family.
The rest of the changes to the 2014 Highlander are good ones. Toyota gave it a handsome new body, a more refined cabin and a healthier dose of safety and technology. Engine choices still include a four-cylinder, a V-6 and a hybrid.
The Highlander, starting at $29,215, is among the more popular in the mid-size crossover set. It helped pioneer the segment in 2001. Yet crossovers' popularity has more than doubled in the past decade, and the Highlander's market share has eroded as more competitors joined the fray.
Still, the Highlander has been a steady seller in the face of pressure from other three-row players such as the Hyundai Santa Fe, Mazda CX-9, Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and Chevy Traverse.
Fans of the previous model will notice that the new 2014 version has bolder, more masculine sheet metal than before, a deliberate move. A narrower grille, larger horizontal headlights and sharper shoulders give the Highlander more prominence up front. The rear gets a healthy infusion of edges to go with the added length.
The interior also got an overhaul. For better or worse, the cabin of the $45,170 AWD V-6 Limited we tested was less luxurious than practical. Instead of Lexus-like earth tones and faux wood, it offered storage bins and cubby holes. All the buttons and controls are easy to find and use, but they're presented with less style than in a corresponding Hyundai, Mazda or Nissan.
One neat trick: a small shelf built into the dashboard that runs to the passenger door. It's the perfect spot to store cellphones, house keys or a sewing kit for injured Muppets. Toyota even coated it with a grippy material to prevent objects from sliding around.
Most versions of the Highlander now seat eight people, though optional second-row captain's chairs, like those in our tester, reduce seating to seven. Neither configuration allows enough room for adults in the rear. This won't matter to some buyers, but if you try to cram your mother-in-law back there, you might be repaid with a cold stare.
Otherwise this Toyota's cabin was highlighted by comfortable seats inside a quiet and refined cabin. Its functionality encroaches on minivan territory, an alternative for people too cool to be seen pulling van duty.
The ride is a bit stiffer than before, Toyota's attempt to shed a reputation for soft handling. The automaker takes this quest a little too far by programming the steering with forearm-busting resistance, becoming one of several automakers who think stiff steering somehow makes their vehicle sporty.
As mentioned, a base 2.7-liter, four-cylinder engine is available for those who don't care much about power or who want to pinch pennies. But Toyota says about 85 percent of buyers will opt for the smooth and capable 3.5-liter V-6 we tested. Carried over from the previous generation, this engine is direct-injected and pumps out 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque.
New for 2014 is the six-speed automatic transmission that Toyota bolted into the Highlander. A replacement for the earlier model's five-speed, the new gearbox gives this crossover a nice boost in fuel economy.
The EPA rates the V-6 Highlander with all-wheel drive at 18 mpg in city driving, 24 on the highway. We averaged 16.3 mpg during a week of testing this version in mostly city driving.
The Highlander Hybrid also carries over the same power plant as before, using a pair of electric motors and a V-6 engine for 280 total horsepower and an EPA estimated fuel economy rating of 27 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway.
Standard gear on all Highlanders includes 18-inch alloy wheels, a 6.1-inch touch-screen audio system, eight air bags, Bluetooth connectivity, a backup camera, heated side-view mirrors and middle and rear seats that split 60/40. Front-wheel drive is standard.
Our AWD Limited model had nearly everything Toyota offers, including a rear-seat Blu-ray entertainment system with wireless headphones, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, perforated leather seats that were heated and cooled up front, an 8-inch navigation and infotainment screen, parking sensors and a JBL audio system.
For loyal Highlander fans and those new to the segment, the 2014 model will push all the right buttons. With the exception of the third row of seats, the new version takes the highlights of the previous model and makes them better. But others in the class, especially the Hyundai Santa Fe and Mazda CX-9, have even fewer flaws than this Toyota, so cross-shop accordingly.
And if you do go home in the Toyota, check the trunk for Muppets first.
2014 TOYOTA HIGHLANDER V-6:
–Los Angeles Times take: Better but needs to be bigger inside
–Highs: Sharp styling, improved efficiency, crisper handling
–Lows: Third row of seats short on room, interior a little sparse compared with peers
–Vehicle type: 4-door mid-size crossover SUV
–Powertrain: 3.5-liter, direct-injected V-6 engine, full-time all-wheel drive
–Transmission: six-speed automatic
–Torque: 248 pound-feet
–EPA fuel economy rating: 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway
–Base price, excluding destination charge: $29,215
–Price as tested: $45,170
(David Undercoffler: email@example.com)
(c)2014 Los Angeles Times
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