Toyota Highlander ready for all challenges

Kermit the Frog and Terry Crews on the set of Toyota's all-new 2014 Highlander commercial aired during the Super Bowl on February 2, 2014. (Patrick Wymore/Toyota/MCT)

(MCT) -- Long ago, on the Little League field, came that age-old claim: "My daddy's bigger than your daddy."

Today, the astute little buggers may say, "My daddy's SUV carries more kids and baseball equipment than your daddy's SUV."

Well, maybe they won't. But Toyota this year can certainly accept that challenge with its refreshed, roomier 2014 Highlander that now can accommodate eight people - providing several of them fit into those Little League uniforms.

And there's more room behind the seats for the equipment bags. (When I managed a Little League team, my Italian auto mechanic - no kidding - once asked me if I had a body in that big, lumpy pea-green equipment bag. Good one, Phil. Only from an old-timer New York Italian.)

It's no surprise Toyota, competing chiefly with the eight-passenger Honda Pilot, expanded space for people, cargo and other good stuff in the new Highlander. It did an admirable job with the new cabin, including some tech goodies, too.

There's even a new feature called Driver Easy Speak, which features a one-way microphone so Dad/Coach can bark some post-game commentary to the kids in the third row: "Eye on the ball!

Highlander has upped the ante inside, starting with sharp perforated leather trim - on the first and second row - that features contrast stitching on most models. Silver, chrome and wood-grain accents make for an upscale look. So does the available ambient lighting around the front dash and doors.

Seats are comfortable and offer good support, and the rear seats are easy to accommodate the gang since the second row now has a one-step sliding seat function on both sides. The third row is nearly 4 inches wider to add comfort for three passengers back there.

And with eight cupholders and 4 water-bottle holders, the Highlander will leave no one on the team thirsty.

Rear-cargo space behind the third row is 34 percent bigger this year, so there's lots of space for equipment, golf clubs or groceries.

For you cold-clime types: heated seats up front and in the second-row captain's chairs, plus a heated steering wheel. As a Floridian, all this talk makes me want to turn down the A/C.

One of the most talked-about highlights inside, of all things, is a unique recessed shelf that runs along the bottom of the entire dash - a great place for cellphones, snacks, sunglasses.

Kids can take their minds off the game with the rear entertainment system. Up front, a 6.1-inch touch screen is standard; an 8-incher with available apps and smartphone integration is optional.

Outside, Highlander underwent some evolution in looks, with wraparound headlights and a wider grille. Fenders are more deeply chiseled. A broader rear window enhances visibility.

Highlander keeps the same power choices, starting with a 2.7-liter 4-banger that puts out 187 horses. Better to move up to the 3.5-liter V-6, which makes 270 hp. The V-6 gets nearly the same mileage as the 4, with an EPA-estimated 19 mph city, 25 highway.

Despite keeping with the 6-speed automatic, the Highlander gets down the road well enough. It is not as powerful or quick as some competitors, but it's adequate. I did not feel it was underpowered even in passing situations.

Also available is a hybrid that offers pretty good power: a 3.5-liter V-6 combined with a trio of electric motors. Together they produce 280 horses. Not bad, you say? I did not drive it but I've read that the extra weight makes it feel sluggish. And, amazingly, the mpg doesn't seem that much better at 27 city, 28 highway.

On the road, Highlander is respectably comfortable and stable, helped by improved suspension - spring rates and shocks have been better tuned. Cornering is OK, too.

This is a front-wheel-drive crossover, but an all-wheel-drive system is available and will transfer torque from front to rear if sensors detect any wheel slippage.

Another safety feature, one that is standard this year: rear-view camera with rear cross-traffic warning. Other high-tech safety features include parking sensors, lane-departure alert, blind-spot warning and pre-collision warning systems.

The base LE comes well equipped with 18-inch wheels and 6.1-inch touch screen for Bluetooth, phone and music streaming. Step up to the LE Plus and get fog lights, power rear liftgate, 8-way power seats with lumbar adjustment.

The XLE adds push-button start, leather seats, roof rails, moonroof, second-row sunshades, and 8-inch touch screen with navigation.

Go for it all, to the Limited, and get 19-inch wheels, perforated leather seats with memory settings, and standard high-tech safety goodies.

The rear-entertainment system is optional for the Limited and Hybrid. So, after that 17-2 shellacking the boys just took, you might need to slip in that "Baseball the Ripken Way" instructional video.

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2014 TOYOTA HIGHLANDER:

-Base price: $29,215

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