There are seven levels of amplification for the Driver Easy Speak feature, which can be selected via the touchscreen. As I stated earlier, the system is activated or deactivated via touchscreen buttons on the home screen and in the app screen. I also noticed that the system slightly lowers the volume of the current audio source when it notices that the driver is speaking.
I had my reservations about this feature on my first ride in a preproduction version of the new Highlander, but after a week with the system in the real world (and a few trips shuttling around several chatty 30-somethings), I'm satisfied with how transparent Driver Easy Speak is when you're not using it and with how easy it was to make myself heard throughout the cabin without having to turn my head to shout to the third row.
This feature works well with the convex "mommy mirror" that drops down from the sunglasses holder to help busy parents to keep their eyes on the road when dealing with a carload of kids.
Like the gasoline-powered variant, this Highlander Hybrid model is available with a full array of driver-aid technologies, which amount to lots of warning tech but few intervention systems. At this trim level, most of of that tech is bundled up nicely in a Platinum Package.
We have, for example, active high-beams that automatically dims the bright lights when a camera detects the lights of another vehicle ahead to prevent dazzling other drivers. The same camera array is used to detect the lane markers and power the lane-departure warning system that alerts the driver when the vehicle drifts out of its lane without a turn signal at speeds above 35 mph.
Sonar sensors on the rear bumper power the blind-spot-monitoring system that illuminates an LED in the side mirrors when a vehicle is detected in the Highlander's blind spots. These sensors do double duty as proximity sensors when reversing or parking the SUV, working in tandem with the standard rear-view camera system.
There's also a forward-collision warning system and an adaptive cruise-control system, both of which are powered by a forward-facing radar sensor hidden beneath the large "T" logo on the Highlander's grille. Toyota's adaptive cruise system isn't full-range -- many of the more modern setups that we've tested will bring the vehicle to a full stop and even crawl at low speeds. In this case, if the speed of thecar ahead drops below about 25 mph, the cruise control will disable itself.
Cabin comfort, Toyota touches
I was able to test a Highlander model that was equipped with an optional Panoramic moonroof with a motorized shade that slid back to reveal a mostly glass roof. Skip this option and you could choose to instead equip a ceiling-mounted rear seat DVD entertainment system. In a world where kids would rather carry their own tablets or portable game consoles, the moonroof is probably the better investment.
The Highlander isn't what I'd call "luxurious," but it is a remarkably quiet car; partially because the cabin is so well insulated and partially because this Hybrid model encourages quiet, electrically assisted driving.
As a result, the optional JBL GreenEdge audio system doesn't have to work very hard to sound good. I was pleased with the staging and stereo channel separation that I was able to hear over the course of a few test tracks. Voices, strong midranges, and delicate highs are what this 10-speaker system does best. Heavy and clean bass reproduction isn't its strong point -- in fact, we noticed a bit of door-panel rattle in our two previous tests of the gasoline Highlander -- but the Hybrid's quiet cabin allows you to listen comfortably at lower volumes, below the threshold of bass distortion.
The Highlander's cabin seems mostly well sorted out, with neat features to be discovered here and there. One of my favorites was a mobile phone shelf located below the infotainment system where the driver or passenger can stow their cellphones without occupying a cupholder. This shelf featured a small cable management pass-through that allowed a USB or charging cable to be passed through to the 12-volt power outlet below and keeping users from having to deal with cords being draped across the center console.
Speaking of the center console, opening the armrest's sliding covers reveals a storage cavity large enough to fit a small laptop or a few tablets, which is great for hiding away valuables when parked.
Additionally, I liked the Highlander's power lift gate, which featured a separate openable rear glass window hatch. Most users will probably use this small liftable window only a few times, but it's nice to know that it's there.
Though the gasoline variants of the 2014 Toyota Highlander are available in a variety of trim levels, starting as low as $29,215 for the LE four-cylinder FWD, the Highlander Hybrid starts at $47,300. As the top-tier model, the Hybrid comes pretty close to fully loaded with premium audio, Entune connected tech, and the upgraded leather interior trim.
Our fully-loaded Hybrid Limited with Platinum Package rolls out at a range-topping MSRP of $49,790. For the money, the Platinum Package adds the aforementioned driver-aid tech, the automatic high-beam headlamps, the panoramic moonroof, and heating to the steering wheel and second-row captain's chairs.
|Model||2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid|
|Powertrain||3.5L V-6, Hybrid Synergy Drive, eCVT, AWD-i|
|EPA fuel economy||27 city, 28 highway, 28 combined mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||28.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard with Entune/Bing destination search|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth audio streaming, USB, 3.5mm analog auxiliary input, Entune apps, CD, HD Radio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||JBL Green Edge premium audio|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear camera and proximity sensors, lane-keeping alert, automatic high-beam headlamps|
|Price as tested||$50,875|