While there are many delights in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the potholes, broken pavement and launching ramps known as "frost heaves" are not among them. But the reworked 2014 Toyota Highlander offers succor, deflecting impacts and protecting its occupants from the North Country's rough-rider roads.
The Highlander was introduced as a 2001 model, with a second generation introduced for 2008. The third generation arrives as ever more buyers abandon truck-based body-on-frame SUVs in favor of car-based models like the Highlander.
The primary competitors include the Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe and Mazda CX-9.
The Highlander is available as a gasoline-engine model in four trim levels, and a gas-electric hybrid. Prices start at $30,075, including a mandatory $860 delivery charge, for the base LE with front-wheel drive and a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 185 horsepower. It comes with a six-speed automatic, replacing the previous five-speed. But there's plenty of standard equipment, including a fold-down third-row seat and a backup camera.
A 3.5-liter V-6 engine is also available, making 270 horsepower. The least-expensive V-6 version is an LE with front-wheel drive priced at $31,380. If you want all-wheel drive, the price goes up to $32,840.
The fanciest Highlander is the Limited, at $41,960, which includes the V-6 and all-wheel drive. Hybrids start at $48,160, including all-wheel drive and most of the features of the Limited.
The model I tested was an all-wheel-drive XLE, an upper trim level. The $38,703 sticker price included $343 for floor and cargo mats, a cargo net and "a rear bumper appliqué."
The exterior gets a new look that Toyota says is more aggressive, although that's only in comparison with the previous Highlander's meek, do-I-dare-to-eat-a-peach visual standard. More aggressive or not, the vehicle looks handsome and modern.
The overall length has increased 2.7 inches, to 191.1 inches, though the 109.8-inch wheelbase is unchanged. The mechanical underpinnings, carried over from the last generation, are shared with such vehicles as the Camry sedan, Sienna minivan and Venza wagon.
Toyota said one of its goals was that the new Highlander be "perceived as upscale, sophisticated and luxurious." In my view, the interior is a visual match for anything in its class. The basic controls are easy to use, and daily, down-to-earth needs have not been ignored. There's a huge bin between the front seats, the cup holders will handle anything from a small cup to a 1-liter Nalgene bottle and a clever padded tray that runs most of the width of the dash, giving both the driver and passenger easy-to-reach storage.
The front seats are wide and clearly aimed at accommodating broad anatomical variances. The legroom for the first two rows is virtually unchanged, which is not a bad thing. There's plenty of room for two 6-foot passengers in the second row, but the third row is useful only for small children, particularly since legroom back there has been reduced by 2.2 inches.
Sitting in the way-back puts the tykes physically out of the driver's reach. However, a feature called Driver Easy Speak, standard on the XLE and Limited, lets the driver use the hands-free microphone typically used for the telephone to broadcast Parental Voice of Doom commands to the third row.
Toyota describes the Highlander as carrying as many as eight, but that assumes a shared sense of sacrifice and determination not always attained by families. In the television commercials, at least, the Highlander seems capable of transporting a large party of singing Muppets with minimal bloodshed.
With the third row in use, the cargo capacity is rated at 13.8 cubic feet, up from 10.3 cubic feet in the previous model. With the third row folded down, there's 42 cubic feet of space, about the same as last year. The Highlander is also unusual in providing a flip-up rear window on the tailgate for quickly depositing or retrieving gear or groceries.
Toyota says it has increased the amount of soundproofing in the floor as well as between the engine and cabin. Indeed, the Highlander is quiet, with little wind or road noise. That fits with the vehicle's mandate: to provide tranquil, comfortable family transportation.
Rough surfaces are handled well, with an effective blunting of the sharpest impacts. But in its search for comfort, Toyota has largely given up on controlling the vehicle's upward body motions on an undulating surface. The result is an oops-a-daisy bounciness that is first hilarious in its excess but quickly becomes tiresome.
The steering is light and communicates little about the road or what the front wheels are doing. But some relationships work reasonably well with one party being distant and numb, and that includes the Highlander.
It takes a while to appreciate this subtlety, however. At first the Highlander seems soft and sloppy, a feeling reinforced by that sometimes extravagantly bouncy ride.
But if you drive a little more and push the vehicle a little into the turns, you discover that the Highlander can be moved along somewhat quickly, particularly on a smooth surface. Adjectives like "sporty" or "fun" do not apply, however: The Highlander is not one of those vehicles that asks passengers to suffer jolts and bumps so the driver can play Le Mans. But the Toyota does offer a kind of reluctant obedience that many parents can only dream of getting from their high-maintenance subunits.
One disappointment is that the body doesn't seem particularly solid, tending to quiver on large impacts. Another is that the brake pedal is too soft, lacking a firm, reassuring, I'm-here-for-you feeling.
The V-6, like the four-cylinder, is carried over from last year. But despite being a hand-me-down, it is quiet, and with a smartly programmed six-speed automatic transmission, it is a fair match for the vehicle's unloaded weight of 4,464 pounds.
The V-6 is rated at 18 mpg in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway, which is competitive in the segment.
The most frugal Highlander, a front-drive four-cylinder, is rated 20/25 mpg, barely better than the 19/26 rating for the front-drive V-6.
For muddy roads or snow, the Highlander has eight inches of ground clearance, the same as before. In normal driving, the all-wheel-drive system basically works in front-drive mode until you accelerate or the front wheels lose their grip. Then more power is shifted to the rear.
I did not drive the Highlander Hybrid, but the math doesn't work well for anyone trying to save money on fuel by opting for electric-assisted technology. The hybrid is rated at 27 miles per gallon in town and 28 mpg on the highway, with a combined federal rating of 28 miles per gallon. Assuming one drives 15,000 miles a year with 55 percent of those miles in the city and fuel costs of $3.68 a gallon, the Hybrid saves about $800 a year on fuel. But since it costs $6,200 more than the similarly equipped Limited, you'd have to drive it almost eight years to break even.
The Highlander is highly rated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The organization, which is financed by the insurance industry, has given the 2014 model its highest rating, Top Safety Pick+, after a challenging series of crash tests.