Midsize crossovers  like the Toyota Highlander 2013 tend to play a thankless role in the life of today’s modern family.

That’s really too bad. With the ability to hold several hyperactive kids and tons of cargo while keeping everyone safe and comfortable in all kinds of climate conditions day in and day out, they’re true heroes in the lives of hundreds of thousands of families across the country. Yet their car-apathetic owners often immediately forget about them as soon as their work is done. And nearly all midsize crossovers are thoroughly ignored by enthusiasts whose eyes begin to glaze over at first mention of the phrase “third row.”

Toyota is looking to soften the blow somewhat by giving its midsize crossover, the Highlander, a big redesign for the 2014 model year. With a bold new look, updated suspension and a refreshed interior focused on comfort and convenience, Toyota aims to make the Highlander sportier to drive and more striking in appearance, because, as the marketing team explains, “families are going places and they want to get there in style.”

It’s sleeker, more modern and certainly more athletic. But even so, the Highlander still looks a lot like other vehicles in this segment. Put it next to a ford explorer or Nissan Pathfinder (two other recently redone crossovers), and the similarities in stance, pillar design and roofline are obvious. A lot of this has to do with safety, aerodynamics and cabin packaging, of course, but the reality is that the Highlander doesn’t stand out quite as much Toyota might want it to.

As before, the standard Highlander comes with two different engine options. This time out, the 2.7-liter four-cylinder produces 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, while Toyota’s workhorse 3.5L V6 makes 270 hp and 248 lb-ft. The V6 is a smooth operator, but for an all-new vehicle, the Highlander is not particularly powerful by class standards. Both engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, along with the buyer’s choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. How many wheels you want driven will affect the Highlander’s fuel economy, with the V6/FWD model at an EPA-estimated 19 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway, the V6 AWD at 18 mpg city and 24 highway, and the four-cylinder/FWD model 20 mpg city and 25 mpg highway.

As is Toyota’s way, there’s also a gas-electric model. The Highlander Hybrid pairs the same-size V6 running on the Atkinson cycle with a high-torque electric drive motor-generator, affording additional power and fuel efficiency over the standard Highlander. The drivetrain, which includes an electronic continuously variable transmission, has impressive numbers: 280 hp and 27 miles per gallon city and 28 mpg highway. Those fuel economy figures are actually the same as the previous generation Highlander Hybrid, even though the vehicle has increased in weight by about 100 pounds.

None of these drivetrains are particularly thrilling, but they certainly get the job done.

I probably don’t need to tell you that none of these drivetrains are particularly thrilling, but they certainly get the job done. Most Highlander buyers will opt for the V6, says Toyota, and that’s the right move. This is a big, heavy vehicle (the V6 AWD can weigh up 4,508 lbs) and that extra power is an asset when it comes to climbing hills and merging onto freeways, even though selecting it means sacrificing some fuel economy.

I didn’t have any complaints about the Highlander’s handling, which is surprisingly good for a larger crossover. The steering feel is sportier than that of the previous generation and body roll has been minimized, attributes that allowed me to feel quite confident on the snaking roads that run along the cliffs near Big Sur. Any vehicle that allows the driver to take those hundred-foot-high turns at speed without breaking into a cold sweat is good in my book.


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All models feature a new in-meter-cluster Multi-Information Display. Toyota’s Entune infotainment system is also standard on all trims, but has more functionality on higher models trims. It’s a good system, all in all. I experienced minimal lag when navigating between menus and the graphics are much better than those on many other systems. On higher trim levels, Entune can come with XM satellite and HD radio, an app suite for programs like Yelp!, a premium JBL audio system and navigation.

My favorite new feature on the Highlander is Driver Easy Speak.

My favorite new feature on the Highlander is Driver Easy Speak. When it’s engaged, the driver’s voice is projected through the speakers, allowing him or her to scream at the kids all the way in the back when they start putting food in each other’s hair. It saves strain on one’s vocal cords and really gets the message across to the little ones, especially if the vehicle is equipped with the optional JBL speakers.

Even on the higher grades, the Highlander has a couple of components that have no business being in a new model in 2013. The first of these is the plastic seat-heater adjuster knob, which looks and behaves like the volume control on an old Sony Walkman. The second is a digital clock that appears to have been taken from a cheap microwave. These two parts can be found in numerous Toyota models – including those in its luxury arm. It’d be easy to assume that Toyota prepaid and found themselves with a warehouse full of these cheesy clocks, but the truth is that they are bizarrely prized for their ease-of-use.

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