MONTECITO, Calif. -- Spinning off the Pacific Coast Highway near Santa Barbara, Hot Springs Road meanders into the ritzy seaside enclave of Montecito, where the hedge-shrouded estates of media stars and uber-rich business moguls appraise at $20 million and more.
So we're driving up Hot Springs Road past the mega-bucks Montecito mansions in a luxurious new Highlander, Toyota’s mid-size crossover utility vehicle which looks elegant and expensive and produces the silky-smooth ride quality of a millionaire's cushy limousine.
The new rendition of Highlander, while providing a luxury-lined passenger compartment with seats for seven or eight riders plus a rear bay for cargo and rails on the roof for additional gear, also behaves like a curve-craving sporty sedan and -- with optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction -- a trail-trekking SUV.
The revamped Highlander of 2014 measures longer, wider and lower than predecessor versions. It wears a new chiseled exterior shell and gains more cabin refinements for comfort and convenience. Toyota constructs the 2014 Highlander CUV in three grades -- entry-level LE, mid-level XLE and fully-loaded Limited -- with choices for front-wheel-drive (FWD) or AWD traction.
Highlander's structure is a unitized framework derived from a sedan oriented with FWD format, plus car-like mechanical components. With a long wheelbase and squatty stance, the design sets up a people-friendly interior environment that's as easy to enter as a passenger car, meaning you don't have to hike yourself aboard as with taller SUV wagons.
A spacious cabin carries four doors for passengers and flexible seating on three rows plus cargo space in a back bay with liftgate added.
Highlander's cabin contains luxurious appointments which position the vehicle closer to the realm of Lexus, Toyota's elite upscale line.
And Toyota reaches deep into its bag of NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) tricks to insulate and isolate the Highlander's passenger compartment from external discord and mechanical chatter. It's incredibly quiet inside -- a serene and rattle-free environment.
Highlander brings choices for powertrains -- a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine designed to deliver good fuel economy scores or a 3.5-liter V6 that romps.
Highlander LE base grade totes the aluminum-block 2.7-liter 4-cylinder plant which employs dual camshafts with dual VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence) to optimize cam timing and maximize power production. It links to an electronically controlled 6-speed automatic and makes 185 hp at 5800 rpm plus 184 lb-ft of torque at 4200 rpm.
Toyota's aluminum 3.5-liter V6 engine becomes the power upgrade for all other Highlander trims. It zips with 270 hp at 6200 rpm and the torque pushing to 248 lb-ft at 4700 rpm.
For optional AWD traction, Toyota's electronically controlled system switches continuously and automatically between FWD and AWD for sure-footed traction. It can distribute the engine torque equally 50/50 between the front and rear wheels for slow-go momentum in dicey situations, as well as apply extra electronic help from the standard dynamic torque control (DTC), hill-start assist control (HAC) or downhill assist control (DAC) devices.
Highlander's 3-row passenger compartment stocks two front bucket seats with console, a second-row fold-flat 3-person bench split 60/40 (or two individual folding seats) and third-row fold-into-floor bench split 50/50.
Stock equipment on Highlander LE base grade and LE V6 includes 18-inch split 5-spoke alloy wheels with 245/60R18 tires, a remote keyless entry device, front and rear air conditioning, power buttons to motivate the windows and door locks and exterior mirrors, Optitron gauges and a 3.5-inch information display, tilting/telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, front-row floor console and overhead console with maplights, cloth fabric seat upholstery, front-row and middle-row reading lamps, eight cupholders and four bottle holders, three 12-volt power outlets, four cargo bay tie-down hooks, cargo bay lights, Bluetooth connectivity, a 6-speaker Entune audio kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA/USB and a 6.1-inch touch-screen display plus integrated backup camera.
Deluxe Highlander Limited offers the optional Driver Technology Package, Platinum Package and rear-seat BlueRay DVD entertainment kit.
MSRP points for the 2014 Highlander extend from $29,215 (LE 2.7 I4 FWD) to $43,590 (Limited Platinum 3.5 V6 AWD).