by: TOYOTA MOTOR SALES, USA< INC. - The totally redesigned 2014 Toyota Highlander builds on its earlier strengths.The totally redesigned 2014 Toyota Highlander shows how far crossover sport utility vehicles have come in the past decade. With three rows of seats, it can carry as many people as the largest of the earlier truck-based SUVs. But with car-like unibody construction, it rides smoothly over even the roughest roads and get reasonable fuel economy. It can also tow up to 3,500 pounds when properly equipped.

And our top-of-the-line XLE all-wheel-drive test version came with a rear-seat Blue Ray DVD entertainment system that includes headphones. Despite all that, it was priced below $41,000, not counting additional dealer markups.

Truly the best of all worlds for large, active families.

Not that the Highlander has the market to itself. Almost all manufacturers are offering three-row crossover SUVs these days. Most, like the Highlander, start out with lower priced front-wheel-drive models. Prices increase for options like all-wheel-drive systems and more powerful engines. But they all can carry seven or eight people in comfort, even though most of the back seats are best suited for children.

The Highlander distinguishes its from the competition in a number of ways. On the outside, it has a large truck-like grill and can be ordered with big 19-inch alloy wheels give it a serious look. There's a tremendous amount of room inside, and the flowing dash includes a handy nearly full-length storage tray. Our test model featured a leather interior that rivaled those found in luxury SUVs. Options that pushed the upscale feel even further included a sunroof, upgraded stereo system and navigation system with a large and easy-to-understand touch screen.

Our test Highlander also had two buckets seats — called Captains Chairs — for the second row of seats. Although this reduced the overall seating capacity from seven to six, it provided a second path to the third row. But the seats also slid and folded forward for access, too. And they came with folding side tables with cup holders maximum relaxation.

On the road, the Highland was smooth and quiet. The optional V6 provided a respectable amount of power, but the six-speed transmission also featured a handy manual shift mode via the console-mounted shift lever if more power was quickly needed. The AWD system was unobtrusive but effective during heavy Spring rains, and the center differential could have been locked with the push of a button if we had encountered anything more serious, like snow.

Despite the center-locking differential, the Highlander is not really designed for serious off road driving. A rutted dirt trail to a cabin in the woods would be OK, but we'd be reluctant to push it much farther than that. That's not the Highlander's target audience. Toyota still sells the body-on-frame 4Runner SUV it that's your style.

It's hard to find anything wrong with the Highlander. There's no performance model, like the V8-powered Dodge Durango R/T, but most buyers won't mind. And there is a hybrid version that gets even better mileage (27/28), but costs considerably more.

Highlander helped kick off the crossover SUV craze when it was introduced in 2001, based on the Toyota Camry chasis. It was immediately popular, in large part because of its car-like ride and decent fuel economy. Although it has grown larger over the years, the 2014 model builds on those strengths without making any mistakes. With prices stating in the $30,000 range and fully loaded versions like our test model topping out at just around $11,000 more, it is poised to continue that success.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2014 Highlander XLE V6 AWD.

• Manufacturer: Toyota.

• Class: Fullsize crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front- or all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door SUV.

• Engines: 2.7-liter inline 4 (185 hp, 184 lbs-ft); 3.5-liter V6 (270 hp, 248 lbs-ft).

• Transmissions: Six-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 20/25/22 (2.7/FWD); 19/25/21 (3.5/FWD); (18/24/20).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $30,000 ($40,445 as tested).

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