There's no more dismissive label among the car cognoscenti than "appliance," and there's no vehicle that embodies the ideal of what such a vehicle aspires to be than the Toyota Highlander. The three-row, soft-driving family hauler ranks second only to the Ford Explorer in sales, with Toyota finding homes for 121,055 last year, which the snobbish among us would call proof that Americans love nothing more than an achiever who never offends. For the 2014 update, Toyota gave the Highlander a dose of fashion, but kept its appliance-abilities intact. Think less Frigidare, more Viking.
Toyota calls the Highlander all-new, but its the exterior that gets the most dramatic update, adopting the furrowed brow now in style among designers worldwide. The formerly gormless passenger compartment receives a more chiseled, swept back look that hides the Highlander's 5,000-lb. girth like a triple layer of Spanx. Under the hood lies the same engine choices as before — a 2.7-liter four-cylinder, a 3-5 liter V-6 and an available hybrid edition. Oddly for an all-new model, Toyota offered no hosannas for additional power or fuel economy in the new Highlander — not that its current owners have been picketing for something stouter to show off at the local dragstrip's test and tune nights.
While the interior receives an expected electronics upgrade, a handsomer mix of materials and an easier transit between the second row and where the kids want to sit and fight in back, what's more noteworthy and commendable may be what Toyota left alone. It's odd to hail the appearance of big knobs on a 21st-century car, but Toyota avoided the trap of trying to I-touch the Highlander's dash into a daily frustration, retaining the gripable, easy-to-read dials just like God and Virgil Exner intended. Success doesn't always refute the critics, but many more stylish vehicles couldn't handle the reliable family foisting that Highlanders carry on without complaint for years. Life needs a few appliances.