For 2014 Toyota has started almost with a clean sheet of paper for their re-designed Highlander three-row crossover SUV. The Highlander now about 3” longer features all new design inside and out, more upscale features, and more room.

Keeping only the base platform and engines, the new Highlander has completely new sheet-metal all around. A more modern, rounded and richer appearance is the main take-away at first appearance at the media preview in Santa Barbara, CA this week.

Larger wrap-around headlamps and a bolder grille up front give a more premium stance. The Highlander looks sleeker and larger despite the wheelbase which remains the same as before. The rear over-hang is longer which affords more space for the 3rd row seat and cargo behind it.

One of the design elements I really liked was the integrated roof rails which come standard on upper trim levels. They’re well designed and sharp, with inserts for attachable accessories and a nice satin metal finish to boot.

The Highlander comes in a variety of trim grades from the base LE which begins at $29,215 to the top level Limited Platinum which prices out at $43,590 . The Highlander Hybrid now only comes top of the line at $49,790 in Limited Platinum trim with all-wheel drive standard.

Power-trains include the previously offered 2.7 liter four-cylinder engine with 185 horsepower and the venerable 3.5 liter V6 which offers up 270 horsepower. New for 2014 is a new six-speed automatic in lieu of the old five-speed which nets higher mpg across the board.

The Highlander Hybrid comes with an Atkinson cycle version of the 3.5 liter V6 and three electric motors, two in front and one in the rear for a total system horsepower of 280. The Highlander Hybrid offers up 28 mpg combined city and highway.

Inside the new interior gets the full soft trim treatment with virtually every surface you can touch from the driver seat now lined with high quality materials. The dash now has a horizontal spread with large infotainment screen which has the latest Entune application suite.

Controls are laid out well and easy to use, the steering wheel offering up plenty of its own redundant controls as well. New for 2014 driver assistance systems run the board from blind spot alert to lane keeping alerts, and there’s even an optional frontal crash mitigation system too.

Storage is plentiful with a wide tray in the dash itself for incidentals like snacks or smart phones, and there is a pass through in it that allows for USB or iPhone cords to be connected up. The center console also affords plenty of space with an innovative double open sliding door.

Seating is comfortable and easy to adjust. The second row seats adjust fore and aft as well as recline, but I felt they sit a little low to the floor for long term comfort. With the captain’s chairs a handy fold-out tray gives you cup holders but can go away to allow for better 3rd row access.

A new rear suspension design allows for a wider 3rd row seat by several inches. This enables the Highlander to seat three across and now offer up to 8 passenger seating. That’s a lot for a mid-size SUV.

On the road the new Highlander handles very similarly to the 2013 model with a few exceptions. The new electric power steering has a different feel than before, but remains plenty precise. On windy roads the suspension offered up surprising grip and a sense of confidence even when pushed hard.

The ride is quieter on all models due to a new acoustic glass used in the windshield as well as other NVH improvements. Toyota claims it’s some 30% quieter with the addition of new sound deadening in the floor and pillars.

We drove both the 3.5 liter V6 model and the Hybrid. The new six-speed transmission helped the power delivery exponentially with the V6 model, giving better response to go with its increased fuel economy.

The hybrid model drives smoothly with the feeling of a bit more weight, as it indeed weighs more due to its additional battery and electric motors. Steering is heavier and power delivery comes through a constantly variable transmission, so the engine can drone a little going up mountain hills.

Because the Highlander boasts a 40% model loyalty rate with Toyota buyers, it’s expected that many buyers will come out of earlier Highlanders. With its richer and bolder design and new features, it very well may prune new customers from other brands as well.

We will bring you a much more detailed drive review when we get one for an extended test later this spring.