One of the hottest-selling SUVs in the country is back, and its maker is tired—tired—of competitors muscling in on its turf.
Redesigned for 2020, the new Toyota Highlander demands your attention with exactly the same formula it’s used for almost two decades—wait, that’s not right. Actually, the 2020 Toyota Highlander builds on its winning formula with more than just comfort, convenience, and a reputation for reliability. The three-row family hauler boasts improvements that should attract more buyers in the segment. But can it challenge the popular Ford Explorer and SUV of the Year–winning Kia Telluride? Here’s what you need to know.
The 2020 Highlander rides on a new advanced platform, but what really encapsulates this new family hauler is a revised storage tray. Yes, really.
First off, don’t knock it ’til you’ve lived with it—and my sister has. The look of that decidedly unalluring tray put her off during a test drive, but the slim space proved practical the entire time she owned a current Highlander. Extending under the center of the dash and across to the passenger side, the tray in the redesigned Highlander now features a more pronounced separation between the center stack and the passenger side. That change should help prevent your other half’s sunglasses and phone from sliding into your mints and charging cable.
Sexy, right? Well, there are plenty more careful changes where that tray update came from.
In a turbocharged world, Toyota keeps things natural. Eschewing the forced-induction trend we’ve seen with the Explorer, Subaru Ascent, and others, the 2020 Highlander’s heart remains a 295-hp 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V-6 that continues to produce 263 lb-ft of torque.
Toyota considered a turbo-four, but in the end, the smoothness of the company’s 3.5-liter V-6 won out. Sure enough, the 2020 Highlander V-6 delivers power in a comfortable manner, only interrupted by subtle shift shock from the eight-speed automatic (only bothersome to the more motion-sickness-prone among us). As before, the V-6’s peak power arrives at a high rpm, and there’s a slight surge of extra power as the Highlander approaches 6,000 rpm. Except you won’t feel it, because you’re driving a Highlander, not a Supra.
That’s why the rest of the 2020 Highlander’s engine changes make so much sense. The previous model’s inefficient base 2.7-liter four-cylinder and the lower base price it included has vanished. And if you still want a V-6 hybrid in a three-row Toyota product, try the longer-wheelbase Lexus RX 450h L (then again, given that third row’s extreme limitations, maybe don’t). A more performance-focused six-cylinder hybrid has never fit the image of a practical, family-focused SUV, so the Highlander Hybrid returns as a four-cylinder model with only 243 total system hp, down from 306 in the previous hybrid.
With the base four-cylinder engine gone, the 2020 Highlander now carries a base price of $35,720. That’s probably more than you expected, but a base Highlander L now includes V-6 power, LED headlights, automatic emergency braking, an 8.0-inch touchscreen with baked-in Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, five USB ports, and a wheelbase stretched just over 2 inches.
Highlander customers demanded more cargo space behind the third-row seats, and the new model can carry 16.0 cubic feet of gear, up 2.2 cubic feet from the SUV it replaces. There’s more space behind the second-row seats, too—with 48.4 cubic feet. Those numbers place the Highlander a bit behind the Explorer, Telluride, and Honda Pilot with the third-row seats up, but a bit ahead of those competitors with the third row down. Small bonus: As you shop for ever-larger three-row SUVs that will barely fit in your garage, keep in mind the Highlander is still slightly narrower and shorter than those competitors.
We know you don’t want to hear it, so we won’t tell you about the three-row Toyota that can better handle your people and things (it rhymes with Vienna). Without wider sliding doors to ease entry and exit to the second and third rows, maneuvering to the Highlander’s cheap seats requires a pull of a lever to fold the second-row backrest out of the way and a quick shove of the seats forward. Pretty standard stuff. As is the Highlander’s small third row—children won’t mind how high the floor is back there, but adults might. Toyota points out the second-row seats now track 1.2 inches farther forward, but there’s no disguising this seven- or eight-passenger SUV’s space constraints; some competitors have more room, but few can be described as spacious.
Surprisingly, after years of trailing the competition, the Toyota excels with infotainment. One big caveat is that the 12.3-inch touchscreen is an option on the Limited, standard on the fancy-schmancy Platinum, but not available for buyers of the more price-conscious L, LE, and XLE trims who get the standard 8.0-inch screen. Now that Toyotas provide Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the smartphone-mirroring systems display on most of the wide screen’s real estate. The smaller portion can display other info, and a quick swipe or button press switches the locations of the larger and smaller displays.
Infotainment downsides? Although the navigation system worked well during our drive, the graphics will either look familiar or dated, depending on your perspective. The same is true of the hybrid’s powertrain display. We’d like to see more hybrid data details for drivers who like to gamify hybrid driving.
There are a few other shortcomings you might not notice on a test drive, but will after owning the car for a few months: More ways of adjustment for the four-way power passenger seat (standard on XLE and above) would be appreciated. The two temperature-adjustment knobs on the lower trims lack the awesome grippy material and enormous size we love in the smaller RAV4. The drive mode toggle could be a bit bigger, even though most owners will set it and forget it.
Already looking ahead, we hope the refreshed 2023 Highlander can move the two 2.1-amp second-row USB ports from just off the floor to somewhere higher in the interior—the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride, for example, have their ports midway up the back of the front seats. Finally, the reflection on the front windshield of the silver trim atop the available 12.3-inch screen may bother some drivers. (It’s not an issue on lower trims.)
Otherwise, the 2020 Highlander shoots for middle-of-the-road performance. With 18- or 20-inch wheels, the Highlander cruises comfortably. (Anyone else feeling déjà vu?) The steering has a little life in it but feels too slow to respond for our tastes—you’ll expend slightly more effort turning the steering wheel to make that left turn.
Also, interior quality varies from trim to trim but is generally better than what you’ll find in the Explorer. Lower 2020 Highlander trims announce themselves with black—not chrome—door handles and cheaper materials covering the storage area on the dash. Soft-touch surfaces cover parts of all Highlanders, with a leatherlike material covering a knee rest on either side of the center console of higher-end models.
One cool style note: Some Highlanders use a dark brown for trim on the tops of the door panels and most of the dash; it contrasts well with tan or caramel seats, even if it looks a little odd with the black instrument cluster cover.
On the outside, blacked-out A-pillars and punched-out fender flares enhance a design that shows how far the Highlander’s style has come since its boxy beginnings nearly 20 years ago. The 2020 Highlander won’t challenge the Kia Telluride for exterior charm, but it has more personality than the Ascent and thankfully stops short of the Hyundai Palisade’s deal-breaking front styling.
In style and tech, the 2020 Highlander has made serious progress. Peel away the flash of a Platinum model in the showroom, though, and you’re left with what we can call “classic Highlander.” Although we’d rather drive a Telluride (except for its fuel economy), the Highlander strives to make things easy or comfortable, just like the three generations that came before it.
Little on the Highlander—except for the hybrid’s exceptional 35–36/34–35 mpg city/highway—screams “must buy” in a crowded segment. But consider Toyota’s reputation for reliability, the tighter turning radius, the super-efficient hybrid model, its more capacious cargo area, and the tidy dimensions. There’s some goodness here. Greatness? Hmm.
|2020 Toyota Highlander|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 7-8-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINES||3.5L/295-hp/263-lb-ft Atkinson-cycle DOHC 24-valve V-6; 2.5L/186-hp/175-lb-ft Atkinson-cycle DOHC 16-valve I-4 plus elect motor, 243 hp comb|
|TRANSMISSIONS||8-speed automatic, cont variable auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,150-4,600 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||194.9 x 76.0 x 68.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.2-7.7 sec (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||20-36/27-35/23-36 mpg (est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||94-169/96-125 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.55-0.86 lb/mile (est)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|