SUVs

2020 Toyota Highlander vs. Explorer, Pilot, Traverse and Sorento

Toyota's three-row crossover SUV is all new for 2020, but how does its full redesign compare with stout competition?

Toyota

The all-new 2020 Toyota Highlander has received heaps of attention after its debut at this year's New York Auto Show. When the fourth generation of the three-row crossover SUV goes on sale in December, it will face formidable competition in form of the redesigned Ford Explorer as well as segment mainstays including the Honda Pilot, Chevy Traverse and Kia Sorento, among others. 

Let's dive into the numbers and see how the redesigned Highlander stacks up with some of the segment's finest and most popular vehicles.

Engine, transmission and towing

At first, the Highlander will be available only with a carryover 3.5-liter V6 engine featuring the same horsepower, torque and towing figures as last year's model. The eight-speed automatic transmission is also carryover. By February of next year, the Highlander Hybrid will be rolling into dealerships with a powertrain much different than the 2019 Highlander Hybrid.

Instead of electrifying a V6 engine up to 306 horsepower, the new four-cylinder Highlander Hybrid will have to work with 66 fewer ponies. However, because the hybrid is now the base powertrain, standard horsepower is up by 55, making the Toyota much more competitive with the segment's other base powertrains.

Merging electrons with four-cylinder frugality means significantly improved efficiency. Toyota estimates the 2020 Highlander Hybrid will get 34 miles per gallon combined, a substantial 5-mpg improvement over last year. The most efficient versions of the other (gas only) midsize crossovers listed here average 23 mpg combined, so the fact that the Highlander Hybrid might beat that average by 11 mpg should captivate potential buyers. Ford has yet to release fuel economy specs for its new Explorer Hybrid, which goes on sale this summer, but V6 power could put its figures more in line with the 2019 Highlander Hybrid.

Fuel economy comparison

Vehicle Combined fuel economy (mpg)
Toyota Highlander Hybrid 34
Toyota Highlander V6 22
Ford Explorer Hybrid 30 (est)
Ford Explorer 2.3 EcoBoost 22 (est)
Ford Explorer 3.0 EcoBoost 19 (est)
Honda Pilot 21-23
Chevrolet Traverse 22
Chevrolet Traverse V6 20-21
Kia Sorento 23-25
Kia Sorento V6 21-22

At this early stage, Toyota hasn't said specifically whether the Highlander Hybrid will use a continuously variable transmission. But from how Toyota has described it so far, the transmission sounds similar in concept to the CVT being used in the Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid, so it's probably safe to assume the Highlander Hybrid will incorporate this type of transmission, as well.

Toyota has yet to quote a tow rating for the hybrid, but if the smaller 2019 RAV4 Hybrid can tow 1,750 pounds, its big brother should be able to pull at least that much.

Engine, transmission and towing comparison

Vehicle Engine Power (hp) Torque (lb-ft) Transmission Towing (lbs.)
Toyota Highlander Hybrid 2.5-liter I4 240 TBA TBA 1,750 (est)
Toyota Highlander V6 3.5-liter V6 295 263 8-speed automatic 5,000
Ford Explorer Hybrid 3.3-liter V6 318 336 10-speed automatic 5,000
Ford Explorer 2.3 EcoBoost 2.3-liter turbo I4 300 310 10-speed automatic 5,300
Ford Explorer 3.0 EcoBoost 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 365 380 10-speed automatic 5,600
Honda Pilot 3.5-liter V6 280 262 6- or 9-speed automatic 5,000
Chevrolet Traverse 2.0-liter turbo I4 255 295 9-speed automatic 1,500
Chevrolet Traverse V6 3.6-liter V6 310 266 9-speed automatic 5,000
Kia Sorento 2.4-liter I4 185 178 6-speed automatic 2,000
Kia Sorento V6 3.3-liter V6 290 252 8-speed automatic 3,500

Tech and safety

The 2020 Highlander comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on an 8-inch touchscreen, plus satellite radio and in-car Wi-Fi. Available features include embedded navigation, a 12.3-inch touchscreen and an 11-speaker, 1,200-watt JBL premium audio system.

Like the Highlander, the 2020 Ford Explorer also comes well equipped with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, an 8-inch touchscreen and Wi-Fi. The Honda Pilot isn't nearly as generous with standard tech, where all you get is a 5-inch LCD (in fairness, most buyers purchase higher trim levels, which have more comparable feature sets). Things look up again with Chevy's Traverse. It comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on a 7-inch touchscreen, as well as Wi-Fi.

Don't assume the discount-priced Kia Sorento is this comparison's cabin-tech department slacker. The Kia comes pretty well-equipped with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on a 7-inch touchscreen.

When it comes to advanced driver-assistance features, the Highlander shines with its standard Toyota Safety Sense suite of features. Features include automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, traffic sign recognition, automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert come equipped on all but the base trim, while a 360-degree camera is standard on the top Highlander Platinum.

The 2020 Ford Explorer looks to be well equipped, too, with standard pedestrian-detecting automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and automatic high beams. There's even a self-washing rearview camera in case you dust it up while doing some light off-roading -- or, more than likely, during snowy or wet weather.

The Honda Pilot's standard driver-assistance tech is much more comprehensive than its cabin tech. With the Honda, you get automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control and automatic high beams. The Traverse and Sorrento, on the other hand? Diddly squat. If you want driver assistance on those SUVs, you're going to have to pay extra.

Cargo space

Last year, the Highlander offered midpack cargo room. This year, the Toyota offers less-than-midpack cargo space. With the third row folded, the 2020 model is down a couple cubes compared with the 2019 model, but when you fold the second and third rows, the new Highlander offers 10 cubic feet less space than its predecessor.

Cargo volume comparison (cubic feet)

Vehicle Seats up 3rd row folded 2nd and 3rd rows folded
Toyota Highlander 16.1 40.6 73.3
Ford Explorer 18.2 47.9 87.8
Honda Pilot 16 47 83.9
Chevrolet Traverse 23 57.8 98.2
Kia Sorento 11.3 38 73

Headroom and legroom

Toyota has yet to release headroom and legroom stats for its new Highlander, so let's hope the decreased cargo space specs above aren't a bad omen for the redesigned SUV.

Last year, the Highlander shined with its superior front legroom, but all the way in back, its third-row headroom came in last place against the competition listed below. To add insult to injury, the 2019 Highlander's third-row legroom was an embarrassing 27.7 cubic feet. Hopefully Toyota has learned its lesson from the previous generation.

Headroom/legroom comparison (inches)

Vehicle Front headroom Front legroom 2nd-row headroom 2nd-row legroom 3rd-row headroom 3rd-row legroom
Toyota Highlander TBA TBA TBA TBA TBA TBA
Ford Explorer 40.7 43 40.5 39 38.9 32.2
Honda Pilot 40.1 40.9 40.2 38.4 38.9 31.9
Chevrolet Traverse 41.3 41 40 38.4 38.2 33.5
Kia Sorento 39.5 44.1 39.3 39.4 36.3 31.7

Pricing

Last year you couldn't get a Highlander base above $50,000. It's unlikely you'll be able to surpass a $50,000 trim-level price on the 2020 model either. That's at least partially because last year's Hybrid Limited with Platinum Package used a more expensive V6 engine. This year's hybrid uses four-cylinder power, while the V6 option stands alone. Those changes should help the Highlander keep its price competitive rather than becoming listed through the stratosphere like the upscale-leaning Ford Explorer Platinum, which starts at just shy of $60,000.

Speaking of the Explorer, Ford will announce the Explorer Hybrid's pricing soon, but for now, it's safe to assume its price will hover around the 2019 Highlander Hybrid's $38,265 base price.

Three-row crossover SUV pricing

Vehicle Price (incl. destination)
Toyota Highlander Hybrid FWD $34,425 (est)
Toyota Highlander V6 AWD $49,500 (est)
Ford Explorer $33,860
Ford Explorer Hybrid $38,000 (est)
Ford Explorer Platinum $59,345
Honda Pilot LX $32,495
Honda Pilot Elite $49,065
Chevrolet Traverse L $31,125
Chevrolet Traverse High Country $54,395
Kia Sorento L $27,335
Kia Sorento SX Limited AWD $47,535

According to this tale of the tape, the 2020 Toyota Highlander is definitely more competitive than before. The hybrid model's fuel economy should be a particularly compelling draw. Updated infotainment and a healthy suite of driver-assistance features sure aren't going to hurt, either, though abbreviated space might.

Now, all that's left is for us to take the new 2020 Toyota Highlander for a spin, so keep it locked here on Roadshow for our upcoming first-drive review.

Originally published April 17.
Update, April 18:
Adds fuel economy comparison chart.