2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid long-term update: Stretching its legs

Our Highlander Hybrid hits the highway for a couple of road trips.

Emme Hall Former editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Steven Ewing Former managing editor
Steven Ewing spent his childhood reading car magazines, making his career as an automotive journalist an absolute dream job. After getting his foot in the door at Automobile while he was still a teenager, Ewing found homes on the mastheads at Winding Road magazine, Autoblog and Motor1.com before joining the CNET team in 2018. He has also served on the World Car Awards jury. Ewing grew up ingrained in the car culture of Detroit -- the Motor City -- before eventually moving to Los Angeles. In his free time, Ewing loves to cook, binge trash TV and play the drums.
Emme Hall
Steven Ewing
4 min read
2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
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2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

This thing loves road trips.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

We're just over a third of the way through our year-long test of the 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. And while it's been a comfortable, efficient commuter for daily life in Los Angeles, we've finally had the chance to stretch its legs on a couple of longer drives.

Meet Roadshow's long-term 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

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Emme Hall's notes

My drive takes me up and over a 6% grade on the 8 Freeway outside of San Diego, heading up to an elevation of 4,000 feet. The 2.5-liter I4 and two electric motors do a fine job, but man is this thing noisy. Even so, on an uphill climb, the Highlander's 243 horsepower is adequate, and light braking and coasting can put some regenerative energy back into the battery while going downhill.

One small gripe: The adaptive, self-leveling LED headlights always seem to be pointed too far down. I'm sure drivers in the oncoming direction appreciate this, but I'd like them pointed higher for my own visibility.

I like that every Highlander has Toyota's Safety Sense 2.0 package standard. Adaptive cruise control is nice on the highway, but the lane-centering tech makes a ton of tiny corrections, so I usually leave it off. On the other hand, the traffic sign recognition almost does too good of a job. It thinks the truck-only 55-mph speed limit is the actual speed limit and warns me over and over.

2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
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2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Happy to have a three-prong outlet in the Highlander's second row. Not so happy that we have to turn it on every time.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

On this trip, the Highlander is doing double-duty as a workspace, as a friend needs to get a few things done on the drive. The Highlander has a standard three-prong power outlet for rear seat passengers, and it's accessible from the front. But when she plugs in her laptop, nothing happens. It isn't until the next day that I realize this plug has to be turned on via a button hidden to the left of the steering wheel. The outlet works just fine, but why do I have to turn it on?

Speaking of charging, while I'm glad the Highlander Hybrid has a wireless charging pad in the center console, the placement is awful. It's directly under the armrest, meaning it blocks all the storage underneath, and it's not large enough to accommodate big phones.

Still, these are minor issues in what is otherwise a comfortable SUV. It's efficient, too. Over my 700-mile round trip, I see just over 30 miles per gallon. That's not the 35-mpg highway or combined rating the EPA says I'll get, sure, but it's certainly better than the 23 mpg combined rating of the non-hybrid Highlander.

2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

This is probably as much off-roading as this SUV will ever do.

Derek Powell

Steven Ewing's notes

My road trip in the Highlander is one I do often: Los Angeles to San Francisco up the 5 Freeway. Our Toyota is a perfect companion for this journey. It's a long, boring slog and all I want is a quiet, comfortable car that can just eat up miles. That's our Highlander Hybrid in a nutshell. Mostly.

I'll echo what Emme said above: The 2.5-liter engine is loud. Going up the Grapevine -- the mountain pass just north of LA -- there's a constant drone from the engine as it digs into its power reserve. The Highlander has no trouble cruising at 75 mph uphill, but it complains audibly about having to complete the task. Even around town, perhaps my biggest issue with the Highlander is that there's a lot of powertrain noise. I just tested this hybrid setup in the 2021 Toyota Sienna minivan, and it seems to be much quieter there.

I don't normally use adaptive cruise control, but there's no better place to test it than on this dull stretch of the 5. I hate that, like a lot of these systems, the Highlander takes a while to register that you've changed lanes for passing, leaving me to usually dial in some acceleration myself before letting the ACC take over again. Thankfully, the updated Toyota Safety Sense 2.5 Plus tech -- which first debuted on the 2021 Camry -- will proactively start to accelerate when you activate the turn signal. This tech will no doubt make its way to future Highlanders, so it's only a temporary problem for now.

2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
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2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

The Highlander Hybrid's interior is comfortable and the infotainment is great.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Weirdly, my fuel economy average isn't nearly as good as Emme's. I'll admit I'm not exactly doing 70 mph the whole time, but I'm usually able to get close to the EPA estimates without changing my driving style. So it's weird that I only see 28.5 mpg at the end of my drive from LA to SF. Looking back through our fuel logbook, I'm seeing we're only averaging about 31.5 mpg right now overall.

I'm interested to see if our fuel economy will improve over the rest of the year. Maybe Antuan Goodwin and our SF crew will have a lighter touch on the throttle. But that aside, I can't say enough nice things about the Highlander. The leather seats are comfy as heck, the stereo is great, the large infotainment screen is quick to respond to inputs and never has trouble connecting to Apple CarPlay and there's a boatload of room in the back. Sure, I'm a bit more fond of our long-term Hyundai Palisade as far as three-row SUVs are concerned, but there's nevertheless a lot to like about this Highlander.