2020 Toyota Highlander first drive review: It raises the bar, but is it the best?
Drivers in the market for a new SUV face a daunting number of options. Even if you're shopping for a larger model, one with three rows of seats, there's still an embarrassment of riches out there.
The South Koreans are coming on strong in this segment with the new Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade. Ford is fielding a brand-new, rear-drive Explorer. Honda's Pilot is as versatile as ever; the Volkswagen Atlas offers loads of interior room; there's the fresh Subaru Ascent and an aging Nissan Pathfinder. Chevy continues to sell its Traverse and there's even the suave Mazda CX-9.
Of course, you'd be wise to consider the Toyota Highlander , one of this burgeoning segment's pioneers. Totally reworked for 2020, the Highlander is slightly larger and a lot more premium, while adding loads of new technology and wrapping it all in fresh bodywork.
Toyota didn't throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater on this go-round. The new Highlander looks rather like the model it's replacing, with a large grille and other familiar forms on the body. Despite keeping the same general look and proportions, designers still worked to make this vehicle more sophisticated and, dare I say, elegant.
For 2020, this three-row utility will be offered in five trim levels: L, LE, XLE, Limited and Platinum. The fuel-sipping hybrid model is on the menu again, available in all those grades save the most basic one.
And like practically every redesigned vehicle, the new Highlander has grown. It's 2 inches and change longer than before, the wheelbase has been increased slightly, and it's a fraction of an inch broader. Facilitating these increases, it rides on a variant of Toyota's TNGA platform, which is rapidly spreading throughout the automaker's lineup, underpinning everything from the Prius hybrid to the Camry sedan to this large, three-row family-hauler.
That modest body stretch gives the Highlander slightly more interior space than before. There's 16 cubic feet behind the rear-most seats and 48.4 when those backrests are folded flat. Drop the second row and the total grows to in excess of 84 cu. ft. That's a tiny bit more than the outgoing Highlander and current Pilot offer, but a few cubes less than what the new Explorer provides. For maximum capaciousness, you'll probably want a Volkswagen Atlas; it's by far the roomiest of these competitors.
If hauling folks instead of freight is a priority, the 2020 Highlander can seat either seven or eight people depending on whether it's equipped with a second-row bench seat or captain's chairs. Most of its accommodations are suitably coddling. Whether you're sitting in the frontmost buckets or occupying a place one row back, comfort should not be an issue in this Toyota. However, the third row, as in nearly every competing model, is a bit too tight for adults, with a bottom cushion that's basically on the floor. This position puts your knees roughly at chin-level, which is not comfortable for anything longer than a trip around the block. Of course, kids should have no issues sitting in the way-back, so reserve this space for them.
Other parts of the new Highlander's cabin are extremely well done. The interior is beautifully built and comprised mostly of high-end materials, especially in upper trim levels. It's a nicer place to spend time in than the Atlas, Explorer or Pilot. The Palisade and Telluride might be a little better, to my mind.
Soft leather and plastics abound, though the dashboard layout is unusually asymmetrical, which perhaps isn't unusual for Toyota. This automaker tends to produce some pretty out-there interior designs.
When it comes to technology, there's a veritable cornucopia of stuff in the 2020 Highlander. Keeping everyone comfortable, three-zone climate control is standard across the range. LE models and higher get blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert at no extra cost.
Stepping up the ladder, Limited and Platinum versions feature a 1,200-watt, 11-speaker JBL sound system. A 12.3-inch infotainment display with integrated navigation is also included on the Platinum grade, though it's optional on Limited models. Drivers opting for lesser versions of the Highlander will have to live with a smaller, 8-inch screen.
Keeping pace with rivals on the technology front, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Alexa compatibility, Waze integration and Wi-Fi are all standard. Unfortunately, so is a confusing and somewhat lethargic infotainment system. For years, Toyota's offerings in this department have been consistently disappointing, but at least these days you can just plug your smartphone in and use a system that's much snappier and easier to figure out.
Naturally, the Platinum model tested here features a 12.3-inch touchscreen. It's mounted high on the dashboard so it's reasonably easy to reach. Another plus, there are generously sized, physical climate controls between the chunky volume and tuning knobs. Between the bottom of the display and this row of switches is an odd lineup of smaller buttons, including Home, Menu, Audio and Map. Strangely, they're much smaller and outlined in silver trim; the whole arrangement looks like an afterthought.
Providing a welcome bubble of security, Toyota's Safety Sense 2.0 tech is standard on all versions of the new Highlander. This suite of goodies includes things like automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control, road-sign recognition, lane-departure alert with steering assist and much more.
LED head- and taillights, an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat and keyless entry are also included at no extra cost, though plenty of high-end goodies are also available, depending on which model you opt for. A hands-free power liftgate, second-row sunshades, rain-sensing wipers, a head-up display and wheels spanning up to 20 inches are all on the menu.
The greasy bits
Two powertrains are offered in the 2020 Toyota Highlander. The base, four-cylinder engine that was offered in entry-level version last year has been given the old heave-ho. This means all models are powered by a 3.5-liter, gasoline-burning V6 matched to an eight-speed automatic gearbox. With port and direct fuel injection, this combo delivers 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque, exactly the same as before.
Fortunately, these are perfectly competitive figures, giving the Highlander more than enough vigor to keep pace with major rivals, though the Explorer's engine lineup is much more muscular, offering up to 400 ponies in the hot-rod ST model.
As for the hybrid version of this Toyota, its powertrain is anchored by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, one that's augmented by a pair of electric motors. Altogether, this system delivers 243 horsepower. New for the 2020 model year, Highlander Hybrids can now be had with either front- or all-wheel drive. Before, these models exclusively featured four-corner traction.
When it comes to efficiency, front-drive models with the V6 engine should be rated at 21 miles per gallon in city driving, 29 on the highway and 24 mpg combined. Naturally, all-wheel drive degrades those scores slightly, dropping them to 20, 27 and 23 mpg, respectively. As for the hybrid, it's seriously thrifty. Front-drive examples ought to return 36 mpg around town, 35 on the highway and 36 combined. All-wheel drive drops those scores to 35 mpg across the board, which is damn efficient, especially for a vehicle of this size.
The Highlander is a seriously polished vehicle, something you notice practically from the moment you fire it up. Underway, it's smooth, solid and serene, with Lexus levels of refinement. Not too shabby, Toyota, not too shabby.
That 3.5-liter V6 engine is slick and hushed, providing plenty of thrust. Its eight-speed dance partner is, for the most part, willing to oblige the driver as well. Acceleration is more than adequate, though it's perhaps not quite as strong as it should be given that the Highlander has nearly 300 ponies in its stable.
Aside from the standard version, I also got a bit of time behind the wheel of a Highlander Hybrid . It's slightly less energetic than versions fitted with the V6, but its overall performance is still perfectly fine. If you can live with this slight step back and a bit of four-cylinder thrum at times, this could be the way to go. The fuel economy it provides is absolutely astounding.
Increasing versatility, six-cylinder Highlanders can also be fitted with a towing package. Among other things, this includes a heavy-duty radiator with an engine-oil cooler and better fan performance. It allows the vehicle to drag up to 5,000 pounds.
It raises the bar, but is it best in class?
This machine should be available at dealerships right now, so, if you're interested, you should have no trouble checking one out in person. Base price for a front-wheel-drive L model with the V6 engine is $35,720. The range-topping Platinum version tested in this review checked out at about $50,345. (Both of those prices include $1,120 in delivery fees.) And if the hybrid floats your proverbial boat, there's a modest $1,400 price premium to get one of those. Gasoline-electric versions are slated to go on sale early next year.
The 2020 Highlander is a fine three-row crossover. I don't know whether I like it more than, say, a Pilot or Palisade, but when you consider long-term reliability and resale value, things Toyota does better than just about any other automaker, it's easy to recommend.
Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.