Toyota pioneered the unibody SUV with the 1999 Lexus RX300 and the first-generation Highlander two years later. Customers flocked to the vehicles, attracted by their high ride height, comfortable seating and car-like drive qualities.
Now Toyota is back in the game with a completely redesigned 2020 Highlander. A recent drive of the fourth-generation Highlander through the Texas Hill Country demonstrated that Toyota has listened to consumers and is placing a greater emphasis on driving dynamics and styling.
The 2020 Toyota Highlander sits on a new vehicle platform called Toyota New Global Architecture, or TNGA-K. It is stiffer and has less vibration. Paired with an improved suspension, the new platform removes much of the notorious squishiness from the previous Highlander. Like the previous generation, it has three rows of seating and is an ample people mover.
Toyota is playing to U.S. consumer preference by offering a bigger vehicle. The new Highlander is 2.4 inches longer than the model it replaces. Designers used that length to expand the cargo area. The second row slides an extra 1.2-inches further up to increase distance between the second and third rows.
With all seat rows in use, the Highlander provides 16.1 cubic feet of area behind the third row. Folding the 60/40 split fold-flat third-row seatbacks opens the space to 40.6 cubic feet. It expands to 73.3 cubic feet when both rear rows are folded down.
The new architecture uses high-strength steel to create a stiffer unibody structure than the previous model. Toyota has leveraged that by tuning the front strut and rear multi-link suspension to improve agility and shrink the SUV’s turning radius. The model also has a quieter ride.
POWERTRAIN AND PRICE
Toyota will offer the 2020 Highlander with a choice of a gasoline V6 engine or an improved hybrid system.
The V6 serves as the base powerplant. Toyota will charge $34,600 plus a $1,120 destination fee for the starting L trim level. It won’t offer the hybrid powertrain at that level. It starts with the LE and will cost $38,200 plus the destination fee. That represents a $1,400 upcharge over the comparable V6 LE highlander. Other trims include XLE, Limited and Platinum for both versions.
The 3.5-liter V6 engine will produce up to 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque. It is mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. With an optional towing package, the SUV can pull 5,000 pounds. Toyota has grown the vehicle without incurring a fuel economy penalty. Combined city and highway driving fuel economy is 24 mpg, just above the 23 mpg of the comparable 2019 model.
The new-generation hybrid system combines a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with two electric motors. It is smaller and more efficient than the system it replaces. Toyota packs the battery under the rear seats to avoid diminishing any cargo or passenger space. It yields 36 mpg in combined driving. That represents a 24 percent improvement over the previous-generation Highlander Hybrid’s 29 combined mpg.
The Highlander has reasonable pickup for such a large vehicle. Depending on the engine configuration, it will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 7.2 to 8 seconds.
Both the gas and hybrid versions are available in two-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive.
The 2020 Highlander catches up with competitive vehicles by offering buyers more technology. That starts with an 8-inch touch screen and redesigned center console and controls. A larger 12.3-inch touch screen comes standard on the Platinum grade and is available as a $1,050 package upgrade on the Limited trim level.
Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa and Waze navigation come standard on all models. An available JBL Premium Sound System delivers 1,200 watts of power to overcome any road noise.
This is an area in which the Highlander excels. Toyota equips every Highlander version with an extensive suite of automated safety and driver-assistance features.
The Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection offers automatic braking capability under certain circumstances should the driver not react in time in a system-detected emergency situation. Other standard features include a radar-based adaptive cruise control that slows and accelerates with traffic. A lane departure-alert system includes steering assist to keep fatigued or inattentive drivers within lane lines when the cruise control is engaged. This worked especially well on the Texas highways, settling at the 70 mph speed limit but easing in gummy traffic spots before speeding up again.
Automatic high beam headlamps will switch to a normal beam when confronted with oncoming traffic. The SUV’s cameras can read speed limit signs, stop signs, do not enter signs and yield signs, and provide alerts on the display screen behind the steering wheel.
Optional safety systems include a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert and a parking support system that helps prevent low-speed collisions.
Toyota provides a second-row bench seat at the L and LE grade levels. Families can cram eight occupants into the SUV. The third row remains a bit tight for adults, although it certainly works for drives of 30 minutes or less.
The XLE and Limited grades come standard with comfortable Captain’s Chair second row seating. This creates a channel through the middle of the Highlander that makes it easier to get to the third row. But it also reduces occupant capacity to seven passengers. Toyota offers the second-row bench as an option at this grade level for those who need the eight seatbelts. The top Platinum grade will come with the Captain’s Chair second row. Toyota does provide a
standard three-zone climate control that ensures ample flow of warmed or cooled air all the way to the back of the bus.
The Highlander is one of Toyota’s stalwart vehicles. The company sold about 250,000 last year and looks to get near that number again this year. That’s almost the same number of sales as Ford’s Explorer.
The midsize SUV segment is big and competitive. There are at least two dozen offerings shoppers can consider when looking for a three-row vehicle that isn’t a minivan. Three new or redesigned entries stand out: the Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade and Ford Explorer. Highlander was falling behind, but the new architecture, safety technology package and interior comfort make it a choice that shoppers in this segment should consider.