2020 Toyota Highlander

PHOENIX — The ubiquitous Toyota Highlander is the best-selling three-row crossover utility vehicle in the very crowded mid-sized segment. Facing stiff competition from superb all-new or redesigned competitors like the excellent Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade, a new generation 2020 Ford Explorer, and others, Toyota has introduced its completely redesigned fourth-generation Highlander for 2020.

So good is the new 2020 Highlander Platinum it brings buyers extremely close to a Lexus experience in a Toyota badged vehicle.

Toyota sold nearly a quarter million Highlanders in the U.S. last year, making it the automaker’s second best-selling SUV behind Toyota’s compact RAV4. With Highlander’s winning formula in mind, designers and engineers needed to be careful not to tinker too much with success and yet offer a new and improved Highlander. The goal was to keep what’s right and refine or upgrade everything else and more that families are looking for in a vehicle. One that looks better and is better while maintaining the legions of Toyota loyalists loving their Highlander.

Nearly two decades ago just a couple of years after it debuted in 2001, Highlander was the first crossover to offer optional three-row seating anticipating that families wanted the extra seating without taking the walk of shame and opting to buy a minivan. Through the years Toyota kept improving and upping its game doing its best to stay current. The current third-generation Highlander has been around since 2013, almost 20 years ago.

Designers of the new Highlander clearly pulled out all stops to bring its new design looking as close to its well-heeled big brother Lexus while remaining a Toyota. For the most part our test Highlander, the top-trim Platinum edition with no shortage of Lexus-like finery scores as “mission accomplished” especially on the inside. The overall look isn’t flash, it’s refined and classier looking.

The Highlander is offered in five trim levels: L, LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum. Toyota discontinued last year’s standard 2.7-liter four cylinder and all trim levels are now powered by the same 3.5-liter 295-horsepower V6 that was optional last year. All trim levels are paired to an 8-speed automatic transmission. Toyota has promised a sportier, firmer handling XSE trim level that will debut later this year.

This year the hybrid Highlander returns but is no longer a V6 but a 2.5-liter four cylinder that combines with battery power for a 223-horsepower and works through a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The Highlander is capable of towing up to 5,000 pounds.

I recently spent a week driving the top-tier Platinum Highlander and found the V6’s performance was as strong and responsive as last year’s model. Acceleration is excellent with plenty of power in reserve for merging onto the interstate, passing on two-lane highways or when called upon to tow or when climbing a hill. The 8-speed automatic does an excellent job of regulating power so the vehicle isn’t continually searching for the proper gear.

The ride is comfortable — more on the soft rather than firm side. Fans of the Highlander will be more than pleased with the ease of driving and parking. Know that with the Highlander, sporty handling on twisty roads, isn’t part of the package and at times felt a bit clumsy. The suspension does absorb bumps, ruts and uneven pavement for a smooth driving experience.

While we didn’t attempt off-road driving, our all-wheel-drive Platinum is capable to negotiate a rougher dirt and gravel road but isn’t designed for serious off roading. It does have hill-descent control that electronically limits the speed while crawling down a steep hill or slippery trail.

Inside, the cabin is a definite improvement and a big step forward over previous generation Highlanders’ and is a pleasing mix of upscale materials, textures and build quality. Slipping behind the wheel of our Highlander and I could easily have been inside a Lexus. Highlights include a very large mid-dash mounted 12-inch touchscreen that’s only available on the Platinum, and a dynamic JBL 11 speaker with subwoofer & amplifier audio system that’s simply outstanding.

The Highlander is available in either 7 or 8 seat configurations. All trim levels have seating for eight except the Platinum with 7 only since the second-row is only equipped with captain’s chairs. Those seats recline. slide fore and aft and are heated for additional comfort. The second row is especially roomy, and seats are more than comfortable.

Standard equipment on our Platinum included larger 20-inch styled wheels, adaptive, self-leveling headlamps, an exclusive perforated Glazed Caramel color leather seats that are embossed and heated.  There’s a large 10-inch head-up display, an extra-large panoramic moonroof, rain-sensing windshield wipers, birds eye surround camera, ambient interior lighting, illuminated door scuff plates, wood interior trim, laminated front side window glass, hands-free liftgate, “Highlander” projector puddle lamps, and Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 that includes pre-collision system with pedestrian detection automatic braking should the driver not react in time in a system-detected emergency situation. Blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, parking support braking and intelligent clearance sonar are included in the package.

Yet not all is perfect with the Highlander. While we liked the driving and handling, other rivals in its class are more powerful, drive sportier, and have a roomier third row seat and larger cargo area. Highlander’s third row is definitely on the small side and there’s only 16 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row of seats.

The 2020 Highlander is a very good vehicle that will more than adequately service busy families with an easy driving manner, great practicality with room for people, gear, pets and even a Christmas tree on the roof. It will continue to deliver what Toyota loyalists are looking for in a vehicle that’s better than ever with a fresh appearance and no cost added features. Plus, there’s Toyota’s sterling reputation for reliability and a traditionally strong resale value. The new Highlander is a sweetheart.

Vital Stats
Base Price: $49,920
Price as Tested: $51,112
Engine/Transmission: 3.5-liter 295-hp V6 paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission.
Fuel Economy: 20/27/23 mpg, City/Highway/Combined
Seating: 7

Crash Test Safety Ratings: 2020 Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It has not yet been tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Where Built: Princeton, Indiana

Competes With:
Buick Enclave
Chevrolet Traverse
Dodge Durango
Ford Explorer
GMC Acadia
Honda Pilot
Hyundai Santa Fe
Hyundai Palisade
Kia Sorento
Kia Telluride
Nissan Pathfinder
Subaru Ascent
Volkswagen Atlas

Fab Features:
Near Lexus-like cabin materials
Top safety features and crash test ratings
Excellent reliability and resale value

— Jim Prueter