Toyota Highlander — New and improved

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Toyota Highlander has been the best-selling mid-sized three-row crossover utility  since 2016 in what has become a very crowded segment. Facing strong competition from all-new and redesigned vehicles it was time for a new and improved fourth generation Highlander. And Toyota answered with the 2020 version, a vehicle that takes a new design direction while building on the qualities of the third generation.

Toyota sold nearly a quarter million Highlanders in the U.S. last year, making it the automaker’s second best-selling SUV behind the 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 — one that looks better and is better

And they succeeded with a Highlander that comes as close to its luxury big brother Lexus while remaining a Toyota. For the most part our test Highlander — the top Platinum trim — has no shortage of Lexus-like trappings and scores as “mission accomplished” especially on the inside. The overall look isn’t flash, but it’s refined and classier looking than the outgoing model.

It sits on a new vehicle platform called Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA-K) giving it a robust new foundation, shared with other Toyota models enabling greater capability, comfort and safety than before.

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

The hybrid Highlander returns for 2020, but no longer includes V6. A 2.5-liter four cylinder engine combines with an electric motor to reach 223-horsepower propelled by a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

In addition to seating up to eight people (in a pinch because of a tight-fitting third row), the Highlander is capable of towing up to 5,000 pounds, which should include most weekend toys for a beach or mountain vacation.

While we have no qualms with the performance of the V-6 — it can manage a 0-to-60 sprint in just over 7 seconds — it has seemed to us over the past few years that the V-6  needs to work harder than in most competitors' six-cylinder engines with approximately the same horsepower. That perception probably comes because of the way the power is delivered through the eight-speed transmission. This setup may squeeze out a bit more mpg, but we prefer more satisfying low-end performance. The engine's gas mileage rating is about segment average at 20 mpg in city driving, 27 on the highway and 23 combined.

The ride is comfortable, but more on the soft side of the equation. The suspension absorbs bumps, ruts and uneven pavement for a smooth driving experience.  Fans of the Highlander will be pleased with the ease of driving and parking.  Sporty handling on twisty roads, however, isn’t part of the package, and at times the Highlander felt a bit clumsy on our usual winding rural road "test track."

Toyota has put a lot of effort into the cabin layout, with an easy-to-use shifter, thoughtful storage cubbies incorporated into the dashboard, and an infotainment system that includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Its 8.0-inch touchscreen has simple easy-to-understand menus. And drivers will find the Highlander easy to see out of thanks to the position of the instrument panel and the model's exterior design.

Cargo space behind the third row has grown from 13.8 cubic feet in the outgoing model to a more competitive 16 cubic feet with the 2020 edition.

Standard equipment on our Platinum edition included larger 20-inch styled wheels; adaptive, self-leveling headlamps; and 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, a hands-free liftgate, and “Highlander” projector puddle lamps.

Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 that includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection and automatic braking should the driver not react in time in a system-detected emergency situation, and blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert are standard features.

Prices for mid-sized three-row crossovers have risen considerably over the past few years and the Highlander is no exception starting at $35,720 for the front-drive version of the base L trim. We think most people will be happy with the well-equipped LE or XLE  that start at $37,920 and $40,720 respectively. Opting for all-wheel drive will add $1,600 to the bottom line. The Highlander tops out at a Lexus-like $49,920 for the AWD version of the Platinum trim. Our Platinum test vehicle with a handful of low-priced options carried a bottom line of $51,112.

2020 Toyota Highlander


Base price: $35,720; as driven, $51,112
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 295 @ 6,600 rpm
Torque: 263 foot-pounds @ 4,700 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/2/3
Wheelbase: 112.2 inches
Length: 194.9 inches
Curb weight: 4,370 pounds
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 16.0 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 84.3 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17.9 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 20 city, 27 highway, 23 combined
Also consider: Kia Telluride, Hyundai Pacifica, Subaru Ascent

The Good
• Comfortable ride
• Excellent sight-lines
• Well designed interior

The Bad
• Luggage capacity lags competitors

The Ugly
• Third row for kids only