Stepping out with Toyota’s three-row crossover utility vehicle.
For 2020, the Highlander is all-new, launching this midsize model’s fourth generation. This three-row crossover utility vehicle seats eight or seven and is available in gas and hybrid configurations. It’s the family vehicle of choice for anyone looking for an excellent blend of space, utility, tech, safety, and towing capabilities.
2020 Toyota Highlander Review
Toyota offers the 2020 Highlander in L ($34,600), LE ($36,800), XLE ($39,600), Limited ($43,650), and Ultimate ($46,850) trims.
All trims come with standard front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive is a $1,950 upgrade. Every 2020 Highlander is powered by a V6 engine paired with an automatic transmission.
Also available in four trims is the Highlander Hybrid. The hybrid has a four-cylinder engine, electric motors, and a hybrid battery system. This version ranges from $38,200 (LE) to $50,200 (Platinum). We’ll make a few points about the hybrid in this review as well as in the specifications, otherwise our focus is on the gas model.
The years have been good to the Highlander, which is one of the best-selling models in its segment. In recent years, especially with the latest version, Toyota kicked things up a notch in the styling department.
Look at any contemporary Highlander and it borrows styling elements common to other Toyota models, but without being overwrought. Its bold grille supplies a more forceful look, while the very pronounced profile character lines add substance. This is a far departure from earlier models that seemed relatively bland in comparison. Clearly, the Highlander has arrived and the look is something we appreciate, even treasure.
The Highlander’s standard equipment list includes LED reflector headlights, LED tail and stop lights, heated power-controlled side mirrors, 18-inch painted alloy wheels, and keyless entry.
Various trim-level enhancements supply the Highlander with the usual upgradeable amenities. Without breaking down all these changes by trim level, there is much to consider. These features include LED projector headlights with LED strip daytime running lights (Limited), LED or high-power LED fog lights, rain-sensing wipers, a power liftgate, roof rails, front and rear mudguards, a rear bumper scuff plate, and chrome embellishments.
Toyota also supplies some trims with a power tilt-and-slide moonroof. Exclusive to the top Platinum trim is a panoramic moonroof with a sunshade. Some Highlander trims come with 18-inch machine-finished alloy wheels or 20-inch composite or platinum alloy wheels.
Just as the Highlander has progressed with its exterior styling, the interior has moved forward in a pleasant way. The top-trim models impart much elegance – could it be that the Highlander secures some of the look popularized in previous-generation Lexus models? That seems like a possibility.
Higher-end materials and fewer plastics grace most Highlander models. The detailing is interesting too, with double-stitching, surface sculpting, and a variety of color choices imparting flair.
The first two trims have cloth or fabric-trimmed seats, while the middle XLE has SofTex material, which is imitation leather. We’ve noticed that the synthetic coverings live up to Toyota’s claim of having the look and feel of real hides. Somehow, its designers figured out a way to make them breathable and imbue them with cooling properties. We’re impressed with them as they offer a compelling alternative to the real leathers gracing the Limited and Platinum trims.
Toyota supplies every Highlander model with full power accessories and push-button start. Other standard features include a tilt-and-telescopic steering column, tri-zone automatic climate control, an overhead console, an in-dash split-level shelf, and eight cupholders and four bottle holders.
Move up through the trim ranks and Toyota adds such features as a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, heated outboard second-row seats, and second-row sunshades.
The Highlander offers a comfortable interior that’s roomy and bright. There isn’t a penalty seat in the house, although that statement needs to be qualified for adults sitting in the third row. The L and LE models offer the tightest configurations and seat eight. The other three trims seat seven, thanks to captain’s chairs in the middle row, which replace the stock three-place bench seat.
We like the seven-seat arrangement best as it supplies four quality seating positions spanning the first two rows. It also makes it easier for third-row passengers to move about – the person sitting in the middle position can stretch out his legs with ease.
The utility side of the Highlander is evident especially when you begin to fold down seats to expand the storage space. This model comes with 16.0 cubic feet of standard space, which expands to 48.4 cubic feet with the third row folded and to 84.3 cubic feet with the second- and third-row seats folded. Suddenly, all your yard sale finds or camping gear is swallowed up inside. And if that’s not enough space, the available roof rails hold more.
We applaud Toyota in the matter of all things safety. This automaker clearly sets a bar that few others achieve. And that bar includes equipment found in base models – there is no trim-level or package upgrade required to obtain its main features.
The Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 (TSS 2.0 P) package includes a pre-collision system with automatic high beams, pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, lane tracing assist (this feature keeps the Highlander centered in its lane), full-speed range dynamic radar cruise control, road sign assist, and cyclist detection.
There are a few advanced features that show up beyond the base L trim. Beginning with the LE, the Highlander gains blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. Front and rear parking assist with automated braking is included with the Limited and Platinum trims.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the “Top Safety Pick” rating for the 2020 Highlander from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). As for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the 2019 Highlander earned its top 5-star rating. The 2020 Highlander hasn’t been scored yet, but we expect that rating will hold for another year.
Infotainment is the name of the game for many consumers. We’re so used to having various ports and screens available to connect us. As for the Highlander, it doesn’t disappoint.
All models come with a 6-speaker audio system, HD Radio, satellite radio, an 8-inch touch-screen display, Bluetooth connectivity, and offer Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa compatibility. Upgradeable packages bring in navigation and an 11-speaker audio system.
Every trim has four USB ports and a pair of 12-volt power outlets. Some models include a pair of 120-volt power outlets located on the bottom rear of the center console and in the storage compartment. Charge your laptops up front and connect your power tools in the rear.
One of our favorite features of our day are wireless charging pads. We’ve seen them spring up over the past few years – they serve as a terrific way to charge smartphones when cords are not available or wanted. This feature is standard beginning with the XLE trim. Some luxury models charge extra for them.
Under the hood of the 2020 Highlander is a 3.5-liter V6 engine with 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque. Power routes to the wheels via an 8-speed automatic transmission.
Motivating the Highlander Hybrid is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with electric motors and a continuously variable transmission. This one makes 186 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. Under full throttle, the hybrid reaches 243 horsepower, which is impressive.
The Highlander performed exactly as expected with ample step-off acceleration and robust passing power. The transmission was the darling here, firing off cogs (and the right ones) with ease.
The steering is sufficiently weighted and the Highlander handles no better or no worse than any crossover. This means it manages twisty roads with minimal roll, but you’ll need to apply the brakes when entering corners. With all-wheel drive, the Highlander distributes power evenly between the axles, supplying an additional amount of support (and driver confidence) on winding roads and slick surfaces.
If you want to take your all-wheel-drive Highlander off-road, some models come with single-disconnect AWD, while others have torque-vectoring AWD for improved handling. We’d limit Highlander adventuring to gravelly roads and avoid anything that could challenge its undercarriage. If you’re off-road serious, then the Toyota 4Runner SUV is worth close scrutiny.
If you’re planning to tow, the Highlander equipped with the tow package is rated to pull 5,000 pounds. The Highlander Hybrid’s rating comes in at a respectable 3,500 pounds.
Perhaps the most impressive difference between the gas and hybrid models is the fuel economy. Choose the gas model and it gets an EPA-estimated 23/24 mpg combined. Opt for the hybrid and it delivers a 50-percent increase with a rating of 35/36 mpg. What’s especially impressive is that under full throttle the hybrid attains 82 percent of the power output of the gas model.
The midsize three-row crossover utility vehicle segment is akin to yesteryear’s full-size sedan and wagon category – the vehicles many of us older folk rode in when we were children. It’s also the replacement for minivans, although that segment is still around. Witness the Toyota Sienna as one example.
Among the Highlander’s chief competitors are the Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, Nissan Pathfinder, Ford Explorer, and the Dodge Durango. Other models in this segment include the Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas, Buick Enclave, Hyundai Palisade, GMC Acadia, and the Kia Telluride.
Nearly every model in this segment comes with standard front-wheel drive and available all-wheel drive. The Ford and Dodge models have standard rear-wheel drive; the Subaru is exclusively all-wheel drive.
We think the XLE trim with front-wheel drive supplies the best bang for the buck. It comes with many of the features shoppers want. It also has standard seven-passenger seating and the coveted wireless charging pad. Your cost should come in around $40,000, which is a reasonable price for this vehicle.
If you’re planning to tow, opting for the all-wheel drive seems smart. You’ll want this feature if you live in a snowy climate anyway.
Now more than ever, we think shoppers should consider the Highlander Hybrid. It’s a better performer than before and the base LE model costs just $1,400 more than the equivalent gas LE trim. Gas prices may be low as of this writing, but they will rise once again. Importantly, you’ll enjoy a 50-percent boost in fuel economy, which means you’ll recoup your costs in a few years.
2020 Toyota Highlander Specifications
|Segment||Midsize Three-Row SUV|
|Price Range||$34,600 to $48,650|
|Engine No. 1||3.5-liter, V6|
|Horsepower||295 @ 6,600 rpm|
|Torque (lb.-ft.)||263 @ 4,700 rpm|
|Engine No. 2||2.5-liter, I4|
|Horsepower||186 @ 6,000 rpm|
|Torque (lb.-ft.)||175 @ 4,400 rpm|
|Seating||7 to 8|
|Curb Weight (pounds)||4,145 to 4,595|
|Headroom (f,r…inches)||39.9, 39.4, 36.1|
|Legroom (f,r…inches)||40.4, 41.0, 27.7|
|Shoulder room (f,r…inches)||59.0, 58.7, 55.0|
|Hip room (f,r…inches)||57.2, 57.0, 45.6|
|Storage (cubic feet)||16.0, 48.4, 84.3|
|Gross vehicle weight (pounds)||5,830 to 6,000|
|Towing (pounds)||3,500 (hybrid); 5,000 (gas)|
|Payload (pounds)||1,405 to 1,685|
|Fuel Tank (gallons)||17.1 (hybrid), 17.9 (gas)|
|EPA Fuel MPG (city/highway/combined)||21/29/24 (gas); 36/35/36 (hybrid)|
|Manufacturing Plant||Princeton, Indiana|
Data compiled by Tom Keegan. Specifications supplied by the manufacturer.
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