The family-care plan, updated and more refined
Toyota’s fourth-generation 2020 Highlander is a revitalized expression of family care, wrapped in an armor of advanced safety systems. The redesigned midsize SUV — now built on the Toyota New Global Architecture — represents hundreds of thousands of Highlanders that have been sold since its 2001 debut in the U.S.
It is currently Toyota’s second-best selling SUV, following the compact-class RAV4, but ahead of the 4Runner, subcompact C-HR, Sequoia and Land Cruiser.
With that heritage, much care went into redesigning the 2020 model. While it is an all new construction, except for the carryover V-6 engine, the new design language (“bold and chiseled”) is evolutionary from its predecessor with the aggressive face, boomerang angles and character bulges. It has a substantial presence.
The new model is about the same size as before but 2.36 inches longer, all in the cargo area, something requested by owners (and to keep up with the new competition, including the Kia Telluride). And now, the second row slides an extra 1.2 inches further to give more (needed) legroom to the third row or to stretch cargo space.
But the Highlander’s more premium presentation inside will be most appreciated to the loyalists.
As before, Highlander is available in gasoline or gasoline-electric hybrid models in front or all-wheel drive with three-rows of seating for seven or eight. Second-row captain’s chairs or a three-position bench are no-cost options.
The gasoline models use a 295-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 with eight-speed automatic transmission. Sold in five trim levels, including the new base L, starting prices range from $35,720 with front-drive to $49,920 AWD; pricing includes the $1,120 freight charge from Princeton, Ind.
The hybrid model is powered by a 2.5-liter direct-injection Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder with combined electric and combustion horsepower of 243 and 175 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm. It is just $1,400 more than the gas version (depending on the model), and is sold in four trim levels, front- or AWD, with starting prices of $39,745-$51,745 with AWD.
All trim levels are socially connected with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon’s Alexa, Waze (driving directions), satellite radio and a Wi-Fi hot spot.
Today’s tester is a Platinum AWD with second-row captain’s chairs that was $51,112 with three options: the new Moon Dust (ice blue) metallic paint ($415), carpeted floor mats and cargo mat ($318) and roof rack cross bars ($350) and universal table holder ($99).
The Platinum will be the empty-nesters’ escape with its elevated luxury treatment in presence and technologies. It is a best-of collection with the new 12.3-inch touch-screen infotainment display (8-inches on the other models), a 1,200-watt, 11-speaker JBL sound system and laminated front side window glass for soundproofing. The leather upholstery, perforated and neatly stitched, appears to be sourced from Lexus (Toyota’s luxury brand).
While $51,000 is not unreasonable for what Toyota delivers, the midrange XLE is $10K less. With one package for premium audio, $1,400 and carpeted floor mats, the MSRP would be $42,078 and the hybrid equivalent would be $45,078. (Find local lease or buy price incentives, including deferred payments for 90 days, at https://www.toyota.com/local-specials/series/highlander)
And later this year Toyota will debut the sportier XSE. It injects some life into the drive with higher-rate springs and a rear stabilizer bar, and the shock absorbers and electric power steering have been tuned for quicker response.
The front fascia, grille and lower spoiler are exclusive to the XSE to give it a more aggressive stance. The headlamps have black accents and light-strip DRLs. And inside, are black Softex (synthetic leather) seats with fabric inserts, but a two-tone red and black leather-trimmed interior with red-stitched instrument panel is optional.
All models now include Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 system with:
• Pre-collision system with pedestrian detection;
• Full-speed-range dynamic radar cruise control;
• Lane-departure alert with steering assist;
• Automatic high beam control;
• Lane-tracing assist;
• Road sign assist and cyclist detection.
Other standard safety features include eight air bags, blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert, hill-start assist and downhill assist.
I appreciated the V-6 in the 4,450-pound Platinum, but its peak pulling power (torque) of 263 foot-pounds is high in the power band at 4,700 rpm and out of reach to most drivers on the daily commute. The eight-speed automatic is dutiful in performance, but Sport mode sharpens the response time. The power is measured, but it’s there when needed.
Fuel economy is the bigger benefactor, with AWD mileage ratings of 20/27/23 mpg or just a tick better with front-drive at 21/29/24, on the recommended 87 octane. My best was 23.4 mpg combined city/highway.
The hybrid has impressive mileage ratings of 36/35/36 mpg for front-drive or 35/35/35 mpg with AWD, dipping to 35/34/35 for the heavier Limited and Platinum models, also on 87 octane. I have not tested the hybrid, but performance through the eCVT (continuously variable) transmission should have the benefit of more immediate thrust with the electric motor.
The Highlander drives more as a car than an SUV crossover. Its comfortable step-in height has no obstruction from sporty seat bolsters. Driver sightlines are unobstructed and the turning circle is a parking savior at 37.4 feet, the same as the base-model Camry.
Power-assisted four-wheel discs brakes are ready for towing with 13.3-inch vented rotors front and solid 13.3-inch rotors rear.
It is a comfort ride, tuned for mainstream-America comfort, capably blunting the impact of potholes and busted pavement. When pushed hard, it responds as a big, comfy sedan.
The enhanced soundproofing (and the Platinum’s laminated front and side glass) creates a quiet cabin with support from the 20-inch Bridgestone Alenza all-season tires. The tall sidewall is cushioning (and helpful for avoiding curb rash when parking) and they were quieter on the highway than I anticipated for a hard tire with a 65,000-mile warranty and a 500 treadwear rating.
The dynamic radar cruise control, with driver-assist steering and braking technologies, does a good job of centering the vehicle in the lane. But it let the Highlander drift over the white lines or Botts dots and then gave me a warning for the transgression. These systems seem to be easily confused with varying light and road-surface conditions and should always be used with both hands on the wheel.
This is a big cabin with elbow and shoulder room, which also allows plenty of space to position screens, switches and small-item storage areas.
The driver area is smartly arranged for multitasking. The Platinum’s 12.3-inch-wide infotainment screen is a billboard of information but not prone to glare. The big screen has two- to three-panels for various forms of information, such as car settings, music or navigation. And there are knobs for audio volume and tuning. And a tier of switches for temperature, fan speed, vents and seat heaters.
The shift console packages an e-bin with two 2.1-amp charging USBs with a tray above in the dashboard face to lay a phone, which has a small cutout to route a charging cable. Or for newer phones, the wireless charging pad is in the center armrest console. The three-level armrest box is deep with a removable second-level tray.
The back seat has a flat floor with a center floor console between the captain’s chairs with cup holders, and there is bottle storage in the doors. There are temperature controls, fan speed, seat heaters, two 2.1-amp USBs and a 12-volt household plug, but it is light duty at 100 watts. The raised second row benefits from manual sunshades. The chairs will tip and slide for third-row access or the seatbacks fold flat for cargo.
The waaay back three-seat bench is best for children; legroom is tight at 27.7 inches. There are dual cup holders, but no ports or plugs for device charging.
But the 60/40 split seatbacks (with three head restraints) have several inches of recline.
The longer body translates to 2.36 cubic feet more space behind the third row, now at 16 cu. ft. Fold the third row for 48.4 cu. ft. of flat and square space, 3 ½ feet deep. Drop both rows for up to 7 feet of length.
With at least 10 other three-row SUV crossovers in the segment now, Toyota was careful to craft a new Highlander that feels like a homecoming. It is not intimidating to drive and while some SUVs will feel stiff and clumsy in the name of “sporty,” the Highlander is built for comfort and long-term ownership.
2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum
• Body style: Midsize, 7-8 seat, three-row SUV crossover with front- or all-wheel drive
• Engine: 295-hp, direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6 with auto stop-start at idle; 263 lb.-ft. torque at 4,700 rpm
• Transmission: 8-speed automatic; w/electronic on-demand AWD
• Fuel economy: 21/29/24 mpg city/hwy/combined; 87 octane or higher
• Tow capacity: 5,000 lbs.
• Fuel tank: 17.9 gal.
• Cargo space: 16-48.4 cu. ft.
• Front head/leg room: 38.4*/ in. *39.9 w/o moonroof
• 2nd row head/leg room: 39.4/41 in.
• 3rd row head/leg room: 36.1/27.7 in.
• Length/wheelbase: 194.9/112.2 in.
• Curb weight: 4,450 lbs.
• Turning circle: 37.4 ft.
• Standard Platinum equipment includes: smart-key entry with push-button ignition, bird’s-eye view camera with guidance lines and overhead 360-degree view, leather-trimmed upholstery in front and second row seats, 11-speaker JBL Clari-Fi premium audio system with 12.3-inch touch screen, dynamic navigation and media port, driver easy speak microphone, front and rear parking assist with automatic braking, heated and ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat with power lumbar, 4-way power front passenger seat, panoramic view moonroof with sunshade and one-touch open-close, digital rearview mirrors, 10-inch color head-up display with speedometer and road sign assist and navigation, overhead console with conversation mirror, wireless phone charging, hands-free power liftgate, electric parking brake, sliding visors with lighted and covered mirrors, heated side mirrors with turn signal and blind-spot indicators and Highlander-logo puddle lights, 2nd row fold-down captain’s chairs with fold-down armrests, 60/40 folding 3rd row seats with recline, LED headlights (turning) with auto-leveling, LED running lights and taillights, high-output LED fog lights, back-up camera washer, 20-inch alloy wheels with 235/55 all-season tires, heated 2nd row seats with sunshades, lighted door sills, cargo area tonneau cover
• Safety features include: 8 air bags, precollision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, lane tracing assist, automatic high beams, full-speed-range dynamic radar cruise control, road sign assist and cyclist detection, blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert, hill-start assist and downhill assist
• Base price: $49,920, including $1,120 freight charge; price as tested $51,112
• Options on test vehicle: Moon Dust paint $425; carpeted floor mats and cargo mat $318; cargo roof-rack cross bars $350; universal table holder $99
• Where assembled: Princeton, Ind.
• Warranty: 3-years/36,000-miles bumper to bumper w/free scheduled maintenance for 2-years/25,000-miles; 5-years/60,000-miles powertrain