2020 Toyota Highlander First Drive Review: Watch Out Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade?
The new Highlander arrives to re-stake its claim among three-row SUVs.
Despite its rugged, rural mythology, Texas isn't solely responsible for pickups and SUVs transitioning from worksites to grade schools and grocery stores. That being said, the biggest state in the lower 48 does offer the widest spectrum of practical transportation applications one is likely to encounter, so it's a suitable launchpad for the 2020 Toyota Highlander, the latest generation of the Japanese-by-way-of-Plano brand's three-row hauler.
It would be a stretch to say that the Highlander pioneered the move from body-on-frame sport-utilities to the car-based designs that dominate today's roads, but there's no doubt that the popular model has played an outsized role in introducing hundreds of thousands of drivers to the idea of giving up their minivans for something a little taller, a smidge heavier, and almost as useful. Nearly two decades after it was introduced, the Highlander still pulls more than its weight for Toyota, with nearly a quarter-million units sold annually to families not tempted—or perhaps repulsed—by the competent Sienna van. It's also facing its toughest competition ever, in a field where more than two dozen rival mid-size crossover SUVs vie for those same buyers.
Bigger Inside and Out
Against this cutthroat backdrop, the 2020 Toyota Highlander acquits itself well. Having evolved alongside the modern SUV almost every step of the way, it's no surprise that the vehicle's familiar formula—high feature count; a comfortable, spacious design; and an agreeable price tag—remains relevant. Even in the areas where the new Highlander appears to have taken a step back, it's done so to support a pivot towards a future that's more in line with what its loyalists asked for.
The obvious changes are welcome. Marginally longer than before, the Highlander's new TNGA-K platform doesn't just boost overall rigidity and help make for a quieter, more composed ride, but it also increases cargo room. There's now a total of 84 cubic feet with all three rows folded flat, and 16 cubes when each of its three standard rows are occupied.
The revised Highlander also features added space for the precious knees of those exiled to the way back. The second row now slides an extra 1.2 inches closer to the front, offering some additional respite to short-term adult-size prisoners deemed unfit for the SUV's optional middle-row captain's chairs. If only the outboard positions of the standard middle bench were more comfortable, as large hinge covers near the doors intrude on lower torsos.
Look And Feel Catch Up With The Pack
The 2020 Highlander's attractive and beefier new exterior are a fine match for a cabin that's finally caught up with the premium zeitgeist, whereby vehicles even in this quotidian class are defined by an upscale mix of materials. Although no entry-level L or value-focused LE trims were available to drive, the mid-range XLE's imitation leather upholstery on the seats, dashboard, and door panels lived up to that model's $39,600 ask in terms of look and feel.
Add another $10K to that price tag for the Platinum' and you'll get genuine cowhides and a standard 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen. The unit is a revelation compared to past efforts, with its slick design and speedy response banishing the memory of the class-trailing previous Entune system. Even the base 8.0-inch setup is a vaunted improvement over anything from Toyota UIs past, as it, too, offers the larger unit's Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration (although without the high-end Dynamic Navigation feature).
All cockpits are also equipped with an array of easy-to-use hard buttons to control frequent functions such as climate and stereo, and it's also simple to turn on and off the various aspects of Toyota's standard Safety Sense 2.0 suite of driver's aides, which include lane-departure warning and assist, adaptive cruise control, and forward collision warning with automatic braking. Blind-spot monitoring remains an option.
Less Beef, More Sauce
The Highlander's 3.5-liter V-6 carries over with only a few changes made for the 2020 model year, and the direct-injected engine delivers 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque—perfectly acceptable totals even if they're not topping any segment lists. Fuel mileage is largely status quo, checking in at 24 mpg combined for front-wheel-drive models. An eight-speed automatic transmission is included across the board, all-wheel drive is optional, and 5,000 pounds of towing capacity can be accessed by spec'ing a towing package.
A much more substantial change can be found with the Highlander Hybrid. Previously the mightiest member of the Highlander family (cresting 300 horsepower), it swaps its six-cylinder setup for a more modest 2.5-liter four-cylinder, 243-hp system that combines a pair of electric motors, a continuously-variable automatic transmission, and a familiar nickel-metal hydride battery pack. The latter is the same size as it was in the previous-generation Highlander (fitting beneath the rear seats with no intrusion into cabin space), but has seen 10 percent increase in overall efficiency. The overall electric motor output also rises by 10 percent, with 30 percent more torque on offer from the rear unit.
Toyota claims that the cylinder decrease from six to four was driven by buyer desire for a focus on fuel mileage rather than power in the battery-assisted model. The end result is a 29 percent improvement in its combined rating, which jumps from last year's 29 mpg to an impressive 36 mpg, an achievement made possible in part by the near 300 pounds of weight melted from the Highlander's bones, plus the new option of a front-wheel-drive version. (The previous Highlander Hybrid was AWD-only.)
Out on the road, it's difficult to imagine a scenario where Hybrid drivers would lament the power gap between past and present. Acceleration may not be as brisk as in the nonhybrid 2020 Highlander (whose 7.5-ish-second sprint to 60 mph is more than half a second quicker), but as with all battery-based Toyota designs the subtle interplay between electric and gas motivators is completely transparent. It's a well-executed system that may lack a little in highway passing power but balances the scales with silent EV running at speeds nearing 20 mph.
If one had any complaints about the Toyota Highlander's comportment it would be with regards to handling rather than horsepower. As solid as the TNGA-K architecture feels, each Highlander model we drove had a surprising amount of float to its suspension tune, a trait most noticeable on undulating pavement or when negotiating the many 90-degree intersections linking the rural Texas roads that ring San Antonio. No one in their right mind would expect sports-car cornering out of a family-friendly crossover, but the Highlander is less focused on handling competence when compared to rivals like the Honda Pilot or Kia Telluride.
The Game Has Changed
Perhaps of greater concern to Toyota than the Highlander's lack of athleticism is the recent appearance of two new bogeys on SUV shoppers' radar screens: the Hyundai Palisade and the aforementioned Kia Telluride, each of which have pushed the boundaries of what "premium" means outside of traditional luxury brands. By raising expectations and offering tons of value (the Highlander is roughly $3,000 more expensive than either of the Korean interlopers for comparably equipped models), Kia and Hyundai have targeted Toyota and Honda customers with laser-like precision.
While the Highlander might not be a direct match for the dynamics or opulence of the Kia or Hyundai twins, its Hybrid option is a formidable weapon no other vehicle in the segment can match save for Ford's pricey, big-power Explorer Hybrid or the uncompetitive Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in. To that end, Toyota has aggressive plans that see the Hybrid accounting for a larger chunk of overall Highlander sales with this generation thanks to its much improved economy and surprisingly affordable price point (it's just $1,200 and $1,400 more than the gas-only version, depending on trim). And then there's the loyalty factor. There's nothing about the new Highlander that would cause a longtime Toyota household to shift allegiances.
That said, those willing to expand their searches beyond favorite or familiar brands will find themselves awash in satisfying three-row options. Count the new Highlander among them—just don't count it as the only one.
|2020 Toyota Highlander Specifications|
|ENGINES||3.5L DOHC 24-valve V-6, 295 hp, 263 lb-ft; 2.5L DOHC 16-valve Atkinson-cycle I-4, two electric motors, 243 hp combined|
|TRANSMISSIONS||8-speed automatic or continuously variable automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 7-8-passenger, front-engine, FWD or AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||20-27/35-36 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||194.9 x 76.0 x 68.1 in|
|WEIGHT||4,150-4,600 lb (mfr)|
|0-60 MPH||7.3-7.9 sec (est)|