You might say that articles about the 2020 Toyota Highlander have no business on a website with the motto #NoBoringCars. We might say you’re right. But we’ve learned that even the most unassuming vehicles have some interesting stories to tell, and we managed to find a few for this sales juggernaut. We talked to the Highlander’s chief engineer and Toyota’s general manager, and here’s what we learned:
The new Highlander owes a lot of its personality to the 405 freeway. For those unfamiliar—and how lucky you are—the 405 is known to Los Angeles residents as the World’s Longest Parking Lot. It’s the poster child for bad traffic in a town where bad traffic is the norm—and it’s a road that Highlander chief engineer Yoshikazu Saeki loves.
“Hills, curves, corners, barriers on the driver’s side,” Saeki-san points out the 405 has them all. “You have to feel safe and confident driving [at high speed] inches from a concrete wall.” The Highlander was tuned for a typical 405 commute, with the ability to accelerate confidently and predictably on short on-ramps, steer responsively without being twitchy, inspire confidence while speeding through curves and protect one’s serenity in mind-numbing stop-and-go traffic. Prototypes were driven on the actual 405 because, as Saeki-san says, “It’s very difficult to complete a product in an R&D facility.”
Bottom-hinged accelerator pedals are better. Drive a Highlander and you’ll notice a bottom-hinged, organ-style accelerator pedal, one commonly used on European cars and becoming more and more popular on cars from Asia and America. The Highlander team spent a lot of time on accelerator curves, making sure that the power response with each change of pedal position corresponds to what the driver wants. (If they don’t get this right, drivers tend to step harder on the pedal and waste more gas.) The Highlander team found that a bottom-hinged pedal delivers a response more in line with what drivers expect—hence the bottom-hinged accelerators in the Highlander and other TGNA-platform vehicles, as opposed to the hanging pedals in other Toyota models.
You (probably) won’t see butched-up versions of the Highlander. A lot of automakers try to dress up their on-road family utes with off-road swagger. (We won’t point any fingers, but one example is an SUV with the initials “P” and “athfinder”.) Not Toyota. “We don’t have to make the car something it’s not,” says Jack Hollis, group VP and general manager of the Toyota division. “Younger customers see through that.” But Hollis insists that doesn’t mean the Highlander needs to be boring: “Making a vehicle exciting is different than making it something it’s not,” he says. “They want room for car seats, surfboards. They’re looking for versatility. I want to give them all of the versatility they need on-road.” Of course, Toyota is in a better position than most automakers to do this, because it has the 4Runner and Sequoia body-on-frame SUVs that are truly off-road capable.
It’s not tuned, it’s flavored. The new Highlander shares its TGNA platform with the RAV4 and Camry, among other vehicles, but it was important that the products not drive the same. The Highlander had to have the agility of the RAV4 while delivering a more premium feel. We asked chief engineer Sakei-san about the differences in tuning of the Highlander, and he told us that all of these considerations were baked into the TGNA platform to begin with.
In any platform, he explained, “There’s a range that exists. Within this coverage range, you can achieve [different driving experiences] without a trade-off. If a product is developed at the edge of its limits, there’s a trade-off. Vehicle development used to be at the limits of the coverage range. This time, we made sure there was more range [to give us] ample leeway. Now it’s just a matter of flavoring the different variants.”
The Highlander is a basket with plenty of eggs in it. While compact SUVs are the strongest segment in the industry, the Highlander proves that Toyota isn’t pouring a disproportionate amount of resources into the RAV4. Jack Hollis acknowledges that RAV4 is the stronger seller by a significant margin, but says, “You’ll see similar growth between the two size vehicles. Maybe more for the Highlander segment.” It’s for those same reasons that Toyota continues to invest in other, colder vehicle segments, hence the attention paid to Avalon, Camry, Corolla, and Yaris.
The 2020 Highlander is good for our trade (im)balance. Toyota plans to build the Highlander in Indiana, which is no surprise; it builds plenty of U.S.-market cars in America. But the Highlander is intended for other markets, and Toyota will be exporting American-built Highlanders to 18 different countries. We’re always happy when companies support U.S. workers, so that’s definitely something to get excited about.