At first blush—and without the benefit of the logo on its front end or the headline just above this text—you might assume our subject vehicle is a new Subaru, or maybe a new Mazda. A Toyota would probably be a bit farther back in the line, but this is indeed the 2020 Highlander, which gets a full makeover that includes a more refined and sculptural aesthetic.
The midsize SUV has moved to Toyota’s TNGA global architecture, which underpins everything from the Prius, C-HR, and Corolla to the RAV4, Camry, and Avalon, and the clean sheet of paper allowed Toyota’s designers to make a stylistic change for a vehicle whose popularity was based less on looks and more on Toyota’s reputation for safe, reliable, durable, and functional family vehicles. The idea was to expand its customer base beyond families to include empty nesters and young, active buyers.
Longtime Highlander drivers might not recognize this generation. A clearly defined grille with a geometric lattice design replaces the current slats—and let’s take the time to applaud the decision to keep the grille size under control—while below that sits a lower opening sited above faux skid plates. There’s more tension in the hood, and the LED headlights are sleeker. From the side, a more clearly defined character line sweeps up to the rear wheel wells, which like the fronts are outlined in black cladding. It rides on a choice of 18- or 20-inch wheels—the current model has 19s. Overall, the crossover is 2.4 inches longer; the wheelbase was stretched by the same amount. It’s also slightly wider while retaining the same height, but the roofline is more tapered.
The grille shape is mirrored in the rear hatch, which now opens with a leg swipe and raises faster thanks to the a switch from steel to a lighter composite plastic. Slimmer taillights start on the liftgate and wrap around the corners, their upper edges helping define a body crease. Current trims include LE, LE Plus, XLE, Limited, and Limited Platinum, but the 2020 model switches to L, LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum. The LE and above are available as hybrids.
The 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is gone, but the 295-hp, 263-lb-ft 3.5-liter V-6 carries over with the eight-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is optional; the Highlander still tows as much as 5,000 pounds and should achieve 20/26/22 city/highway/combined mpg with AWD. Dynamic Torque Vectoring—this is the second application after the RAV4—has been added to the upper trims to shunt available power from side to side to increase the ute’s responsiveness.
The hybrid version gets Toyota’s 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder paired with an electric motor for a combined 240 horsepower. It runs on the more efficient Atkinson combustion cycle and has an updated CVT. Old-school nickel-metal hydride batteries are tucked under the back seat (no lithium-ion batteries here), and there is little EV-only range beyond creeping up the driveway at night. The engine is new to the Highlander, and for the first time you can get the hybrid in front-drive form, which will bring down the cost. The hybrid can tow 3,500 pounds. Ford has added an Explorer hybrid that can tow 5,000 pounds.
The new platform is more rigid, and the suspension features struts up front and control arms at the rear. Toyotas that have migrated to TNGA have are clearly more agile on the road than their predecessors, although we’ll have to wait until we drive it to verify the Highlander has been similarly invigorated.
Inside, there is a Toyota-first 12.3-inch central touchscreen on upper trims (the 8.0-inch infotainment screen carries over for lower ones), and every Highlander has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The driver has a 7.0-inch configurable display with crisp graphics. Up front, three easily accessible USB ports sit below a tray with a pass-through for a charging cable, while wireless charging is standard on the XLE and up and Wi-Fi is available for up to five devices.
The rearview mirror has gone digital and uses a camera to help you see should the SUV is filled to the brim. A heated steering wheel, heated and cooled front leather seats, and heated second-row seats are standard on top trims but otherwise not available. A panoramic moonroof extends over the first two rows of seating, the second of which can be spec’d as captain’s chairs for seven-passenger capacity or a bench seat for eight. Second-row passengers get two USB ports, a 120-volt outlet, and climate controls. Push a button to tilt and slide the seat for access to the third row, which itself can recline or fold flat manually to create a larger cargo hold. Cargo room behind the third row increases from 13.8 cubic feet to 16.1.
The Toyota Safety Sense (TSS 2.0) bundle of active-safety features is standard and includes various technologies that can detects cars, cyclists, and pedestrians; read road signs, lane markings, or the edge of the road; accelerate and brake in traffic when the cruise control is active; and steer as needed to maintain a lane. The first Highlander made its debut at the 2000 New York auto show, and the current model dates back to the 2014 model year. Last year Toyota sold 243,933 Highlanders, compared with 227,732 Explorers.
The 2020 V-6 Highlander will go on sale in December; the hybrid arrives in early 2020.