The third-generation version of the Toyota Highlander stills sells in the hundreds of thousands annually, which makes the cautious, calculated approach that Toyota took in fully redesigning its mid-size three-row SUV for the 2020 model year rather unsurprising. Still, a cadre of fresh competitors from Ford, Kia, Hyundai, and Subaru, among others, means Toyota had to notably up its game in this hotbed of a marketspace. Through a combination of a new platform, more standard and optional equipment, and a greater sense of overall refinement, the fourth-gen Highlander manages to do just that.
Regular C/D readers surely will ask: Do the new Highlander's updates make it better than the Kia Telluride, which absolutely nails its mission in this segment and has earned pretty much every accolade we can give it, including a comparison-test victory and a 2020 10Best award? We'll lock the two in a cage match as soon as we get a proper Highlander test vehicle. But our initial exposure to this Toyota in Texas did reveal it to have improved looks and more crisply pressed sheetmetal. It's now built on Toyota's solid TNGA-K platform, which also underpins the latest Avalon, Camry, and RAV-4 models. Next to the old model, the Highlander is a smidge wider and a modest 2.4 inches longer in wheelbase and overall length, with all of that stretch going to increased cargo capacity. Both V-6 and hybrid powertrains, something few of its peers offer, remain available, and there's now an arsenal of standard driver assists in Toyota's Safety Sense 2.0 bundle, from adaptive cruise control to front and rear automatic emergency braking that will prevent you from backing out of a parking space if a car is approaching.
A Composed, Sedate Driver
The meandering country roads of our drive route offered few opportunities to probe the Highlander's handling limits without tripling the posted speed limits. And, if we're honest, that's of little consequence in what amounts to a people mover that's just a couple sliding doors removed from a Sienna minivan. But this Toyota's electrically assisted steering does twirl precisely, even if it is a bit slow to respond to initial inputs. There is a satisfyingly firm brake pedal, particularly the hybrid's, and it's easy to modulate. The rather softly tuned strut front and multilink rear suspension has gentle body movements and delivers a decently plush ride over shoddy pavement, even on the optional 20-inch wheels (18s are standard).
The Highlander tracks straight and true at highway speeds, and intrusions of road, wind, and engine noise are pleasingly subdued. Opt for either the top Limited or Platinum trim levels and a laminated, sound-attenuating windshield and front side glass noticeably tamp down noise levels further—the better to enjoy the impressive 1200-watt JBL audio system upgrade. Competent and predictable, if a bit bland, are hallmark Toyota road manners, and they apply to the Highlander in spades.
The standard 3.5-liter V-6 is unchanged from last year and still develops 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. (The previous standard 2.7-liter inline-four has been discontinued.) Married to an eight-speed automatic transmission, the V-6 thrums in the background but delivers ample thrust with only moderate fuss when poked hard. For a quick merge onto the highway, we did find it necessary to poke it to find its high 4700-rpm torque peak. The eight-speed often quickly upshifts to top gear to aid efficiency yet is tuned smartly and operates unobtrusively, making it a close ally to the V-6. Additional assistance comes from a claimed weight reduction of around 250 pounds for the V-6 model and slightly more for hybrid versions, but we'll confirm that once we get one on our scales. All V-6–powered 2020 Highlanders come standard with front-wheel drive; all-wheel drive costs $1600 to $1950, depending on the trim level, with Limited and Platinum versions featuring the more advanced of the two mechanical setups with a torque-vectoring rear differential that can both distribute torque to either rear wheel and disconnect the rear driveshaft for more efficient cruising.
A Smarter Hybrid
Spring for the Highlander hybrid, which costs an additional $1400 and is offered in all but the base L trim level, and you'll get a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four along with two electric motor-generators that are combined through a planetary gearset to create a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT); the nickel-metal-hydride battery resides under the second-row seats. Combined output is 243 horsepower, which is a considerable step down from the previous, 306-hp V-6–powered Highlander hybrid. Yet, the new setup offers more than enough acceleration to beat most traffic, with its electric motors providing a small yet welcome fill of low-rpm torque. Front-wheel drive is standard for the first time on the Highlander hybrid. All-wheel drive, which consists of a third electric motor on the rear axle that kicks in when the system detects wheel slippage, warrants the same upcharge as on V-6 models. Toyota has yet to release full specs of the Highlander's hybrid components but says that the bulk of the system is similar to the previous model's, albeit both slightly more powerful and efficient.
The 20 percent or so of Highlander buyers that Toyota expects to opt for the hybrid are probably going to like it. The on-road behavior is similar to the V-6's, and the CVT is decently responsive and tuned to keep the inline-four from droning excessively under hard acceleration. As with the regular version, there's little noticeable difference between the hybrid's drive modes (Normal, Eco, Sport, and hybrid-only EV), save for the Sport setting's slightly sharper throttle response and tendency to hold engine revs higher. All-wheel-drive Highlanders also feature a driver-adjustable terrain-select system for optimizing the drivetrain for mud/sand, rock/dirt, and snowy surfaces. Maximum towing capacity is 3500 pounds for the hybrid and 5000 with the V-6.
Compared to the previous Highlander hybrid, which carried an EPA combined estimate of 28 to 29 mpg, depending on the model, the new version sees a considerable bump in fuel economy to a combined 36 mpg for front-drive models and 35 mpg with all-wheel drive. Toyota says to expect about 600 miles of range from the hybrid's 17.1-gallon fuel tank. V-6–powered versions are rated similarly as before, earning a 24-mpg combined estimate with front-wheel drive and a one-mpg penalty with all-wheel drive.
Practicality and Technology
The packaging of the new seven- or eight-passenger Highlander places it in the middle of its competitive space—larger than the driver-focused Mazda CX-9 yet not as cavernous as the Chevrolet Traverse or Volkswagen Atlas. Its front seats are nicely sculpted for good side and lumbar support, as are the spacious second row's, which also have a useful amount of slide-and-recline adjustability; a three-across middle-row bench seat or captain's chairs are available, depending on the trim level. The third row, however, is no larger than before, is as flat as a board, and, while tolerable for short jaunts, is a too small for adults to access and be comfortable in. More important, at least to Toyota's focus groups, is that the increase in the Highlander's length has yielded a decent 16 cubic feet of cargo space with the third row raised—2 cubic feet more than before. Stow the third row, and it grows to 48 cubic feet and 84 cubes with the second row folded flat. Ikea, here we come.
Given that the previous Highlander debuted for the 2014 model year, the new model's greatest strides have been made in regard to technology and design. The dashboard and center console has been modernized and there’s an uptick in material quality. Toyota may have tried a bit too hard toward the top end of the model lineup. The sheer number of different materials and intersecting forms in the top Platinum models we drove makes it a bit fussy and overdone. Things are better in the volume XLE model where you get a more cohesive and less ornate presentation of colors and textures. Still, none of the available trims can touch the packaging, usability, and upscale finish of the best in the class, the Kia Telluride and its Hyundai Palisade platform-mate, both of which also offer some luxuries not available on the Toyota, such as a microsuede headliner and ventilated second-row seats.
The Highlander's tech quotient is bolstered by a standard 4.2-inch digital display between the analog gauges that can be upgraded to a 7.0-inch unit, as well as a standard 8.0-inch central touchscreen or an optional 12.3-incher. Current Highlander owners will be delighted with how crisply and relatively logically all of the new readouts render information, as well as with the numerous redundant hard buttons on the center stack and console. Along with the aforementioned active-safety features, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, and Wi-Fi connectivity all are standard fare. Additional welcome gizmos include an optional digital rearview interior mirror, wireless device charging, a 360-degree surround-view camera system, and a configurable 10.0-inch head-up display.
That all of the 2020 Highlander's improvements come with only a small increase in price over the outgoing version—at least when comparing V-6 to V-6 models—make Toyota's latest three-row ute look like a winner. While the trim lineup is simplified (L, LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum), you get more features for only a bit more outlay, although the $35,720 starting point for the L trim is thousands higher than many competitors. The value-packed XLE begins at $40,720, and Platinum versions nudge the wrong side of $50K when loaded with options.
The fourth-gen Highlander is not radical, sexy, nor exciting, nor is it likely to upend the three-row class. But it is, at least from our initial experience, highly capable and better than its predecessor. It might not be our choice, but it has the reputation, practicality, and modern features that buyers expect in a very competitive segment.