When it comes to the sales race in the popular three row SUV segment, the 2020 Toyota Highlander is an unstoppable juggernaut. The 2019 model for example was the best-selling model in the segment despite being outdated when compared to its newer rivals which is an impressive feat in and of itself. But the aforementioned age finally caught up to that generation of Highlander, and Toyota has acted quickly with the 2020 iteration of the Highlander. This generation brings a new platform, interior technology and revamped powertrain options to the table, but can all of these improvements help the Highlander keep its winning ways?
Futuristic Tones Set The Mood:
To find out, we visited the Crain’s Communication building in Detroit where our friends at Toyota had several Highlanders gathered for a small group of media. The first thing that certainly draws your attention is the revised exterior styling. The front fascia in particular ditches a lot of the chunky elements that defined the older model, and adopts a more aggressive persona that refines and sharpens a lot of the design. The headlights for example look more aggressive, and do a far better job of meshing with the meaner front grille. Even the hood looks more aggressive, with Toyota designers adding some sculped lines and creases in the hood for a more muscular look. The side profile still retains a high degree of functionality, but reworked body sculpting and key new elements help inject more personality into this particular angle.
The rear fascia adds more restraint, but we do appreciate the new LED taillights that were present on our Platinum grade test car, as well as the lighter liftgate which Toyota claims was built out of lightweight composite materials instead of the heavier steel that defined the outgoing Highlander. Wheel choices are beefier than ever, with Toyota offering 18-inch wheels as the base choice for L, LE, and XLE models. Opt for the more luxurious Limited and Platinum models, and you are greeted with bigger 20-inch wheels that feature new designs, and are slightly bigger than the hoops that defined the old Highlander.
A Cabin Worthy Of Any Road Trip:
But while the TNG-K platform does wonders for the Highlander’s exterior elements, it is ultimately the interior that benefits the most from the new platform, and as a result, it continues to be the Highlander’s biggest strength. Slipping into the interior of the Highlander makes you forget about chintzier entries like the Ford Explorer, and rewards its occupants with high levels of comfort and usability. Toyota designers completely revamped things, with an updated center console and instrument panel leading the charge. The higher grade of materials is also boldly present with our Platinum grade tester featuring real supple leather seats, soft padded accents in key touch points, as well as more functionally sound storage cubbies and nooks. The shifter is also simple to use, and for the first time ever in a Toyota, the infotainment system finally has both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capability.
Controls in our tester were easy to use, but while we appreciated the size and the level of detail in the optional 12.3 inch touchscreen (a smaller 8.0 inch unit is standard in lower trims) the simpler menu interface is contrasted by slow response times, and the placement does require a long reach for those with shorter arms. Drivers will appreciate the better view out the front thanks to the repositioned dashboard, as well a some of the tweaks made to the front of the Highlander. The rear still has big blind spots, but a comprehensive camera system gives the driver a multitude of views when entering a parking space (including a cool 360 degree panoramic view of the car itself.)
The second row has more legroom than the Ford Explorer and the Honda Pilot, but it still manages to come up just a bit short when viewed against the popular and equally strong selling Kia Telluride. Headroom is very abundant in this part of the Highlander (impressive when you consider the massive sunroof that was bundled into our tester) and occupants will appreciate the two handy USB ports that Toyota designers added back there. Like the outgoing Highlander, the third row here is still a very economy-class minded place to be, and is the polar opposite of the fore-mentioned second row. Clearly designed for small children, the space is easily accessible, but it gets cramped very quickly once adults get formally settled in back there. We suggest doing what we did, and fold it down to help expand the rather cramped cargo space that exists when that row is in place. Lastly, we loved the premium JBL audio system which still continues to be one of the best premium audio systems that we have ever experienced in a mainstream utility, with ample amounts of good sound quality, as well as good mid-range delivery.
Mixture Of Old And New Defines The Driving Experience:
With all the updates that have taken place inside and out, it was a pity that Toyota has chosen to play it safe yet again with the Highlander’s performance equipment. The 3.5 liter V6 carries over from the previous generation Highlander, and it still delivers 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. As such, it was no surprise to see that 0 to 60 times for the two are nearly identical, though Toyota does tout the 5,000 lb towing capability of the V6. That aside, the unchanged horsepower number means that the engine is outgunned by both the Ford Explorer, and the V6 powered Honda Pilot, with the two posting quicker 0 to 60 times.
Furthermore, in a segment where turbocharged four cylinder options are becoming more accepted by other utility offerings, it is disappointing to see the Highlander is still behind the curve here. A more performance oriented V6 equipped XSE model will arrive in the near future, and weekend warriors looking for more fun will be thrilled with some of the model exclusive touches that Toyota baked into that flavor of Highlander. However, despite our best efforts, Toyota reps would not disclose whether the Highlander XSE will benefit from TRD accessories like the TRD Camry and Avalon sedans do, but patience is a virtue, and it would be cool to hear a Highlander XSE with the strong soundtrack offered by a good TRD exhaust system.
Meanwhile, the new addition to the engine lineup is the all new 2.5 liter hybrid four cylinder engine. Replacing the hybrid V6 in the Highlander lineup, the new four cylinder is good for 243 combined horsepower, and Toyota is quick to point out that the Highlander is the only hybrid SUV in the market avalible in front wheel drive. As a bonus, the hybrid is capable of nabbing 36 mpg in the city, and an equally impressive 35 mpg in freeway driving.
So how does this all measure up in the real world? It’s a mixed bag. Driving the Highlander Platinum around on the streets of Detroit, as well as the quiet roads that dot Belle Isle revealed that the suspension does a good job of soaking up bumps, and the rigid platform does improve the Highlander’s poise slightly. That said, this is still a Toyota Highlander, and as expected, some bodyroll was present on occasions where the Highlander was asked to do more abrupt dance moves instead of its preferred choice of taking its time. The steering is light, but it does have decent weighting to it, with not quite as much slop and vagueness that we have come to expect from other three row SUVs. Braking in our tester was strong, but there is alot of dive from the nose when tasked with hard braking.
In addition to its strong interior, the Highlander also makes a good showing when it comes to pricing, with the Highlander clearly retaining its strong targeting towards mainstream customers depending on what configuration is picked. Base L models start at $34,600 with LE models starting at a slightly higher $36,800. Hybrid models do command a small premium, but in many cases the gap between them and their traditional counterparts is not that big. Look for the bulk of buyers to focus their attention on the XLE variant which firmly holds its spot as the middle rung in the Highlander hierarchy. These models start at $39,600, and like our black XLE trimmed photo example, come equipped with a balanced blend of comfort and functional features.
But if you are after the ultimate in luxury and technology, then the Platinum trim is the right fit for you. With non-hybrid models starting at $46,850, Toyota claims that these models are the go-to option for buyers looking for maximum levels of technology and refinement. it also manages to have a lower price of entry than the Ford Explorer Platinum, which starts at a lofty $58,250 which can easily rise over $65,000 when fully equipped. The Chevrolet Traverse on the other hand is a much closer rival, and while the range topping High Country model also wields a higher $52,095 base price. It is the Premier trim that actually measures up better to the Highlander Platinum, with that model being only slightly higher in price ($46,995) versus the Highlander. Unlike the Highlander, the Traverse does not come equipped with a hybrid model, and is a V6 only affair.
While the 2020 Toyota Higlander is still a few moves short of upstaging the rapidly ascending rocket known as the Kia Telluride in terms of sales and features, the revamped Toyota still has plenty going for it. The interior is finally taking its role as a place to spend time in very seriously, and we like the welcome additions of both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to the Highlander’s arsenal of tricks. When combined with the new four cylinder hybrid model, it helps the Highlander remain a viable threat in the three row SUV wars, and we are eagerly awaiting our time in the Highlander XSE to see if an infusion of performance can help add some juice to the Highlander’s moves.