2020 Toyota Highlander Review

Christian Wardlaw | Dec 18, 2019

Introduction - Find the best Toyota deals!

In its quest to draw Generation X and Millennial family-types into showrooms to buy the redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander, the automaker has improved the midsize three-row SUV in several ways.

First, Toyota wanted the new 2020 Highlander to have a premium look and feel. Second, the company upgraded safety with its latest suite of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS). And third, Toyota wanted to make the 2020 Highlander Hybrid the most efficient vehicle in its segment.

Based on J.D. Power data from the 2019 Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout (APEAL) Study, Toyota also needed to resolve weaknesses reported by owners, chief among them the voice recognition technology, the navigation system, third-row seat space, and front-end styling.

To assess Toyota’s success on these fronts, we traveled to San Antonio, Texas to spend a day driving multiple iterations of the new Highlander. For 2020, trim levels include L (gas only), LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum. The Highlander Hybrid is available with both front-wheel and all-wheel drive, and costs an extra $1,400 over the standard V6 engine.

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum Moon Dust Front QuarterFor this review, J.D. Power evaluated several different versions of the 2020 Highlander. The least expensive of them was an LE Hybrid with all-wheel drive, priced at $40,920, including the $1,120 destination charge. The most expensive was a Platinum Hybrid with all-wheel drive, priced at $51,745, including destination.

What Owners Say… - Find the best Toyota deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the Toyota Highlander, it is helpful to understand who buys this midsize SUV, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

When it comes to demographics, in comparison to the midsize SUV segment, 57% of previous-generation Highlander owners are male (vs. 56% for the segment), is 59 years of age (vs. 56 years), and earns a median annual household income of $121,154 (vs. $116,933).

Just 17% of Highlander owners identify as members of Generation Y (vs. 23%), while 35% identify as retired (vs. 25%). Given Toyota’s stated desire to court Millennials, this suggests the company has plenty of marketing work to do.

J.D. Power data shows that 44% of Highlander owners agree that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company (vs. 56% for the segment), so Toyota might wish to promote the SUV’s origins from a factory in Indiana.

Highlander owners are more likely to agree that their first consideration when choosing a vehicle is fuel economy (60% vs. 56%), and they are significantly more likely to strongly agree that a first consideration when choosing a new vehicle is reliability (79% vs. 67%). At the same time, they are less likely to agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd (64% vs. 69%).

Owners say their favorite things about the previous-generation Highlander were (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving dynamics, visibility and safety, interior design, and engine/transmission. Owners indicate their least favorite things about the previous-generation Highlander were (in descending order) the storage and space, seats, climate system, infotainment system, and fuel economy.

What Our Expert Says…  - Find the best Toyota deals!

In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the new 2020 Highlander measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2019 APEAL Study.

Exterior

Highlander owners wanted Toyota to improve the SUV’s front styling, and the new 2020 Highlander has a more appealing visage. The company didn’t stop there, however, lengthening and widening the Highlander while adding artistic flair to its flanks.

In higher trim levels with larger and more elaborate wheels, the result is a captivating design that clearly draws upon but modernizes the outgoing Highlander’s styling themes. In lower trim levels with smaller and simpler wheels, the Highlander looks a little swollen, especially at its rear haunches.

In any case, the new Highlander is more premium and substantial than it was, meeting one of Toyota’s key goals for the SUV. And the new Moon Dust paint color, a silvery blue, looks fantastic.

Interior

Inside, the same is true. Even in relatively basic LE trim, the Highlander’s materials, control layout, and detailing elevate this family-sized Toyota SUV to a higher standard. The changes do, however, come at some cost to storage space (more on that below).

The new design is busier in terms of its appearance, lacking the clean cohesion of the outgoing Highlander. But with its towering tablet-style infotainment and climate pod, residing in a stylized asymmetrical housing, the new Highlander makes sure you know how modern and up-to-date it is.

Choose Platinum trim for a new Glazed Caramel leather color. It sounds sticky and sweet, but it gives the Highlander’s interior a more distinctive ambience in comparison to the standard colors: Black, Graphite, Harvest Beige.

Seats

Comfort is easy to come by in the new Toyota Highlander, provided you’re riding in the first or second rows of seats. In spite of a claimed increase in third-row legroom, it remains cramped, which means Toyota has inadequately addressed one of the primary things previous Highlander owners wanted changed.

Available heating and ventilation make the front chairs especially agreeable during weather extremes, and the standard power driver’s seat offers enough adjustability to satisfy most drivers. I had trouble dialing in the preferred amount of height and thigh support, but I tend to maximize each when driving.

The front passenger’s seat is unavailable with height adjustment. However, it sits high enough off of the floor and in relationship to the interior that its omission isn’t a major issue.

Second-row seating is excellent, with good thigh support, wide cushions, and plenty of legroom. Captain’s chairs are the only choice with Platinum trim. A bench seat is the only choice with L and LE trim. With the XLE and Limited, you can have either.

Third-row access is tight for adults, and the third-row seat itself is uninhabitable by adults for more than a short trip. I’m six feet tall, and the only way I could fit was if a same-height second-row passenger slid forward enough that his knees were touching the front seat. Plus, the flat third-row seat lacks any semblance of thigh support.

As a result, among its competitors, the new Highlander still misses the mark in terms of third-row room and comfort. If you need to carry people in this part of the SUV on a regular basis, you’ll want a Volkswagen Atlas. Or a Ford Expedition. Or a minivan.

Climate Control System

Toyota embeds the Highlander’s dual-zone automatic climate controls above the dashboard’s center air vents, and between the oversized infotainment system volume and tuning knobs. They’re two stacked strips that should be easy to find and use, unless you’re wearing really thick gloves.

Second-row air vents are located overhead, in the ceiling headliner. They adjust for airflow and direction to aid comfort, and second-row side window shades are available. You can get a three-zone automatic climate control system too, giving rear passengers more control.

Unfortunately, mild weather precluded useful testing of the system’s effectiveness.

Infotainment System

Most new 2020 Highlanders will have a familiar infotainment system equipped with an 8-inch touchscreen display mounted under a flush glass surface. Menu shortcut buttons flank the screen, and Toyota supplies useful volume and tuning knobs.

Standard highlights include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa, along with a free 3-month trial subscription to SiriusXM satellite radio. Toyota also provides standard 4G LTE Wi-Fi service for three months or 2-gigs of data, whichever comes first, and a one-year subscription to Safety Connect services. All Highlanders from LE trim up also include HD Radio, a one-year subscription to Remote Connect services, and 10 free years of Service Connect.

The big news related to infotainment is the 12.3-inch touchscreen display offered as a upgrade with Limited trim and as standard equipment with Platinum trim. The screen dominates the dashboard, and includes dynamic navigation with three free years of data updates, a 1,200-watt JBL premium sound system, and Destination Assist concierge services.

Using this upgraded system, the voice recognition technology is improved. We got a little bit lost after straying from Toyota’s prescribed route, and even without knowing the full name of the rendezvous point the voice recognition system found it without trouble. Also, this setup’s volume and tuning knobs are absolutely huge, making them much easier to use than the ones in the previous Highlander.

Unfortunately, when driving into direct sunlight, reflections from the front passenger’s clothing made the screen difficult to see. Also, the JBL sound system exhibited the brand’s typical muddiness in terms of quality, supplying too much bass.

Storage and Space

The previous-generation Highlander was a storage rock star, with a handy shelf stretching across the dashboard and a huge center console bin with dual access points. Both remain, but they’re not as satisfying to use.

The shelf is divided into two smaller storage spots. The single center console opening is smaller than before, and the available wireless smartphone charging pad is located under the lid, getting in the way and chewing up space. It really ought to be integrated with the tray forward of the gear selector.

Toyota has resolved, to some degree, a shortcoming of the previous Highlander. Cargo space behind the second- and third-row seats is more generous, measuring 48.4 cubic-feet and 16 cu.-ft., respectively. (Maximum volume is 84.3 cu.-ft.). There is a shallow storage area under the cargo floor, but it’s not as useful as what you’ll find in many competitors.

Visibility and Safety

Toyota has packed the new Highlander with safety equipment. The company’s Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 (TSS 2.0) suite of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) is standard on all trim levels, and all but the base Highlander L include a blind spot warning system with rear cross-traffic warning. Toyota also equips every Highlander with a free year of Safety Connect service, which includes automatic collision notification and SOS emergency calling.

During testing, the adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability worked well in San Antonio traffic and on the open roads northeast of the city, as did the new Lane Tracing Assist system, which centers the Highlander in the intended lane of travel. More than simply accurate, they’re also smooth and refined in response to changing traffic conditions and driving situations.

Unlike some automakers, Toyota doesn’t allow hands-free driving. Let go of the steering wheel, and it doesn’t take long before a warning implores you to retake control. It gets more insistent in short order, and then the system cancels steering assist.

Given that Safety Connect is standard, and it includes SOS emergency calling, it should be easy enough for Toyota to design this to work like Mercedes-Benz Emergency Assist. If a driver falls asleep or suffers a medical emergency in a modern Benz while the adaptive cruise and lane centering assist systems are active, the car comes to a stop, activates the hazard flashers, and calls 9-1-1 on your behalf.

Engine/Transmission

Buy a 2020 Highlander, and you’ve got two powertrain choices. The first is a direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 and 8-speed automatic transmission lifted directly out of the old Highlander and installed in the new one. It makes 295 horsepower, and powers the front or all four wheels.

Only the Highlander Limited and Platinum get the new Dynamic Torque Vectoring all-wheel-drive (AWD) system, which also includes Multi-Terrain Select traction technology and a fuel-saving driveline disconnect system that engages the rear wheels only when necessary.

The 2020 Highlander Hybrid has a new next-generation drivetrain based on an Atkinson-cycle 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. It replaces the V6 used in the previous Highlander Hybrid, and uses an electronic continuously variable transmission (eCVT) to deliver as much as 36 mpg in combined driving while supplying a combined 243 horsepower. Also new for 2020, the Highlander Hybrid is offered with front-wheel drive in addition to AWD.

If you’re familiar with the 2017-2019 Highlander, the new one’s V6 and 8-speed automatic behave exactly the same way. There’s plenty of power, but sometimes you’ll feel a bit of a delay as the transmission upshifts. Overall, it’s a good combination and supplies up to 5,000 pounds of maximum towing capacity.

Fans of the outgoing Toyota Highlander’s combined power rating of 306 hp might be dismayed by the switch to a 4-cylinder and decline in output to 243 hp. However, the near 25% increase in fuel economy should offset any disappointment. Besides, thanks to the capable eCVT and instant electric motor thrust when accelerating from a stop, the Highlander Hybrid never feels slow. But, unlike the previous one, it never feels fast, either.

Fuel Economy

Typically, hybrids get better fuel economy in the city than they do on the highway. That’s because in the city they’re often running just on battery electricity at lower speeds, improving efficiency.

While driving a Highlander Hybrid Platinum with AWD, I missed the EPA estimate of 35 mpg in combined driving. The route was mainly on highways with very little city and suburban driving. However, the SUV did average 33.6 mpg without even trying, and that’s pretty amazing for a three-row midsize crossover with AWD.

Switching to the V6 AWD, fuel efficiency took the expected nosedive. In this version of the Highlander, I averaged 18.9 mpg.

Toyota says it wants to increase hybrid sales to 25% of the total mix with this redesign. Based on the difference between my observed fuel economy with the two different powertrains, that shouldn’t be hard for the company to do.

Driving Dynamics

In terms of the Highlander’s ride and handling qualities, the new SUV supplies an adept blend of comfort, quiet, and responsiveness.

Toyota has dialed everything in to effectively operate in the background. The steering feels just-right at all times, and even with the Highlander Hybrid’s regenerative braking system, it’s easy to bring the SUV to a clean, smooth stop.

Drive the hybrid and V6 versions back-to-back, and the latter feels lighter and more athletic. The weight of a battery and electric motors helps to lower the Highlander Hybrid’s center of gravity, but this version also exhibits more choppiness and body motion as the suspension works to manage the extra mass.

Routes in and around San Antonio, Texas did not include mountain or canyon driving, and most had absurdly low speed limits, so we did not evaluate the new Highlander under our typical conditions.

Final Impressions - Find the best Toyota deals!

Fans of the existing Toyota Highlander will find plenty to like about the redesigned 2020 model. It is a better SUV than before. But is it a better midsize three-row SUV? That’s not as easy a question to answer in the affirmative.

Newcomers to the segment, like the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride, offer plenty of style, sophistication, and value. The Volkswagen Atlas is absolutely cavernous inside, and the Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse aren’t far behind. The redesigned 2020 Ford Explorer comes in both Hybrid and terrifically fun ST variants. Subaru is now in this game, too, with the smartly packaged Ascent offering a whopping 8.7 inches of ground clearance.

The redesigned 2020 Highlander is worthy of consideration. But whether or not you think it’s the best vehicle in its segment depends on what you value most.

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