“The 2020 Toyota Highlander is an average performer on a crowded stage.”
- Well-integrated touchscreen
- Comfortable ride
- Lack of interior space
- Low-quality interior materials
- Poorly tuned transmission
If you need to move a lot of people or stuff, a minivan is the perfect tool. Yet minivans are terminally uncool, which is why vehicles like the 2020 Toyota Highlander exist.
With three rows of seats and rugged SUV looks, the Highlander is the perfect choice for parents who wouldn’t be caught dead in a minivan. That’s a very large segment of the buying public, so in addition to old rivals like the Honda Pilot and Ford Explorer, the redesigned 2020 Highlander faces newer competition in the form of the Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas, and the Hyundai Palisade/Kia Telluride twins.
The 2020 Highlander was a base price of $35,720, but that only buys a base LE model with front-wheel drive. The price climbs quickly with options. Our test car was a fully loaded Platinum model with all of the bells and whistles, plus all-wheel drive — priced at $50,663.
With its scowling front end, the Highlander aims to convey truck-like toughness. Under the skin, however, it’s based on the same Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform as ordinary cars like the Camry and Corolla, as well as the smaller RAV4. This is a pretty common strategy in the car industry, as most buyers want the look and high driving position of a truck, but not the poor road manners.
In terms of design, the Highlander’s interior is fairly unremarkable. Aside from a floating housing for the infotainment touchscreen, the design is completely unoriginal. While boring to look at, the interior was at least functional. Outward visibility was good, and small touches like a phone tray and well-placed USB ports made a big difference. The Highlander comes standard with four USB ports and two 120-volt outlets across the first and second rows, and Qi wireless phone charging is available. However, you can’t get USB ports in the third row. The front seats (leather upholstered with heating and ventilation in our Platinum test car) were very comfortable, even after hours on the road.
The Highlander falls short where it really counts: Interior space.
It was harder to excuse the quality of the interior materials. The flimsy plastic trim and rubbery dashboard molding barely felt adequate for a vehicle at the Highlander’s $35,720 base price, let alone one costing $15,000 more. Most of the Highlander’s competitors have the same issue (the Hyundai Palisade being a notable exception), but it seemed particularly bad in the Toyota.
The Highlander also falls short where it really counts: Interior space. At 27.7 inches, third-row legroom is the worst in the segment, and overall space is so tight that even small children will likely find it uncomfortable. Front-row legroom and headroom are also at the back of the pack. Cargo space is a bit below average, and well behind the Chevrolet Traverse and Volkswagen Atlas. As with all vehicles of this size, you’ll have to fold the third-row seats to get a decent amount of cargo room.
The 2020 Highlander comes standard with an 8-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and Amazon Alexa compatibility, Waze, and a built-in Wi-Fi hot spot. Platinum models like our test car get a 12.3-inch touchscreen. A head-up display is available as well.
Toyota bucked the trend by going with a landscape, rather than portrait, orientation, for the big screen. It looks better than the awkwardly integrated 10.1-inch portrait-oriented screen in the Ford Explorer, without sacrificing functionality. The screen is placed within easier reach of both the driver and front passenger, and a three-column split setup makes logical use of the vast swath of pixels. It’s too bad Toyota decided to populate that massive screen with plain, dated-looking graphics.
The Highlander comes standard with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, which includes autonomous emergency braking (with pedestrian detection), adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, Lane Tracing Assist, automatic high beams, and road sign recognition. Optional features include blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, reverse autonomous emergency braking, and a 360-degree camera system.
A three-column split setup makes logical use of the screen’s vast swath of pixels.
The complement of standard driver aids is pretty good for a vehicle in this price range, but performance was below average. Adaptive cruise control left a big gap to the vehicle in front, allowing other vehicles to cut in abruptly. The system was also slow to react when the car in front accelerated, although this may have been partly due to the poorly tuned transmission.
Lane Tracing Assist, which uses steering inputs to keep the car centered in its lane, only worked on arrow-straight stretches of road. It couldn’t follow even the gentlest highway curves, allowing the Highlander to drift out of its lane as if it was being driven by the inattentive human that tech like this is supposed to outperform.
One thing Toyota did right was the camera-system integration. An overhead view automatically pops up on the infotainment screen when you switch into reverse, and it can be activated at the push of a button at other times. A simple setup like this makes parking a lot easier, but not every automaker seems to have figured that out.
For the 2020 model year, Toyota offers two powertrain choices: Gasoline or hybrid. Toyota dropped the previous-generation Highlander’s four-cylinder base engine, so now the default choice is a 3.5-liter V6. It makes 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque, and is coupled to an eight-speed automatic transmission.
Output is just ahead of the Hyundai Palisade/Kia Telluride twins, but the Ford Explorer can generate 300 hp and 310 lb-ft from a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The Honda Pilot and Subaru Ascent have less horsepower, but more torque. The V6 Highlander is rated to tow up to 5,000 pounds, which is average for this segment, although the Nissan Pathfinder overachieves with a 6,000-pound tow rating.
The hybrid option pairs a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, for a combined output of 243 hp. As with other Toyota hybrid crossovers, all-wheel drive is achieved using a second electric motor for the rear axle, with no mechanical connection to the front wheels. The Ford Explorer is the only other vehicle in this segment to offer a hybrid powertrain.
The V6 engine was let down by a clunky transmission.
Our test car had the V6 engine, which proved plenty powerful for everyday driving. It even sounded pretty good, despite not having the performance exhaust system used on the Toyota Avalon TRD sedan. However, the engine was let down by a clunky transmission. The eight-speed automatic shifted roughly, and was slow to react to calls for more power, like Scotty if he had reported for duty on the Enterprise after taking a sleeping pill.
The Highlander comes standard with front-wheel drive, but our test car had the optional torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system. Torque vectoring alters the distribution of power between the wheels on each axle to improve cornering. The system made a noticeable difference, making the Highlander feel a lot more agile than a vehicle this size normally would.
However, the Highlander is no Supra. Torque vectoring aside, even the slightest hint of aggression in corners is met with the scolding squeal of tires. The Highlander is much happier on highways, where it provides a comfortable ride and a commanding view of the road. That’s the case with most other vehicles in this segment, although the Subaru Ascent and Honda Pilot provide a bit more excitement on twisty roads.
Platinum models, including our test car, are rated at 24 mpg combined (21 mpg city, 29 mpg highway) with front-wheel drive, and 23 mpg combined (20 mpg city, 27 mpg highway) with all-wheel drive. Those numbers are slightly above average for this segment. The Highlander Hybrid gets up to 36 mpg combined with front-wheel drive, much better than the Ford Explorer Hybrid’s maximum 28 mpg combined.
The Highlander received a “Top Safety Pick” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), missing the highest “Top Safety Pick+” rating due to poorly rated headlights on lower trim levels. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn’t rated the 2020 Highlander yet.
Toyota offers a three-year, 36,000-mile, basic warranty and five-year, 60,000-mile, powertrain warranty, as well as free scheduled maintenance for two years or 25,000 miles. The warranty-coverage period is about average for a mainstream brand, but the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride have 10-year, 100,000-mile, powertrain warranties.
It’s difficult to predict future reliability for a new vehicle like the 2020 Highlander, but Toyota has an excellent overall reputation for reliability. Past generations of Highlander have proven pretty robust, which is why they’re a favorite of taxi and Uber drivers.
If you want the most tech in a 2020 Toyota Highlander, you need to get the top Platinum trim level. It gets the largest 12.3-inch touchscreen as standard equipment, as well as a head-up display, digital rearview mirror, and 360-degree camera system. It also gets niceties like a panoramic moonroof, upgraded leather upholstery, and 20-inch wheels.
This test drive didn’t include the hybrid model, but if you’re shopping for a Highlander, it might be worth a look. The hybrid carries a roughly $2,000 premium over the V6 Highlander, but it gets substantially better gas mileage, and eliminates the rough-shifting transmission used in V6 models. The hybrid option is also one of the few things that really sets the Highlander apart from the competition.
The Highlander has been the go-to option for many families since the first generation launched in 2001, but the fourth-generation 2020 model is resting on its laurels. As before, buyers can expect reliability and a modicum of practicality, but the competition offers more.
For a vehicle like this, interior space and functionality are key. The Highlander’s third row is too cramped for everyday use, and space in the other two rows is behind most of the pack. The interior has some nice touches, like a well-integrated touchscreen, but materials are below average. Nothing about the interior design or packaging is remarkable or innovative.
It’s the same story with the driving experience. The Highlander is perfectly fine to drive, but it doesn’t stand out in any way. Buyers likely aren’t expecting sports car performance, but the Honda Pilot and Subaru Ascent won’t put the driver to sleep, at least. The Hyundai Palisade offers greater overall refinement, while the Ford Explorer boasts some off-road capability.
Then there’s the sliding-door elephant in the room. Regardless of whether you think the Highlander is cooler than a minivan, it’s undeniably less practical. Toyota’s own Sienna can seat the same number of people, with greater overall passenger and cargo volume. A minivan’s sliding doors and lower ride height also make loading and unloading people and stuff easier. The Sienna even gets a standard 33-mpg hybrid powertrain for the 2021 model year.
No. The Highlander is a competent family hauler, but with so many other choices, why settle for merely competent?
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