In 2001 the Toyota Highlander debuted as one of the first midsize crossovers with unibody construction and 4-wheel independent suspension for a more carlike ride compared to its truck-based competitors. A lot has changed in nearly 20 years, and recently the Japanese auto giant rolled out the fourth-generation 2020 Toyota Highlander to keep up with dozens of competing models in the midsize crossover segment, which now accounts for 2.5 million units annually in the U.S.
Even though the 2020 Toyota Highlander became available in December 2019, the crossover finished last year as America’s best-selling midsize 3-row crossover and seventh on the list of all SUVs — a testament to its continued popularity even at the end of a generation, when sales typically wane prior to a redesigned model’s release. The 2020 Highlander is based on a new vehicle platform called Toyota New Global Architecture, which uses high-strength steel for a stiffer unibody structure that improves comfort and safety. The independent suspension features MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link setup with a stabilizer bar at the rear. The new Highlander also has electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering.
The redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander looks bolder than the outgoing model thanks to a raised hood, wider fenders, a black grille and standard LED headlights on all trim levels. The front fascia is more aggressive, and lower trim levels have a black grille with a silver surround; the Limited and Platinum feature a black grille with chrome trim. The side mirrors have been repositioned on the doors for better visibility and aerodynamics, while the bodysides possess more expressive character lines. The lower trim levels sport 18-inch alloy wheels while Limited and Platinum each receive 20-inch wheels of different styles.
The 2020 Toyota Highlander comes in five trim levels: L, LE, XLE, Limited and Platinum. A hybrid version is offered on all trims except the L. Starting price for Highlander L is $34,600 followed by LE at $36,800; XLE at $39,600; Limited at $43,650 and Platinum at $46,850. All versions have an additional $1,120 delivery, processing and handling fee. The hybrid powertrain is $1,400 more than the gasoline engine. All-wheel drive is an additional $1,600 for L, LE and XLE trims, and $1,950 for Limited and Platinum trims. The Highlander is now on sale, with the hybrids scheduled to arrive in February 2020.
Standard equipment for the two entry-level trims of the 2020 Toyota Highlander includes 3-zone automatic climate control, a 4.2-inch multi-information display, an 8-inch touchscreen multimedia display, an 8-way power driver’s seat, a smart key, 18-inch painted alloy wheels, automatic LED headlights, LED taillights and Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 safety systems. Highlander LE adds a height-adjustable power liftgate, a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, an upgraded audio system, LED fog lights, and a leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob.
Upgrades for Highlander XLE include heated front seats, a 10-way power driver’s seat, a power passenger seat, a 7-inch multi-information screen, 18-inch machined finished alloy wheels, second row captain’s chairs, a tilt and slide moonroof, roof rails and Softex simulated leather seat and door trim.
The upscale Highlander Limited adds perforated leather-trimmed seats; heated and ventilated front seats; wood interior trim; a JBL audio system with integrated Navigation; ambient interior lighting; a cargo cover; a hands-free power liftgate; LED projector headlights with LED strip daytime running lights; and 20-inch Limited style alloy wheels. Leather colors include Harvest Beige, Graphite and Black.
The top-line 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum adds a 12.3-inch touchscreen multimedia display; a head-up display; embossed, perforated leather-trimmed seats; heated second-row seats; a panoramic moonroof; adaptive self-leveling headlights; a digital display rearview mirror and 20-inch Platinum style alloy wheels. The Platinum also receives a new Glazed Caramel leather color in addition to the other three choices.
The 2020 Toyota Highlander draws power from either a V6 gasoline engine or a new version of the Toyota Hybrid System. The 3.5-liter V6 engine produces 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, combined with a Direct Shift 8-speed automatic transmission. The Highlander Hybrid is powered by the new-generation Toyota Hybrid System that combines a high-efficiency 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine with two electric motors for a total output of 243 horsepower in a system that’s more compact and more efficient than before.
The 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid will be offered in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive — a first for Toyota’s hybrid powertrain. Not yet rated by the EPA, Toyota estimates fuel economy will be 36 mpg combined for FWD — a 24 percent increase over the previous-generation Highlander Hybrid. Toyota estimates the Hybrid AWD will achieve 35 mpg combined.
The 2020 Toyota Highlander offers three different all-wheel-drive systems: two for the V6 and one for the Highlander Hybrid. For gasoline-powered Highlander L, LE and XLE, the all-wheel-drive system can send up to 50 percent of the torque to the rear axle, while Highlander Limited and Platinum offer a new dynamic torque-vectoring AWD system. The Highlander Hybrid AWD has a rear-mounted electric motor to power the rear wheels when all-wheel drive is needed.
For the first time, Highlander Limited and Platinum offer dynamic torque-vectoring AWD, which distributes torque between the front and rear axles, but also manages torque distribution between the rear wheels for improved performance. This sophisticated system doesn’t wait for wheelslip to transfer torque. The AWD Integrated Management system oversees the electric power steering, throttle control, transmission shift and torque distribution to optimize handling for the conditions. When AWD is not needed, such as steady-speed highway driving, the system disengages the driveline to the rear wheels for more efficiency; when AWD is needed, it reconnects instantly.
The redesigned interior of the 2020 Toyota Highlander adds soft-touch materials, more comfort and convenience features and premium details. The multimedia touchscreen and HVAC controls occupy a large center stack that hovers in front of the dash, held by an arm extending from the passenger side of the cabin. The lower portion of the split dash incorporates storage areas above the center console and in front of the passenger. The center console has available Qi wireless charging.
The 2020 Toyota Highlander has a new 12.3-inch touchscreen display that is standard equipment for the Platinum trim and optional for Limited. Other trim levels have a standard 8-inch touchscreen. Standard equipment on all Highlanders includes Apple Car Play, Android Auto, Alexa In-Car compatibility, Waze, SiriusXM, Wi-Fi connectivity, and Toyota Safety Connect with a one-year trial subscription. Highlander LE and above offer service and remote connectivity; dynamic navigation is standard for Platinum and available for XLE and Limited.
The standard seating configuration for Highlander is a second-row bench seat and a three-passenger third-row seat for 8-occupant seating. Standard for Highlander XLE and above are second-row captain’s chairs for 7-passenger seating, with a second-row bench as a no-cost option for XLE and Limited. The 2020 Toyota Highlander is 2.36 inches longer than the previous model — all in the cargo area — and the second-row seat slides forward an additional inch. Cargo volume behind the third row is 16 cubic feet, which increases to 48.4 cubic feet with the third row folded and 84.3 cubic feet with the second row folded as well.
Toyota’s standard Safety Sense 2.0 includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, lane-tracing assist, automatic high beams, full-speed range dynamic radar cruise control and road sign assist. Additional safety features depending on trim level are a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, parking support braking and intelligent clearance sonar. The Star Safety System includes vehicle stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and smart stop technology.
The 2020 Toyota Highlander is comfortable and quiet on the road, especially the Limited and Platinum variants. Designed for drivers seeking a vehicle that is compliant, safe and easy to drive, the Highlander is not particularly engaging and will not appeal to driving enthusiasts. The Limited and Platinum trims with torque-vectoring AWD and 20-inch tires are a little more fun to drive because the power can be detected as it transfers to the outside rear when pushing through a corner.
The Highlander Hybrid’s new system has enough power for great drivability —notably significant since the crossover delivers an estimated 35 mpg combined. However, due to the CVT system, under hard acceleration the engine speed hangs at a high rpm while the vehicle gains speed. That said, most drivers are used to that experience by now so it’s a reasonable trade-off given the superior fuel economy.
The 2020 Toyota Highlander continues to be what it has always been — a comfortably conservative and safe vehicle that drives more like a car than a truck. The new styling adds a bit more character without being too bold. If you are looking for a comfortable and convenient family vehicle, the 2020 Highlander continues to fit that bill with a fresh new look, upgraded interior and new technology.
Pros: Great design; comfortable ride; premium interior; hybrid fuel economy.
Cons: Cargo space a little tight; not engaging to drive.
Bottom Line: Toyota continues the Highlander formula in the newest version, which champions comfort and driving ease.