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2020 Toyota Highlander: Redesigned In The Face of Stiff Competition

2020 Toyota Highlander
  • The 2020 Toyota Highlander rides on a new platform and architecture.
  • Gasoline and hybrid powertrains are available, along with all-wheel drive.
  • Tech and connectivity features include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Waze.

Toyota recently unveiled the redesigned, fourth-generation Highlander for the 2020 model year, and it’s just about time. The previous model was still riding on the underpinnings of the third-gen model introduced in 2014. We’re not saying that’s a bad thing considering the Highlander was always a comfortable yet plebian family cruiser, but it’s facing some stiff competition in the three-row midsize SUV segment.

What Is The Toyota Highlander?

The Toyota Highlander is a seven or eight-seat family SUV. The first-gen model was introduced in 2001 and shares a platform with the Lexus RX/Toyota Harrier/Toyota Camry. Meanwhile, the second-generation was the first to come with a hybrid version. The outgoing third-generation tossed the boxy styling cues in exchange for a smoother and more rounded SUV shape.

And now we have the fourth-gen 2020 Toyota Highlander. It first appeared at the 2019 New York International Auto Show and is riding on Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA-K). According to Toyota, the new chassis offers greater capabilities, better comfort, and enhanced safety. Toyota says this is because their TNGA-K platform, with its extensive amount of high-strength steel, provides a more rigid unibody structure than the previous model.  

2020 Toyota Highlander XLE. Photo: Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

What’s New For The 2020 Toyota Highlander?

The newest Toyota Highlander is completely redesigned for 2020. It’s also 2.4 inches longer, and most of that helps improve cargo space behind the third row. The previous Highlander only had 13 cubic feet of room with the rear seats upright. The length increase results in 16 cubic feet of cargo room, which is still not best-in-class, yet rightfully adequate nevertheless.

Also, the second row now slides an extra 1.2 inches for more legroom for third row occupants. And because the vehicle is riding on a stiffer platform, Toyota says the new Highlander is even more comfortable for occupants. With a smaller turning circle, it’s also easier to drive around town.

2020 Toyota Highlander
2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum Hybrid. Photo: Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

As Good As The Competition?

All of this sounds good, but not until you take a closer look at the new Kia Telluride, which is regarded by many as the best three-row SUV to come in a while. Just recently, Telluride bagged the 2020 MotorTrend SUV of the Year award for its combination of rugged styling; smooth driving dynamics; build quality; and interior refinement. It also happens the Telluride offers 21 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row, which expands to 46 cubic feet by folding down the third row.

And while the Highlander’s third-row seating is best suited for children or adolescents, the Telluride is roomy enough to fit adults in a pinch.

Standard V6 Power

We love sprightly four-cylinder engines, but the previous Highlander’s 2.5-liter four-banger is forgettable, to say the least. In the 2020 Highlander, the four-cylinder is discontinued in favor of a 3.5-liter V6 with 295 horsepower. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the V6 is a carry-over from the previous-generation. The engine is bolted to a new eight-speed automatic.

2020 Toyota Highlander
The 2020 Toyota Highlander employs the automaker’s D-4S Injection system, which combines direct fuel injection with port fuel injectors. Photo: Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

The new Highlander Hybrid is producing less power than before. Whereas the previous hybrid came with a V6 engine, you only get a dinky four-cylinder motor this time around. The previous Highlander Hybrid had a stout 306 horsepower, which is now reduced to 243 horsepower for 2020. Whether this is good or bad is up to you, but it does give the new hybrid better fuel economy numbers.

The 2019 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, with all-wheel drive, was good for 28 mpg combined. By comparison, the new Highlander Hybrid easily achieves 36 mpg (front-wheel drive) and 35 mpg (all-wheel drive).

How Much Can The 2020 Highlander Tow?

When properly equipped with the available towing package, the V6 Highlander can tow a max of 5,000 lbs. The package includes a heavy-duty radiator with an engine oil cooler and Trailer Sway Control.

2020 Toyota Highlander
2020 Toyota Highlander. Photo: Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

Is The 2020 Toyota Highlander All-Wheel Drive?

The base Toyota Highlander is standard with front-wheel drive, but the Japanese automaker is offering three different all-wheel drive systems. The first is capable of sending up to 50 percent of the available torque to the rear wheels, and is optional on the gas Highlander L, LE, and XLE.

Next is the “Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD” system found in the Highlander Limited and Platinum. It comes with a driveline disconnect system and selectable drive modes (Normal, Eco and Sport). The drive modes optimize handling by managing the electric power steering, throttle control, torque distribution, and transmission shift control according to the parameters of the chosen mode. The driveline disconnect systems does as the name implies: it automatically disengages the rear wheels for better highway fuel economy.

In the meantime, the Highlander Hybrid’s all-wheel drive system employs a separate rear-mounted electric motor to power the rear wheels. In this system, there is no mechanical connection between the front and rear wheels. The system automatically engages the rear wheels to improve acceleration while reducing slippage over rough or slippery terrain.

2020 Toyota Highlander
Photo: Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

Refined & Tech-Filled Interior

The new Toyota Highlander’s cabin seems erringly similar to the outgoing model, especially in the dashboard. But then again, the 2020 Highlander benefits from wider door armrests; an eight-inch touchscreen display; and slightly better fit and finish with soft padded surfaces and better stitching throughout. The Highlander Platinum receives a larger 12.3-inch touchscreen along with navigation and a JBL audio system.

The 2020 Toyota Highlander is finally equipped with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Alexa connectivity. The cabin also benefits from Qi wireless charging and a plethora of USB charging ports. On the safety front, all trim models of the 2020 Highlander receive Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 which includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection; dynamic cruise control; lane departure alert with steering assist; automatic high beams; lane tracing assist; and road sign assist.

2020 Toyota Highlander interior layout.
2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum interior layout. Photo: Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

2020 Toyota Highlander: Pricing & Availability

The 2020 Toyota Highlander L with front-wheel drive starts at $35,720 and comes with 18-inch alloy wheels; tri-zone climate control; LED headlights and taillights; and an eight-way power driver’s seat.

The Highlander Platinum starts at $47,970 and includes gorgeous 20-inch alloy wheels; adaptive headlights; a 12.3-inch touchscreen; and a heads-up display among many other features. Complete pricing information on all Highlander models can be found on the chart below.

The Toyota Highlander gas model is available now while the hybrid enters the fray in February.

Alvin Reyes is the Associate Editor of Automoblog. He studied civil aviation, aeronautics, and accountancy in his younger years and is still very much smitten to his former Lancer GSR and Galant SS. He also likes fried chicken, music, and herbal medicine. 

2020 Toyota Highlander: Starting MSRP
*Dollar figures reflect $1,120 destination charge
Trim Gas FWD Gas AWD Hybrid FWD Hybrid AWD
L $35,720 $37,320 NA NA
LE $37,920 $39,520 $39,320 $40,920
XLE $40,720 $42,320 $42,120 $43,720
Limited $44,770 $46,720 $46,170 $48,120
Platinum $47,970 $49,920 $49,370 $51,320

Photos & Source: Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

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