The Toyota Highlander has always been a solid choice in the mid-size SUV segment. By solid, we mean, well-built, good value, Toyota reliability. But ahem, nothing to get excited about. Well, until now.
For 2020, there’s an all-new Highlander, and while it hasn’t lost any of the things that make a Highlander a stress-free choice, this one’s notably more passionate, from style, to driving, to features. You can now lust after a Highlander and not be locked up in the automotive looney bin.
Big and Bold
The first thing that hits you is the Highlander’s take-no-prisoners design. It looks bigger, more than the 2.4 inches extra length would leave you to believe. The front end is aggressive with angled LED headlights, a bold, but thankfully not Lexus-huge black grille, and tasteful chrome-plated front fascia. We also love the muscular bulgey hood that carries into the front end. It looks mean and muscular.
From the side, the been-to-the-gym look continues with swelling fender flares sitting over a first-time-for-a-Highlander 20-inch alloy wheels. An aggressive C-pillar and integrated rear spoiler of the window carries the lines and creates a long profile that looks modern and aero.
Come around the back, and large boomerang-shape bumpers meet Toyota/Lexus slivered rear taillamps for a crisp look that reminds us of a plus-sized Lexus UX – no problem there, it’s quite handsome. A chrome rear lower fascia matches the front and ties it all together. Finishing it all off our tester’s Ruby Flare Pearl – a new color – is an eye-catching deep red that looks sporty and bold. Lust worthy indeed!
First Class Cabin
A perfect pairing to the bold exterior is a spacious, luxurious new interior. Open the door, and the first impression is one of loads of space. While lower trim levels offer seating for eight, our Platinum trim trades the second row bench for a pair of supremely comfortable captain’s chairs. The third row seats are tight, but fine for kids. With the third row up, the 2020 model features notably more cargo room, and with the second row folded the space is cavernous.
But let’s head back to the driver’s seat, thanks. The cabin feels wide – a huge center console between the front seat reinforces that you have loads of shoulder room. A soft padded dash and stitching throughout create a premium vibe.
The front seats are heated and ventilated, and well designed for big folks. It’s also a stunner – the new Glazed Carmel leather is as delicious-looking as it sounds. The gauges are clean and crisp, with and ECO-meter replacing the tach on Hybrid models, and a useful Digital Driver Info Display that makes for a quick read.
A massive 12.3-inch info-tainment screen dominates our Platinum’s dash, and the size allows for split screens, so you have excellent access to key features, while not having to lose important info like your Waze screen. But you won’t feel left out in lower trims, all models now come with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Alexa, Waze Sirius XM and Wi-Fi connectivity. Toyota is now bringing their A game to connectivity.
On the Platinum that tech includes Dynamic Navigation and a rocking 11-speaker, 1,200-watt JBL Premium Audio system that fills the cabin with quality sound. We also liked the loads of storage cubbies, including the neat little shelf to hold your smartphone with a convenient hole to put your charge wire down to the USB Plug.
All the goodness and the quality of materials might make you wonder why anyone would spend the extra cash on a Lexus.
One gripe – our tester also had wireless charging, which we normally like, but it’s placed inside the center console, and that means you have to flip it up every time you want access to the storage underneath. A little annoying – but really the only thing we didn’t love about the Highlander’s interior.
You take the Low Road, We’ll Take the Hybrid
With the Highlander, you have a choice of 295-hp, 3.5-liter V6, or like our tester, the Hybrid model. Toyota proudly points out that it introduced the first Hybrid SUV in its class with the 2006 Highlander. As technology speeds forward, so has the Highlander Hybrid.
Power is supplied by a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder combined with two electric motors. Like most of Toyota’s new hybrids, the Highlander is a real performer, punching out 243 total horsepower, with a huge lump of torque at low RPM. And if you’re looking for fuel efficiency the lofty 36 mpg combined MPG stomps the previous Highlander Hybrid’s 29 mpg. Impressive.
It also delivers the seamless experience we expect from the big T’s hybrids – you glide along in pure EV mode when able (and the vehicle makes a space age whoosh sound to alert pedestrians!) and kicks in the gas motor when necessary. It’s all seamless, and with choices of ECO, Normal and Sport, you dial up the responsiveness of the system easily. We stuck with Sport, for the added kick you got off the line and in passing.
A first for Hybrid Highlanders, you can have either two or four-wheel drive. Ours being the latter, we think it’s a great way to go, with electric motors powering the rear wheels, and kicking in added traction as needed. You also get torque vectoring – something we expect on rally racers like a Subaru WRX, but a nice surprise here – and it helps the big SUV handle well, turn into corners crisply and feel responsive to the helm.
Sailing away in a Highlander
The Highlander is a large, premium SUV, so you won’t find a budget bargain. That said, the V6 Highlander starts at $34,810, for a big, stylish vehicle, with goodies like Toyota Safety Sense 2.5, smart key with pushbutton start, and 8-passenger capacity, it’s a good value. Your entry into the world of Hybrid Highlander models starts at $38,410.
Our tester was the whole-enchilada Platinum AWD model, loaded with everything including leather, panoramic sunroof, massive 12-inch infotainment screen, and JBL audio system, starting at $50,200. Our tested added $425 for the Ruby Flare Pearl paint, and accessories including cargo mat, carpeted floor mats, cargo cross bars, tablet holder, and $1,120 for delivery. We rang the bill at $52,512.
Hybrid competitors are few, but a Ford Explorer Hybrid comparably equipped comes in well over $58,000, so we’ll call the Highlander smart value in its competitive set.
With great exterior style, a luxurious interior, and frugal and impressive performance, the all-new 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, is a Higher Highlander in every way!
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.