2020 Toyota Highlander Review

2020 Toyota Highlander - Highlander next generation charges ahead


The 2020 model year welcomes the fourth incarnation of the forward-thinking mid-size Toyota Highlander five-door crossover complete with Midwest production roots.

This latest generation keeps Highlander in the game as a rash of new-to-the-market, three-row crossovers, including Kia's Telluride, Volkswagen's Atlas and Hyundai's Palisade arrive on the scene. Highlander though, was one of the first five-door mid-size hatchbacks to market built from a smoother-riding, car-type uni-body platform; not the truck-like body-on-frame bouncy ball prevalent at the time.  

Generation One arrived in 2001 powered solely by an internal-combustion engine.  It didn't take long for Toyota, the world-leader in gas-electric hybrid sales, to welcome aboard a fuel extending, higher-mileage version in the 2006 model year. Both Highlander and Highlander hybrid now assemble within the southern confines of the Hoosier State; specifically, Princeton, Indiana.

As technology advances forward, the price gap between conventional vehicles and their alternatively-propelled twins narrows significantly.  Toyota simplifies the calculus in 2020.  Those seeking the hybrid Highlander simply add $1,400.

Wheelbase (distance between front and rear axle) grows by 2.4 inches in 2020 as does overall length. The bulk of the added girth benefits the cargo area which grows by two cubic feet.

This latest three-row Highlander redesign builds upon new bones, specifically, TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) a stiffer, modular platform using a lighter weight, high-rigidity structure with a 30 percent increase in Torsion rigidity. It's the fourth recently redesigned Toyota to incorporate this framework following the latest-generations of the full-size Avalon sedan, compact Corolla sedan, and mid-size Camry sedan.  By 2023, TNGA will underpin an estimated 80 percent of models currently in the automaker's global lineup.

Highlander hybrid circa 2020, this week's tester, represents Toyota's decades of investment, testing and execution of gas-electric technology enhancing fuel economy.

An added Highlander Hybrid extra in 2020 is a choice between front or all-wheel drive.  Previous generations were all-wheel drive exclusives. When opting for all-wheel drive, add an extra $1,600. All Highlander gas-electric hybrids this generation or prior self charge, requiring no nightly wall socket plug in.

While this vehicle may be driven for very short distances in electric mode in 'just right' conditions, two electric motors/generators primarily boost an onboard 2.5-liter four-cylinder internal combustion engine to deliver a combined 235 horsepower. Those seeking longer all-electric range (say 24 miles) in a gas-electric hybrid design need to check into the growing number of PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles).

Highlander hybrid's sealed nickel metal hydride battery pack is now compact enough to fit snuggly under the rear seat, clearing the way for uniform seating and cargo volume on par with the conventional gas-powered version. One advantage nickel metal hydride packs provide for us Midwesterners is superior performance during extreme cold temperatures than lighter weight lithium-ion varieties utilized in most PHEVs (and hand-held Smartphones). 

While the number of mid-size crossovers available in 2020 remains numerous, only a scant few offer a gas-electric hybrid variation. Toyota's Highlander and Ford's Explorer are the volume choices. Of these two, superior fuel efficiency results skew heavily in Highlander's favor.

Fuel estimates improve by more than 20 percent versus the 2019 Highlander Hybrid, now registering 35 miles per gallon in city travel, and 34 miles per gallon highway with all-wheel drive.  Add one mile extra for both categories when opting for front-wheel drive.

Compare that to Explorer hybrid's all-wheel drive paltry-by-comparison 23 mpg city and 26 mpg highway results. In addition, the 2020 Ford Explorer hybrid (also revamped for 2020) starts thousands of dollars higher than Highlander hybrid.

Toyota's posted mpg estimates may substantially underestimate Highlander hybrid's actual real-world potential.  During a return excursion from the Wisconsin Dells, our highway average registered in the 43 mpg territory. Admittedly, we initialized some hyper-mileage, fuel extending know how gleaned throughout two decades of Toyota hybrid testing.  Highlander's nickel metal hydride battery pack effectively recaptures friction energy during the vehicle's braking process and simple coasting. This recaptured energy gets cycled back to power the motor/generators.

By disengaging cruise control and instead gently feathering the accelerator pedal while keeping highway between 65 and 60 miles per hour, bursts of short-term coasting enhances the energy recycling circuit. It's a bit counter intuitive to conventional pedal to the metal thinking, and would thwart conventional internal combustion engine mileage, but this hybrid system responds in kind.

Highlander hybrid offers four trims (LE, LXE, Limited, Platinum) one less than its gas-exclusive version. The LE hybrid trim boasts front-wheel drive exclusively while the upper three trims offer both front and all-wheel drive.

Our all-wheel drive, top-trim Premium hybrid came loaded, checking in with a $50,200 starting price. The only factory option, premium Ruby Flare Pearl red paint ($425), joined $767 worth of dealer extras for a $52,512 bottom line with $1,120 destination charge factored. The lowest-priced hybrid variant, a front-drive LE, checks in at $38,200.

The Premium trim adds such niceties as larger 20-inch alloy wheels, heated power outside mirrors, one-touch panoramic moon roof, adaptive (moving) LED headlights, LED fog lights and rear spoiler.  Inside, front seats are both heated and ventilated.

The second row comes with either a 60/40 split bench seating three (eight-person total capacity) or two single occupancy captain chairs (seven-person capacity). Second rows now manually slide forward an extra 1.2 inches in 2020 once backrests manually fold forward, allowing reasonably easy access to row three.

Headroom remains plentiful in row three (and in the first two rows), but leg room's at a premium for longer inseam passengers.  Promotional literature mentions three riders in row three.  Yes, but only if preteens.  The 50/50 split third-row backrests manually fold onto seat cushions delivering expanded carrying capacity. Backside straps help manually lift up backrests from the open hatchback region.

One would be hard pressed to identify this as a hybrid vehicle from its conventional exterior normality.  Other than the 'hybrid' badging embossed on the lower hatch, Toyota signifies a hybrid variant with its circular Toyota 'T' logos sporting blue shadow highlights.  Narrow side windows and high side belt line contribute to a modern design.

The hybrid's interior layout follows the same template as its gas-exclusive counterpart save for the largely digital instrument panel, with hybrid-specific indicators including a left-side orb detailing the battery state (Eco, Power, Charge) and other information selectable from the multi-panel center region.   

Most trims include a mid-size eight-inch touch screen standard.  Our Premium included a larger 12.3-inch IMAX version. Apple Car Play and Android Auto, two popular Smartphone interplays allowing downloaded phone Apps and other stored info to run through the in-dash screen, come standard.

Interacting with Highlander's flat center touch screen is less frustrating than most, thanks to outside twist dials assisting volume and station select functions. Climate controls monitor from push buttons between these dials or from the touch screen itself. The continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) mechanical shift handle between subtle, comfortable and sturdy front buckets, slides in a conventional up/down PRND vertical pattern.

2020 Toyota Highlander hybrid

Price as tested: $52,512

Gas engine: 2.5-liter four cylinder

Total system horsepower:

Wheelbase: 112.2 inches

Total Length: 194.9 inches

Total Height: 68.1 inches

Total Width: 76 inches

Hybrid parts warranty: 8 years/100,000 miles

Hybrid battery warranty: 10 years/150,000 miles

Mileage estimates: 35 mpg city/34 mpg highway

Assembly: Princeton, Indiana

Dave Boe

Dave Boe, a lifetime Chicago area resident, worked at the Daily Herald, Illinois' third-largest daily newspaper, for 24 years. In 1989, the Daily Herald began a weekly Saturday Auto Section and he was shortly appointed editor. The product quickly grew into one of the largest weekend sections in the paper thanks to his locally-written auto reviews, the introduction of a local automotive question-and-answer column, a new colorful format and news happenings from Chicago area new-car dealerships.

Five years later, a second weekly auto section debuted on Mondays with Boe adding an industry insight column and introducing a "Love Affair with Your Car" column where readers sent in their own automotive memories for publication. During the next 10 years, the number of weekly auto sections Boe edited and coordinated grew to five and featured expanded NASCAR racing coverage, a dealer spotlight/profile feature and a Car Club Calendar where grass-roots automobile clubs could publish upcoming events for free. Boe also introduced more local automotive columnists into the pages of the sections, all of whom were seasoned members of the well respected Midwest Automotive Media Association. In 1997, Boe earned the Employee of the Year award from the Daily Herald.

Boe is a founding member and current president of the Midwest Automotive Media Association. He has degrees in Journalism and Business Administration from Northern Illinois University.