2020 Toyota Highlander First Drive Review: There Can Be Only One (Fuel Economy King)

First Drive / Comments

It's not the biggest or the prettiest, but it is the most efficient.

At a time when many SUVs were body-on-frame, Toyota made a bold move when it released the first-generation Highlander in 2001. And it paid off. Big time. Fast-forward to 2019 and the fourth-generation 2020 Toyota Highlanderand Highlander Hybrid have just been introduced, looking to make up ground against new entrants to the mid-size crossover segment - yup, we are referring to the excellent Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade.

The new Highlander will need to do a lot to dethrone the Korean juggernauts in this segment but thanks to Toyota's stellar track record for reliability and longevity, it won't face the same uphill battle to gain consumer trust. This new Highlander features a bolder exterior design, revamped interior, and some interesting powertrain changes making it the most frugal vehicle in its category. But are these changes enough to impress crossover buyers? Toyota flew us to San Antonio, Texas to drive both the gas and hybrid models so we could find out.

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Exterior Design: Is It Bold Enough?

The last-generation Highlander's design was about as forgettable as the second 'Highlander' movie. For this new model, Toyota told its designers to dial up the aggression and they responded with an interesting accent line that begins on the front doors and trails beyond the rear wheel arch. While it won't turn heads as Toyota suggests in its press release, the new Highlander's styling is certainly more memorable. In our opinion, Toyota could have made the Highlander look more rugged like the smaller RAV4, which we feel is the cooler SUV.

L, LE, and XLE grades feature a black front grille with silver trim while Limited and Platinum trims stand out with chrome trim, projector headlights, and 20-inch wheels (for the first time ever on Highlander). Three colors carry over from last year - Blizzard Pearl, Celestial Silver Metallic, and Midnight Black Metallic - while five new colors have been added for 2020. These include Magnetic Gray Metallic, Moon Dust (the blue pictured below), Ruby Flare Pearl (also pictured below), Blueprint, and Opulent Amber.

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Engine, Performance, & MPG: Efficiency Is King

Gas-engined Highlander models are all powered by a buttery smooth 3.5-liter V6 developing 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque going out through an eight-speed automatic. We asked why the V6 doesn't output 301 hp as it does in the Toyota Camry or Avalonand were told the Highlander was tuned to produce more torque lower in the rev range, resulting in a lower hp rating.

Front-wheel-drive comes standard but two different versions of AWD are also available, as well as a third AWD system for the Hybrid model. Speaking of the Highlander Hybrid, it ditches last year's V6 drivetrain in favor of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that combines with two electric motors to produce 243 total system horsepower. The hybrid sends its power out through an eCVT to FWD or optional AWD. Gas models can tow up to 5,000 pounds while the hybrid is limited to 3,500 pounds.

Fuel economy for the gas model is rated at 21/29/24 mpg city/highway/combined with FWD or 20/27/23 mpg with AWD, making the Highlander one of the better vehicles in the mid-size class. But if you want the most efficient SUV in this segment, you have to get the Highlander Hybrid. It achieves a staggeringly good 36/35/36 mpg city/high/combined with FWD or 35 mpg across the board with AWD. Of the similarly-sized SUVs, only the Ford Explorer Hybrid comes close to these numbers.

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Interior Design: Channeling Its Inner Lexus

Toyota has produced some excellent interiors of late and the Highlander is no exception. We had the chance to sample a variety of trim levels ranging from the base L grade up to the fully-loaded Platinum, and all feature mostly soft-touch materials with very few hard plastics.

Most Highlander grades come with an eight-inch touchscreen that feels tiny compared to the rest of the dashboard. This smaller screen features lackluster graphics and responsiveness but does include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility as standard. Opting for the Platinum grade (or optional on the Limited grade) adds a higher resolution 12.3-inch display with a clever split-screen function that can change sides depending on who needs to use it. The larger screen really dresses up the cabin and responds faster to touch inputs. We highly recommend it.

The Platinum grade is also equipped with beautiful perforated leather seats. If you do opt for the Platinum, you can also select a new interior color called Glazed Caramel, which looks fantastic.

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Trunk & Cargo Space: Not The Biggest

Toyota says the Highlander houses 16 cubic feet of storage behind the third row, 48.8 cubic feet with the third row folded, and 84.3 cubic feet with the second row folded. These numbers are fine when compared to the rest of the segment but they are not class-leading. Folding down the seats requires the use of manual levers and we noticed the third-row headrests bump into the second row on their way down on numerous occasions. It is also worth noting the Highlander Hybrid does not sacrifice storage space compared to the gas model.

In the front row, the Highlander has plenty of storage areas for smaller items. The Highlander's signature dashboard cubby has now been divided into two smaller shelves because Toyota says owners were tired of having their items roll all the way to the passenger side while turning. Toyota still includes a small pass-through to the lower storage area, so you can run a cable to a smartphone or other device.

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Driving Impressions: It's A Toyota

Driving the Highlander feels remarkably like a Toyota. Big surprise there. Of the two versions, we preferred the V6 model. We love this engine in the Camry and Avalon and it is equally impressive here. There are almost no vibrations from the engine bay and the eight-speed automatic does a wonderful job shifting smoothly and on command. Toyota has included a few drive modes to help coax more life out of the drivetrain but the Highlander never feels like it is underpowered.

Even the base model includes Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 as standard, meaning you get a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, full-range adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert, automatic high beams, lane tracing assist, and road sign assist. If we had one complaint with the driving experience, it would be the inexplicable road noise that seems to plague a variety of recent Toyota models.

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We loved driving the RAV4 Hybrid and expected the Highlander Hybrid to be our favorite of the two. But we were wrong. Toyota says the decision to drop from a V6 down to a four-cylinder in the hybrid model was customer-driven based on fuel economy and it's hard to argue with results. But from behind the wheel, we couldn't fall in love with the hybrid drivetrain. When you need a quick burst of acceleration, the CVT drops down in its ratios and the engine cries out like a pony struggling to pull a heavy cart. There isn't a huge discrepancy in speed compared to the V6, but the loud four-cylinder engine feels less refined.

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Pricing & Trims: Pretty Expensive

There's no getting around the fact that the Highlander is rather pricey in its segment. The base L grade comes well-equipped but is more expensive than its rivals at $34,600 for FWD or $36,200 for AWD. Pricing for the LE grade starts at $36,800 for FWD or $38,400 for AWD while the hybrid variants start at $38,200 for FWD or $39,800 for AWD. Upgrading to the LE adds a power tailgate, blind-spot monitoring, LED fog lights, and a leather steering wheel and shift knob.

The XLE grade starts at $39,600 for FWD, $41,200 for AWD and $41,000 or $42,600 for the FWD and AWD hybrid respectively. This is the grade where the Highlander starts to feel luxurious with heated SofTex power front seats, second-row sunshades, seven-inch multi-information display, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, second-row captain's chairs, and power moon roof.

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For even more of a luxury feel, the Limited grade starts at $43,650 for FWD, $45,600 for AWD, $45,050 for the FWD hybrid, and $47,000 for the AWD hybrid. This grade adds heated and ventilated front seats, 20-inch wheels, a hands-free power liftgate, JBL Audio, navigation, and wood interior trim.

The Platinum grade is where Toyota may have reached a bit too high with Highlander pricing. It starts at $46,850 for FWD and $48,800 for AWD and the hybrid models cost $48,250 and $50,200. Toyota has priced itself well above its competition and even without an available hybrid version, those SUVs are by far the better value.

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Verdict: It Will Have No Trouble Selling

Toyota's latest Highlander is solid across the board but it fails to "wow" us like its Korean competitors. If you want the best efficiency, the Highlander stands above the rest but if you want the most spacious, most luxurious, prettiest, or most comfortable option in this segment, there are a few stronger players. Aside from the stellar hybrid fuel economy, Toyota has taken a "Jack of all trades but master of none" approach with the new Highlander, which should keep it competitive in this segment.

But knowing how loyal Toyota customers are, it probably won't matter if a competitor has a better drivetrain, more advanced technology, or a more impressive interior - Toyota buyers know what they want. All of those other considerations will go out the window once they get into the dealership and decide to trust the brand that has kept them safe and trouble-free.

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