Toyota takes advantage of new platform to redefine the look of its popular SUV
Let’s play a guessing game. Is this a new Subaru? Maybe a zippy Mazda? Ford Explorer? Wrong, wrong, and wrong. This fresh new face is the 2020 Toyota Highlander, which abandons its benign family-hauler look and gets a complete makeover.
Moving the midsize SUV to Toyota’s TNGA global architecture, which underpins everything from the Prius, C-HR, and Corolla to the RAV4, Camry, and Avalon, was the perfect opportunity to redefine the fourth-generation Highlander.
Working with such a clean sheet of paper, Toyota’s designers created a refreshing change for a vehicle whose popularity was based less on looks and more on Toyota’s reputation for safe, reliable, durable, and functional family vehicles.
Toyota wants to expand its customer base beyond families to include empty nesters and young, active buyers. That meant giving the Highlander a more powerful first impression while adding a little swagger to take it out on the town.
Longtime Highlander drivers might not recognize this generation, with its vertical front end and a bit of a shark nose. A clearly defined grille with a geometric lattice design replaces the current slats—we applaud the decision to keep the grille size under control. Below is a lower grille with simulated skidplates. There’s more tension in the hood, and the LED headlights are sleeker. In other words, facial recognition would not trace it back to a Highlander.
From the side, a distinct and muscular character line sweeps up the back to the wheelwells outlined in black cladding. It rides on a choice of 18- or 20-inch wheels—the current model has 19s. Overall, the crossover is 2.4 inches longer; the wheelbase was stretched by the same amount. It’s also slightly wider while retaining the same height, but the roofline is more tapered.
The grille shape is mirrored in the rear hatch, which now opens with a leg swipe and raises faster thanks to the lightweighting effort of switching from steel to a lighter composite plastic. Taillights are also sleeker.
The 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is gone, but the 295-hp, 263-lb-ft 3.5-liter V-6 carries over with the eight-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is optional; it still tows 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg) and should still get 21/27/23 mpg (11.2/8.7/10.2 L/100 km) with AWD. Dynamic Torque Vectoring—this is the second application after the RAV4—has been added to the upper trims.
The hybrid version gets Toyota’s 2.5-liter Dynamic Force I-4 paired to an electric motor for a combined 240 hp. It runs on the Atkinson cycle and has an updated CVT. Old-school nickel–metal hydride batteries tucked under the back seat (no lithium-ion batteries here), but there is little EV-only range beyond creeping up the driveway at night. The engine is new to the Highlander, and for the time you can get the hybrid in front-drive form, which will bring down the cost. The hybrid can tow 3,500 pounds (1,587 kg). Ford has added an Explorer hybrid that can tow 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg).
The new platform is more rigid, with a new MacPherson strut up front and updated trailing A-arm rear suspension. Toyotas that have migrated to TNGA have enjoyed more agility on the road—though we’ll have to wait until we drive it to verify it with the Highlander.
Inside, there is a Toyota-first 12.3-inch touchscreen (the 8.0-inch infotainment screen remains on lower trims). The Highlander is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The driver has a 7.0-inch configurable display with crisp graphics.
Thanks to Toyota for three easily accessible USB ports up front with a tray above for the phone and a pass-through for the charge cable. There is a second shelf on the passenger side. Wireless charging is standard on XLE and higher trims. Wi-Fi is available for up to five devices.
The rearview mirror has gone digital and uses a camera to help you see should the SUV is filled to the brim. A heated steering wheel, heated and cooled front leather seats, and heated second-row seats are standard on top trims but otherwise not available. A panoramic moonroof extends over the first two rows.
Seating includes second-row captain’s chairs for a seven-passenger vehicle or a bench seat to carry eight. Second-row passengers get two USB ports, a 120-volt outlet, and climate controls. Push a button to tilt and slide the seat for access to the third row. The third row reclines or can fold flat manually to create a larger cargo hold. Cargo room behind the third row increases from 13.8 cubic feet to 16.1.
Current trims include LE, LE Plus, XLE, Limited, and Limited Platinum. That changes to L, LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum. The LE and above are available as hybrids.
Toyota Safety Sense (TSS 2.0), which detects cars, cyclists, and pedestrians, is standard; it also reads road signs, lane markings, or the edge of the road. The car will accelerate, brake, and steer as needed, hold speed with adaptive cruise, and stay in the correct lane.
The first Highlander made its debut at the 2000 New York auto show, and the current model dates back to the 2014 model year. Last year Toyota sold 243,933 Highlanders, compared with 227,732 Explorers.
The 2020 V-6 Highlander will go on sale in December; the hybrid arrives in early 2020.