What we like and don’t like about the redesigned three-row SUV’s interior
Although it’s the bulging fenders and blacked-out A-pillars that first grab your attention, the 2020 Toyota Highlander’s most important changes are inside. Whether Highlandering to you means commuting to work, carpooling to school, or something wildly different, the interior is where you’ll spend your time. With the Highlander new for the 2020 model year, here are some key details about the latest version of this hot-selling SUV.
How Many Does the Highlander Seat?
The 2020 Toyota Highlander seats seven or eight, depending on trim. With a second-row bench seat for three, the L and LE can hold eight people. The XLE and Limited seat seven or eight depending on whether the Highlander is equipped with second-row captain’s chairs, and the high-end Platinum only comes with the captain’s chairs and a seven-passenger seating capacity.
While climbing back to the third row, we found access and space back there to be average, and the floor was a little high. Although more spacious three-row SUVs exist, few are as short (and thus, as easy to park) as the Highlander. If you’re seeking maximum space, however, consider other SUVs (or a minivan).
How Do the Seats Fold Down?
The Highlander’s second-row seats are flexible, though there’s no way to tilt and fold down the seats if you have a car seat installed. Nevertheless, the sides of the seats have easily accessible controls to recline the backrest, fold the backrest down entirely, and shift the seat forward so the third row has more room. For the 2020 Highlander, the second-row seats can move 1.2 inches farther forward than before. There’s also a latch on the top of the seats to help move them out of the way.
How Much of My Stuff Can the Highlander Carry?
A lot! The 2020 Highlander’s cargo capacity is improved from the last-generation model, though it’s still far from class leading. You’ll find 16.0 cubic feet of space with the third-row seats in place, 48.4 cubic feet of space with the third-row seats folded down, and 84.3 cubic feet of space behind the front seats.
The Highlander offers a couple clever storage areas, too. The open spaces at the bottom of the dash and in front of the passenger-side dash are shallow, but they could become useful places to stash small belongings. Other storage spaces in front include the cupholders, door pockets, and a deep but somewhat narrow compartment below the center armrest. If Qi wireless charging is of interest, be sure to check whether your phone fits the tray.
Whooooh, Look at That Big Screen!
I know, right? The 12.3-inch touchscreen that’s optional on the Limited and standard on Platinum is great. Placed at the top of the dash, the wide screen splits the visual real estate into two, with the standard Apple CarPlay or Android Auto appearing on two-thirds of the space. An on-screen button or sideways swipe is all you need to switch the screen segments’ places (if you wanted fuel economy or climate control info closer than the nav screen).
Speaking of navigation, Toyota’s own system uses the same graphics and font we’ve all seen before. Saying “Navigate to the nearest Target” or “Navigate to [address]” got us search results relatively quickly. Also, unlike getting directions through Apple CarPlay (which I still prefer), using the in-car system adds redundant next-turn reminders in the instrument cluster.
Most Highlanders will have an 8.0-inch touchscreen—and unlike the last-gen model that had haptic-feedback buttons on both sides of the screen, this one has real, slim buttons.
…are not found on the 2020 Toyota Highlander. Really, we’re nitpicking, but consider us spoiled after experiencing the enormous knobs on the RAV4, controls that are covered in a satisfying grippy material. Even if Toyota doesn’t add that grippy material on a future Highlander, we would still appreciate knobs that are a tiny bit longer and easier to grab at a glance.
A couple other interior negatives: The silver trim on the top of the enormous 12.3-inch touchscreen reflects a little on the windshield, and the two second-row USB ports are located at the very bottom of the back of the center console. It’s great that they charge at 2.1 amps, but their placement could be better. The Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade have theirs midway up the backs of the front seats, and the 2020 Mazda CX-9 in high-end Signature trim includes two within a second-row armrest.
Visibility and Excellent Mirror Controls
While we’re being negative constructive, it’s worth mentioning that rear visibility isn’t great. It would be better, however, if the second-row seat headrests folded down as the third-row units do. Adjust your mirrors with the “I can do it without looking” sideview mirror controls, and you should be good.
If you have a car full of people, balloons, or suitcases stacked dangerously high, the Platinum trim’s digital rearview mirror can help. Some MotorTrend editors including myself find these rear displays disconcerting, but in a pinch, I could see it being useful. Once the kids have popped the balloons and the suitcases have been unloaded, switch the mirror back to a traditional non-digital rear display.
Should You Touch That?
Yes, by all means, touch the soft leatherlike material on the doors. Even on a Highlander LE model we drove, that soft material welcomed the knee closest to the door (left knee on the driver’s side or right on the passenger side). Unfortunately, the knee rests on either side of the center console are covered in hard plastic. On higher trims, it’s still somewhat hard, but is at least covered in a soft material—hey, it’s a Toyota, not a Lexus.
That same Highlander LE also announced its lower-trim status with plain black door handles instead of the chrome ones on higher trims.
Should You Buy the Highlander Platinum?
On the high end of the three-row mainstream SUV segment, the Highlander does a much better job of justifying its near-luxury positioning than the last-gen model. A couple competitors execute their upscale-ish SUVs more convincingly, however, and at a lower price. But if the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade aren’t for you, let’s consider the positives of 2020 Highlanders with prices approaching $50,000 USD. The Highlander Platinum gets a 1,200-watt sound system (like the Limited) and makes that 12.3-inch touchscreen standard. The bold Glazed Caramel color becomes available for the soft, perforated leather seats, and a panoramic moonroof and a good surround-view camera system are standard.
The new Highlander interior has definitely improved. Owners will appreciate the additional tech and extra cargo space, even if the overall package and the way it drives hasn’t changed much. The Toyota’s best feature isn’t in the interior at all, but under the hood. As we suggested in our 2020 Highlander reviews, the hybrid model may not be perfect, but it’s especially compelling.