There are things in life you never notice, but they’re there. And you realize that someone not only invented them, but made a handsome pile of money from it. Think of the zipper, the ballpoint pen or the paper clip — items designed out of frustration with the existing order.
Crossover SUVs are no different.
Until Toyota introduced the RAV4 and Highlander, SUVs used truck platforms, which were fine given their customers preferred off-roading. But as SUVs were increasingly purchased by consumers more interested in the SUV’s image than its boulder-bashing capability, Toyota decided to use car platforms instead to deliver added refinement.
Making its debut in 2001, the Highlander set the pattern for a vehicle that now dominates the market: the crossover SUV. Now in its fourth generation, the 2020 Highlander continues to please with a new platform, and more energetic styling that’s sleeker in appearance than its predecessor. It looks far better in person than in photos. But you may not notice, given how ubiquitous these vehicles are.
Most Highlanders come equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6 and an eight-speed automatic transmission that generates 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque. An optional towing package provides 5,000 pounds of towing capacity along with a heavy-duty radiator with engine oil cooler, and Trailer Sway Control to help control trailer movement.
There’s also a Highlander Hybrid, with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and two electric motors mated to a continuously variable transmission that generates 243 horsepower.
The Highlander is equipped with one of three all-wheel-drive systems. L, LE and XLE models get a system that sends 50% of available torque to the rear wheels when needed. Limited and Platinum model employ all-wheel drive to optimize handling under any condition, not just inclement weather. On hybrids, all-wheel drive comes from a separate rear-mounted electric motor that powers the rear wheels with no mechanical connection between the transmission and the rear wheels.
Choosing the hybrid nets stellar fuel economy, returning an EPA-rated 36 mpg in combined city/highway driving with front-wheel drive; 35 mpg with all-wheel drive. Yet even the V-6 is fairly frugal, returning 23 mpg with all-wheel drive, 24 mpg with front-wheel drive.
A Multi-Terrain Select dial adjusts the Highlander’s response to road surface conditions. In addition, Hill Start Assist Control, Trailer Sway Control and Downhill Assist Control are optional to enhance off-road performance. Most importantly, Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, a suite of driver assistance safety systems, is standard and includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beam, lane tracing assist, and road sign assist.
Despite all of the technology, the Highlander’s personality remains unchanged. Its smooth silent V-6 driveline coupled with a resilient ride delivers a comfortably quiet ride and a serene environment. Yes, there’s body lean in corners, and there is rebound over bumps, but that’s to be expected.
The hybrid is remarkably efficient, returning 35 mpg without even trying — impressive for a car of this size. But the four-cylinder engine growls unpleasantly when pushed for grunt, sounding less refined than the regular gas driveline. And the CVT responds sluggishly at times, typical behavior for a CVT. The gas engine feels reluctant at times as well; putting it in sport mode doesn’t make it any more responsive or fun to drive, despite Toyota’s insistence that switching drive modes affects accelerator, steering, and engine tuning. All models have the same suspension tuning, so any difference in driving feel comes from the tires. In the case of the top-of-the-line Platinum, it’s markedly apparent, making that model far more satisfying to drive than other trim levels.
While driving, you’ll find the infotainment touchscreen is easy for front seat passengers to reach, and its user interface is intuitive. Underneath it, a handy shelf makes the perfect place to stash a smartphone; the USB ports are underneath it, and accessible through a cord pass-through. The center console bin has a lid that rolls back, making it easy to access. While the base screen is more than adequate in size, the small knobs that control the audio functions are small and hard to grasp. The optional infotainment system’s larger screen may seem indulgent, but far nicer to use. Its knobs are far bigger, and much easier to grasp, while the optional audio system delivers far better sound than the base system.
Apple Car Play, Android Auto, Alexa In-Car compatibility, Waze, SiriusXM, and Wi-Fi connectivity comes standard. If you want navigation, it’s optional XLE and Limited and standard on Platinum. A 1,200 watt, 11-speaker JBL premium audio system is standard for Limited and Platinum grades.
Opting for the Platinum model adds a number of small touches that make the Highlander far nicer. The tops of the dashboard and doors have far more padding. The leather wrapped steering wheel is thicker and nicer to hold. The side of the center console is padded; on lesser grades it’s simply hard plastic.
L and LE grades come with a second-row bench, while other models come with second row Captain’s Chairs, although a second-row bench seat are available on XLE and Limited grades. With all seats in use, the Highlander offers 16 cubic feet of cargo space, opening up to 84.3 cubic feet with second and third rows folded.
Front seat comfort is sufficient on lower trims, and far better on upper-level models. Visibility is good in all directions from the driver’s seat. Second row seats are adequately high off the floor, and legroom is good. Both seats slide forward and back for people/cargo flexibility. That said, head room is claustrophobic with the sunroof, particularly for adults, as your stare into the ceiling-mounted air vents. This is not an issue if you opt for the panoramic roof, as head room is good and the vents are mounted elsewhere. Third row seats are best left for rug rats, or folded.
Although vehicles like the 2020 Toyota Highlander crossover SUV elicit yawns from car cognoscenti, you’ll find it to be practical, comfortable, safe and frugal with fuel. And while it won’t excite enthusiasts, it will excite anyone who needs a stellar family hauler.
2020 Toyota Highlander
Base price: $34,600
Engine: DOHC 3.5-liter V6
EPA fuel economy (city/highway): 20/27 mpg
Fuel required: Regular
Wheelbase/Length/Width: 112.2/194.9/76 inches
Ground clearance: 8 inches
Cargo capacity: 16-84.3 cubic feet
Towing capacity: 3,500-5,000 pounds
Curb weight: 4,145-4,595 pounds