The Highlander doesn’t bring enough to the table in a tough segment.
Before the segment ballooned into the force that it is today, the Toyota Highlander was a go-to three-row for most shoppers, offering style, comfort, and capability in spades. But lately, competitors have caught up to the dated Highlander with better-looking, more tech-laden alternatives. So in order to combat these fresh competitors, Toyota took the Highlander back to the drawing board.
The 2020 Toyota Highlander arrives with improved style, extra tech, and more safety, but it still doesn't feel like enough. Fundamental flaws like limited third-row space, polarizing styling, and a hefty price tag (our Platinum tester costs $51,000) keep the new Toyota Highlander from being a true top-tier option in this hyper-competitive class.
Scores updated in February 2021. A vehicle's ratings are relative only to its own segment and not the new-vehicle market as a whole. For more on how Motor1.com rates cars, click here.
Some might call the three-row bold, but we think the Toyota Highlander looks too busy, especially up front. Its downward sloping headlights, blacked-out grille, and mish-mash of vents and silver trim pieces don't form a truly cohesive design. Sure, it's an improvement over the previous model's Gillette razor–inspired front fascia, but overall, it feels too fussy for a three-row SUV.
There are some elements we do like, though, especially when looking closer at the side profile. There's a strong character line that extends from the front wheels to the rear, forming a sharp crease that sculpts seamlessly into the SUV's boxy frame. The rear-end is nice, if not a bit innocuous, and the 20-inch wheels look ripped from a luxury car. Also, our tester gets a neat $425 Moon Dust paint job.
The Highlander's massive 12.3-inch central touchscreen is eye-catching. It’s one of the largest in the class and standard on our range-topping Platinum model. The screen sits front and center, and wears a sharp silver trim piece that meshes seamlessly to the surrounding dash. This is no tacked-on screen. The setup comes accented by a nice leather trim on the dash – in this case, our tester wears a two-tone dark brown and beige finish, a woodgrain on the center console, and black leather on the steering wheel and gauge cluster surround. Though, that might be one color too many.
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Our all-wheel-drive Highlander Platinum tester comes standard with super soft and supportive front seats in Harvest Beige leather, one of four standard color options. Both front chairs are heated and ventilated, but the second-row captain's chairs (while heated, too) are pretty pedestrian, offering very little space for your six-foot author to stretch out. The third-row is cramped, as well – the rear bench has the least amount of legroom in the class, just 27.7 inches of space. That's even worse than the notoriously tight third row of the Mazda CX-9 (29.7 inches).
Only two things save the Highlander from a sub-optimal score in this category: the unique layout of the cabin and the innovative in-vehicle storage space. There's a small shelf underneath the touchscreen large enough for things like sunglasses or a cell phone, as well as a slightly smaller shelf on the passenger's side to carry the same items. The center console even has a wireless charger within it that folds up and down (though it's sort of difficult to use while driving), which creates more space underneath it. That kind of thinking makes the Highlander unique.
Having one of the largest touchscreens in the class is certainly a plus. The 12.3-inch unit – standard on our Platinum tester, but optional on the Limited model – responds well to inputs, looks crisp, and offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto at no extra cost (as does the Highlander's standard 8.0-inch touchscreen). And like Subaru's Starlink system and Ram's Uconnect setup, Toyota offers split-screen functionality, meaning you can run CarPlay alongside the Highlander's baked-in navigation, for example.
That said, Toyota's latest Entune infotainment setup is a cluttered mess. The home screen displays up to four information boxes at once, but it's hard to distinguish one from the other because of the odd layout, various rounded edges, and mish-mash of colors. And even when running CarPlay or Android Auto, that split-screen functionality we mentioned is almost too invasive; Toyota's system takes up a large chunk of one side of the screen.
But there are plenty of standard options on the Platinum model that cost extra elsewhere in the range. The Highlander Platinum gets a baked-in navigation system, a Qi wireless charger, a digital rearview mirror, an 11-speaker JBL audio system, and four USB ports at no additional cost.
The Toyota Highlander's standard 3.5-liter V6, paired to an eight-speed automatic, produces a powerful-enough 295 horses and 263 pound-feet of torque. That number looks good on paper, and traditional Highlander buyers won't take issue with the relatively straightforward powertrain setup. But it requires serious mashing of the gas pedal to get the 4,450-pound SUV up to speed. There's very little low-end torque and the eight-speed struggles to find the right gear when pushed.
From a dynamic standpoint, the Highlander is pretty generic in the way it moves. The steering is weighted well enough and body roll isn’t totally offensive, but there’s nothing exciting about this three-row from the driver’s seat. Alternatives like the Ford Explorer and Mazda CX-9 are far more engaging.
Safety equipment is one of the Highlander’s strong suits. Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 comes standard across the range and includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control with lane-keep and steering assist, and road sign recognition. Our tester also included blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and parking assist with a 360-degree camera.a. And in our traffic-laden commute, all of the systems work flawlessly; the Highlander stays centered in the lane, doesn’t ping pong, and brakes smoothly down to zero, able to clearly recognize the vehicle in front of it.
The all-wheel-drive Toyota Highlander gets 20 miles per gallon in the city, 27 highway, and 23 combined. That’s pretty good against other non-hybrid, all-wheel-drive alternatives. The Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade achieve just 21 mpg combined; the Honda Pilot achieves 22 mpg combined; and the Mazda CX-9, Subaru Ascent, and Ford Explorer each match the Highlander’s 23 mpg combined.
But there are more-efficient all-wheel-drive options. The Ford Explorer Hybrid returns a modest 25 mpg combined, and even within the Highlander range, the AWD Hybrid model gets up to 35 mpg combined.
The most-affordable 2020 Toyota Highlander is the base L model, which starts at $34,600. Our tester is a loaded Platinum model, though, and that trim asks $46,850 to start – or $48,800 with all-wheel drive. Taking the lone option – the $425 Moon Dust paint – and the $1,120 handling fee, our tester costs a whopping $50,345.
For reference, we’ve tested near-fully loaded versions of the Kia Telluride SX and Hyundai Palisade Limited in the past, and those three-rows had better features, roomier interiors, and more style than the Highlander, both at a more affordable price. The Telluride cost $48,100 and the Palisade cost $47,605.
Gallery: 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum: Review
2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum