My Thoughts Exactly: 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Back in March – before COVID-19 decided to shut everything down and put most of us on lockdown – I sampled the 2020 Toyota Highlander in Aurora, Illinois. It was a lovely mid-size, three-row SUV made for families on the go. 

In the end, I came away very impressed with this new entry into a hot segment where family values truly matter. It was one of those segments that rolled through a sales slump due to the pandemic by maintaining strong sales by percentage. Families needed vehicles like this to get through the insanity of this year together. 

After leaving Toyota’s regional sales office in Aurora, I had to recalculate the Highlander up against some of its rivals – which almost every one of them had been featured on this site for the past year or so. I don’t have to name them, do I?

One thing that was mentioned at the regional drive event in March was that I was to get one for a full evaluation. That time finally came, as this lovely red Highlander Hybrid Platinum pulled up to V&R's headquarters in the Twin Cities. The timing was just right for a deeper dive into this SUV. 

Before I get into this vehicle, I wanted to remind you that the Highlander I sampled in Aurora was a V6 model. You see, the real story of this new version of Toyota’s popular mid-sized, three-row SUV is the new Hybrid driveline. To me, this is the real test of this vehicle whether going with a four-cylinder hybrid driveline in the Highlander would be more beneficial than the older V6 version.

The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine found on other Toyota and Lexus hybrids is a solid and proven unit. It has been tested a few times in this website as a smooth running driveline that returned astounding fuel economy – all of which landed in the low 40s on average. While the new hybrid driveline on the Highlander may appear to be the same as the one I drove in the Camry, Avalon, and ES 300h, Toyota uprated the performance for this larger SUV to work with the extra weight and capability required in this vehicle. 

The result is a combined net 243 horsepower rating with instant torque from this tester’s three electric motors. Chanelled through a smooth continuously variable transmission, my all-wheel-drive model did it’s best to gobble up highway miles, while managing the streets of the Twin Cities, Rochester, and everywhere else this Highlander Hybrid Platinum ended up at. 

I was a bit concerned that the four-cylinder Hybrid driveline would not work on the Highlander. I was wrong, but not without some reservations. The Highlander weighs 4,595 pounds. Somehow, I did not feel that its weight penalized the performance of this Highlander Hybrid. 

Also, towing is limited to 3,500 pounds. The V6-powered Highlander can tow up to 5,000 pounds. If towing is a concern, this may be something to consider when selecting your Toyota Highlander.

Another concern was the brakes. In principle, the braking system on a hybrid works not to only to stop your vehicle, but to recapture energy back to the battery pack. There is usually a lag in stops when that happens. I did feel it in this Highlander Hybrid where stops were longer than I expected. Pedal feel was a bit mushy, which meant I had to sometimes go hard on it to ensure that I’ll stop on time. Most Toyota Hybrids had this issue resolved and stops were actually equal to non-hybrid models. 

I know I’ve been nitpicking a lot on my reviews. Over the years, many experiential impressions and data point to a progression in what is considered good, safe, more-than-acceptable for you, the reader. It is my job to report my findings with every vehicle I work with. Of course, I fully understand that your experience with the same vehicle might not be the same as mine. 

Just wanted to point that out (again). Now, to what I like about the Toyota Highlander Hybrid…

The overall design is a mix of progression from the previous generation to plenty of new elements marking the improvements on the 2020 Highlander. It is quite handsome and certainly feels the part. All for doors open very wide for people and cargo. The liftgate is high enough for me to stand up. These are practical pieces that absolutely pass muster. 

I felt comfortable behind the wheel with the wide 7-inch information screen and the 10-inch head-up display. The large infotainment screen is within eye shot, as well as touch. Although, you’re better off using the controls on the steering wheel and center stack. I loved how those controls work to touch, function, and logic. Toyota makes you feel in command of your Highlander – and that is what I hope you can take away from your experience in it. 

The front seats were big and supportive. So were the second row captain’s chairs. It’s great that Toyota added a set of cupholders in-between the second-row seats for convenience sake. However, third-row passengers may need to be careful with landing their feet on top of them. 

I did apply the Boomer Test to the Highlander. The first level of cargo space was just about 16.0 cubic feet, which could only fit the drum in its bag perfectly. For the length test, the third row seats folded down in a 50/50 split, giving me 48.4 cubic feet of space. I could nestle the 35-pound musical instrument in the third row, but securing it safely was a chore, including folding down the second row. The slide mechanism did not cut it. Putting said big instrument securely in the second row was going to look very awkward with the absence of a middle seat or a level console. 

Understand this is done for the science of practicality. Your results may vary. Hey, some of you have lighter, smaller musical instruments…like a trumpet or a guitar. Although, if you have an electric guitar and need to carry an amplifier, effects pedals, and so forth, you may need to fold down the third row of seats to get them all in before your next gig…

My biggest hope for the Highlander Hybrid was fuel consumption. Looking back at the last generation V6-powered hybrid, I never could get anything beyond 27.4 MPG. With the new four-cylinder hybrid, I was happy to see that I averaged 33.0 MPG. Toyota said the EPA rated it up to 35 MPG. 

The 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid AWD Platinum is a great package. There was nothing left off of the order sheet on this tester. All told, the sticker price came out to $52,512. 

The conclusion is simple: If you want a nice, quiet, smooth operating mid-size, three-row SUV that seats around seven human beings – put the 2020 Toyota Highlander on your shopping list. The improvements make it better vehicle in its class. You will love the tech and the hybrid driveline, too!

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Toyota Motor North America

All photos by Randy Stern

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