Here's news for you: The mid-size, three-row SUV is the hottest segment for family transportation lately.
It is perhaps old news for you, but it is also worth repeating. This is the space where the #VOTY19 resides – the Kia Telluride. This has been the hottest vehicle in America right now. The Hyundai Palisade has become a strong contender, along with the Volkswagen Atlas and the Ford Explorer.
Now, it's Toyota's turn. The Highlander has been one of the leaders in this segment and has been satisfying families for a very long time. They went back to the drawing board and created a new 2020 Highlander for today's families.
Time to follow this leader…
The Highlander is now crafted from the new Toyota New Generation Architecture (TGNA), which is a very flexible basic platform that underpins practically every new Toyota from the Corolla to the Avalon and the RAV4. On the new platform, the Highlander grows by 2.5 inches to accommodate extra third-row space compared to previous generations. In fact, the slide mechanism for the second row has an increase of 1.2 inches of travel than the previous model.
The extra size translates to a cargo volume of 48.4 cubic feet of space behind the second row. I usually point out that if you want a real world measurement of livability with the SUV, check the cargo volume behind the second row as a critical number to use for comparison.
The exterior follows a lot of current Toyota styling cues, but it is really bold and sporty for its class. The result is a distinctive design that will stand out in this growing field. The rear doors open wide for greater access to both the second and third row, as well as the wider liftgate making loading and uploading in the rear much easier.
Once you step inside, be prepared to be amazed. The quality has increased with lots of touch/feel points that are excellent. The wireless charging in the Platinum model I drove is the QI type, located in the middle of the center armrest. You can slide the cover over it to hide your phone and still get a comfortable space for your elbows.
While it appears that the infotainment screen may overpower the center stack. But I found it to be more convenient to access and work the touchscreen. In fact, higher trim models get a 12.3-inch screen with a Dynamic Navigation system where updates are done wirelessly. The instrument cluster follows the latest Toyota convention with a larger 7-inch information screen for higher trim levels sitting in-between the dials offering a plethora of data on the fly.
To make driving even better, there is now a 10-inch head-up display available for the first time in a Highlander. Plus, connectivity has been expanded to include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Alexa, and in-car Wi-Fi. These are the items you need to keep your family connected on the road.
Seating is comfortable across the first two rows. Very comfortable. With big seats up front, I felt at ease behind the wheel. The wheel is the right size and thickness, as was the gear lever. Second-row space and comfort were equally superb for a guy like me. The third row is easily accessible with the slid mechanism on the side of the cushion. In other words, you're going to love the new cabin in the 2020 Highlander.
Standard power is from the familiar 3.5-liter V6. The engine has been uprated to 295 horsepower with 263 pound-feet of torque. Connected to an 8-speed automatic transmission, this combination offers smooth power with equally smooth shifts. You can get the V6 with either front- or all-wheel drive. If you step up to the Limited and Platinum trim levels, the Highlander now offers Dynamic Torque Vectoring with better traction control based on conditions. Drivers can also choose from several drive modes that also help in creating better traction management.
The biggest change for the Highlander is in the Hybrid version. Not only did Toyota expand the number of models with this gas/electric hybrid driveline; they dropped the more efficient 2.5-liter engine anchoring a multiple electric motor set-up. If you go with an all-wheel-drive model, there are three motors connected to this efficient driveline. With 243 combined horsepower, you can achieve around 36 MPG in the 2020 Highlander Hybrid.
If there is one requirement a mid-size family SUV needs is the latest in safety technology. For the new 2020 Highlander, Toyota added a Full Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control that is also tied into the Automatic Emergency Braking system. Also new for the 2020 Highlander are the additions of Lane Tracing Assist and Road Sign Assist – both now requirements to keep you and everyone on board safe.
My overall impressions are very positive. Toyota addressed a few things I was concerned about – weight and some convenience items that seemed to be missing. Those two were addressed, as this Highlander is lighter than its predecessor and I found everything within reach to work with. It is also more responsive with a solid, proven, but updated driveline for the V6.
Were there any drawbacks? Maybe that under Normal mode, there were some roll and lean on at-limit maneuvers. Some of that can be resolved by flipping a switch to Sport mode. Even with a Highlander full of passengers, Sport mode does not feel super firm and harsh. That's a good thing in my book.
Pricing for the Highlander starts at $34,600 for a front-drive L model with the V6. Hybrid LE models start at $38,200. The XLE trim will continue to be the most popular model families will choose from.
Now in its fourth generation, the Toyota Highlander is primed to retain the lead among mid-size SUVs. They are off to a great start in challenging the newcomers in this class, as well as reconstituted rivals. I will have to work with later this year, so I can get a more in-depth review for you.
However, I can consider the 2020 Highlander a very good vehicle for Toyota and I expect customers to grab as many as they can in the next year or so.
What are you waiting for? Follow the leader…
DISCLAIMER: Vehicles and event logistics are courtesy of Toyota Motor North America
All photos by Randy Stern