Is the best ever Highlander Best-In-Class? 

American families continue to flock to the 3-row SUV, leaving the ultra functional yet highly stigmatized minivan to dwindle in the dust, except when it comes to vacations and car rental time, when minivans seem to pick back up in demand.

One of the best selling family haulers in the country is the Toyota Highlander, which was initially introduced some 20 years ago. New for 2020 is the 4th generation of Highlander, moving to Toyota’s latest generation of build architecture and technology. Facing an ever-growing number of strong competitors, how will one of the segment founders stack up?

Toyota buyers are generally very loyal, and the company isn’t one to rock the boat, especially when something is seemingly working for them, their whole ethos is built on incremental changes and minimizing dissatisfaction, a strong formula that has yielded an immense amount of profitability over the years, tugging more on the mind than the heart.

The Highlander was never the biggest/roomiest vehicle in the segment, and that continues to be the case now, with space in the 3rd row decidedly a bit lacking when compared to some of the shiny new stars of the Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade and Subaru Ascent. VW’s Atlas is also fairly roomy, but with seating for just 2, where others typically supply 3 seat belts (although it could be argued that almost none of these could fit 3 standard size people in the 3rd row with any ease). The Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave are a good bit bigger, but they’re also quite a bit larger overall.

Perhaps there are a lot of families that simply don’t require use of the 3rd row frequently. For them, the Highlander is still comfortable, and provides significantly more cargo space and refinement than something like the compact RAV4. So, the Highlander could be seen as a fit for the families that need a 3rd row in a pinch, but predominantly keep it stowed away for their weekly runs to Costco. Not saying that all vehicles in a segment need to be the same, but it still seems that Toyota is a bit off the mark of the rest of the segment that has skewed a bit towards roomier interiors, without much bigger of an exterior footprint.

For our particular use case, we’ve got a car seat in the 2nd row, leaving only one additional 2nd row seat available with the captains chairs of the Platinum. If grandparents are in town, I would hate to relegate one of them to the 3rd row of the Highlander.

Now that we’ve gotten size out of the way, let’s explore what we do get with the Highlander. First choice to make for Highlander is whether you want a gas V6 engine or, common for Toyotas, a hybrid. This year, the hybrid is no longer a V6 based unit, but a 4-cylinder version tuned for more fuel economy than power. If you want a family hauler that can get over 30 miles per gallon regularly, the Highlander Hybrid is currently one of the only games in town for the mainstream set.

Our Platinum tester was fitted with the V6 and All Wheel Drive, making for a comfortable and traditional experience. Acceleration is good for the segment, fairly quiet, although the engine does need to wind up all the way to get to a lot of its power. We haven’t tested the Hybrid yet, but we have some reservations about the drop in power, especially when the vehicle is loaded up with passengers and/or cargo. But then again, if 90% of the time it’s just Mom or Dad taking 1 or 2 kids around town, the extra fuel economy could be a terrific tradeoff.

Inside, Toyota greatly improved the materials and design over the last generation, achieving something that looks nearly premium in this top trim Platinum with soft stitched surfaces, quilted leathers and a Lexus-like 12.3” multimedia screen. There are lots of clearly marked switches and buttons for commonly used features. We have heated and ventilated front seats, with heated captains chairs for the second row, but no lumbar control for the front passenger. Lumbar on the passenger side seat isn’t common for non-luxury branded vehicles, but with prices cresting $50,000 on this Platinum trim, one could argue that expectations start to rise as well.

One tech piece Highlander does offer is a digital rear view mirror, which can utilize a camera-based view behind the vehicle rather than having to peer through the long cabin, around heads or cargo, and the high rear window line. This isn’t super common yet, I believe only the Subaru Ascent, Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave offer it. It’s a great feature for these big family haulers, and one we expect to see on more competitors going forward.

Being a modern Toyota also means plenty of safety and advanced driver assistance technologies come along for the ride. There is of course a pre-collision system which can provide braking support and lane departure alert with active steering assist (although you can choose to forgo the active steering function if it feels invasive to you). One step beyond the lane departure function, the Lane Trace Assist does a great job of keeping the Highlander centered within a lane when paired with the adaptive cruise control system. This system proved impressive in our navigating of the Capital Beltway, A passive blind spot detection system is standard on all but the base L trim.

Another feature offered on the Highlander (Limited and Platinum trims) is the front and rear parking sensor system with automated braking. This can stop the vehicle if it approaches something while parking. Again, not a very common feature yet, but one we do expect and hope to see more manufacturers implement soon.

On the outside, the new Highlander is a bit more curved and shapely than the outgoing model. Wheel sizes now stretch upwards of 20”, a Highlander first. LED headlights are standard, but there are several variations. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the LED units on the base L, LE and XLE to be poor due to low visibility and high glare. The projector units on the Limited were deemed to be acceptable, with only the self-leveling and corner adaptive units on the top trim Platinum were rated as good. In this ultra competitive segment, we would bet that Toyota will move to implement one of the better headlights on the L/LE/XLE as soon as possible.

One exterior feature the Highlander loses in this generation is the ability to flip open just the glass on the rear liftgate. This allowed for quick access to the cargo area and was once a very common feature, but has disappeared on most competitors as well in recent years.

While we’re at the back end of the car, one thing we wish the Highlander had was a lock and close button for its power door. It has a single button to close the power door, or it can even be closed with the kick motion under the bumper, if so equipped. But then you have to wait until the door finishes closing (which is kind of slow), to be able to lock the doors. Most competitors offer a button that will close and then lock the vehicle, allowing you to simply walk away. It’s on Lexus vehicles, but not on this Highlander.

The same would go for being able to hit the touch lock on the driver door handle, which can’t be done if any of the other doors are open. It would be nice to be able to hit the lock sensor on the door, and just have the vehicle lock the doors once all the doors are closed.

Now, you’re probably thinking, this is a lot of negative dings against the Highlander. That might be somewhat true, but for the Toyota faithful, who haven’t experienced other brands or systems, they don’t know any better, and likely won’t care. That’s what Toyota seems to be banking on. The 2020 Highlander is undoubtedly the best one yet, it’s just not necessarily the best in class. Overall, the Highlander is still a strong family hauler contender, just maybe better suited for those with less than large families. 

Published in Reviews

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