The Highlander tackles corners with the efficacy of a midsize sedan.
Since the dawn of today’s crossover SUV age around the turn of the century, buyers have continued to flock to the ample versatility and gentler fuel consumption that a car-based crossover provides. Carrying on the heritage that started in the 2001 model year, the 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum AWD is Toyota Canada’s brand new effort in the three-row arena. Historically, it’s always been a safe and reliable choice for a family trickster, but has always stayed more on the vanilla side of the fun equation.
Now, the Highlander has moved to the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform that also underpins the Camry, Corolla, and RAV4, among others. Based on everything that we have tested so far, this platform is known for its very stiff structure and competent handling, and the tables have turned – Toyota is now one of the better fun purveyors in the mainstream category. The Highlander is a much larger and heavier vehicle than all the others – could it be just as fun?
For those who want the most plain-Jane version, the Highlander L with front-wheel drive starts at $39,990, but the one recently tested was a top-notch Limited all-wheel drive model with the Platinum package. This one will set you back $53,990, which is $1,890 more than last year’s outgoing top of the line model. What’s also new this year is the fact that Hybrid models (ranging from $45,490 to $55,590) move to a four-cylinder configuration with 243 horsepower, while gasoline-only models like this one retain a V6.
Standard features on all Highlanders include push-button start, a power driver’s seat, front heated seats and mirrors, rear privacy glass, LED headlamps and tail lamps, and 18-inch alloy wheels. The as-tested Platinum AWD features tri-zone automatic climate control, upgraded leather seating surfaces, power passenger seat, heated second row seats, a heated leather-wrapped steering wheel, a power rear liftgate, JBL premium audio, a panoramic moonroof, upgraded LED headlamps, 20-inch alloy wheels, wireless phone charging, a 120-volt AC power outlet, and a larger 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen.
Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard across all Highlander trims, which is a decision to be applauded. This system includes lane departure alerts (with lane-centring steering assist), blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, and forward collision warning with autonomous braking (and pedestrian/bicycle detection). Limited and Platinum trims get a sonar-based parking sensor system that can automatically apply the brakes – it’s also linked to the rear cross traffic alert system. Other automakers might make buyers pay thousands extra for all of this equipment – that’s not the case here.
Inside, the Highlander Platinum AWD has seating for seven – with captain’s chairs in the second row. The second row seats slide fore-and-aft on a long rail that allows for plenty of adjustability. Third row ingress, egress, and legroom is probably best suited for children or in-laws, but this is pretty par for the course for many SUVs this size (see also: Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade, Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9). The upgraded Platinum-exclusive seats are a nice touch and approach Lexus levels of look and feel, although long-distance comfort could stand to improve. Cargo capacity behind the first, second, and third rows is 453/1,371/2,387 litres (16.0/48.4/84.3 cubic feet) respectively, and the second and third rows both fold flat.
The 2020 Highlander features a new touchscreen infotainment system that’s a big improvement over the system it replaces, but still is a bit clunky in terms of polish and ergonomics. It takes a few more touches than necessary to scroll between menus, adding to driver distraction and frustration – expect the learning curve to be steeper than others. Thankfully, there are hard buttons for things like volume, tuning/scrolling, the heated seats, and the heating and air conditioning. With this new setup, the addition of both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone pairing compatibility is a very welcome change, with Toyota being one of the last adopters in mainstream cars.
Compared to the previous generation, all non-hybrid 2020 Toyota Highlanders carry over their non-hybrid six-cylinder powertrain. In use since the 2017 model year, the 3.5-litre “2GR-FKS” V6 pumps out 295 horsepower at 6,600RPM and 263 lb-ft. of torque at 4,700RPM, and is coupled to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Despite being a few years old, it’s a sweet sounding and smooth engine with a very punchy midrange. The transmission isn’t as smooth as competitors like the Kia Telluride, and the Toyota’s gearing leaves a little to be desired. The ratio gap between the first three gears is much larger than it ought to be, leaving considerably less RPM difference between fourth through eighth. This results in some gear hunting in moderate acceleration in the city, since a third-to-second kickdown is often required in order to get going.
Fuel economy figures for 2020 Highlanders with AWD come in at a rating of 11.7L/100KM in the city, and 8.6L/100KM on the highway. Both are slight improvements over last year, and observed fuel economy saw 11.3L/100KM in mixed driving. A start-stop system shuts off the engine at idle to conserve fuel, and can be controlled depending on how much brake pressure is applied when stopping. For stop-and-go traffic where such a system could get annoying, keeping light brake pressure when stopped keeps the gas engine running. In terms of fuel grade, regular octane is acceptable, and tank capacity is 68 litres.
Because the new Highlander has moved over to the TNGA platform, the chassis now features a very stiff structure. This pays dividends in at least a couple areas – crash worthiness being the main one. The other benefit is minimizing chassis flex and allowing the suspension to do its job as designed without the rest of the car deforming too much. As a result, the Highlander tackles corners with the efficacy of a midsize sedan, with agile turn-in response and way more road holding grip than one expects out of a three-row SUV. Ride quality is on the firm side but isn’t uncomfortable, and the new platform also does decently well to isolate noise and vibration.
In December 2019, we awarded the Kia Telluride the Crossover of the Year award. Although the Kia sets its sights further up towards the premium brands, it’s priced within a few hundred dollars of the Toyota. By comparison, the Kia wins on feeling more premium and comfortable inside and out, has a quieter ride, and has a more refined transmission. The 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum AWD does better for handling, has a little more lower-RPM oomph, and for a little more money ($1,600 – which is a bargain!), it offers fuel-saving hybrid powertrains. The Toyota is also projected to be better in terms of resale values, too. Overall, it’s a pretty tough call as to which would be the better choice – it’ll depend on which of these differences prospective buyers prioritize. You can’t go wrong with either of them.