A Better Best-in-Class Crossover: 2020 Toyota Highlander
Toyota showed off the three-row 2020 Highlander at the New York International Auto Show; the gasoline version will arrive in December 2019, and the hybrid in February 2020. The Highlander has been the best-selling retail model in the segment since 2016; the 2020 model takes Toyota’s sporty new Global Architecture (TNGA), increasing comfort and safety.
Buyers can get a V6 (22 mpg combined) or a new hybrid powertrain (34 mpg combined), but either way, they will get a full slate of safety features—pre-collision detection that can see pedestrians, full-range radar-based dynamic cruise control, lane departure assistance, automatic high beams, lane tracing, and road sign assistance. Different models may also provide blind spot monitors with rear cross-path alert, parking support breaking, and intelligent clearance sonar.
There are five grades; the base model is L, and then there are LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum. The Hybrid forgoes the L and goes straight to LE. Regardless, buyers get an eight-inch center touch-screen display, expanded to 12.3 inches on the Platinum model; the optional JBL sound system has 1,200 watts of power.
On the outside, the Highlander has a black grille with silver trim, except for Limited and Platinum, which get chrome trim and a chrome-plated lower rear fascia, with the Highlander’s first 20-inch alloy wheels; the Platinum also has a silver painted front bumper and rear fascia, and a unique 20-inch wheel. Three 2019 colors carry forward (Blizzard Pearl, for $395; Celestial Silver Metallic; and Midnight Black Metallic) while five new colors are Magnetic Gray Metallic, Moon Dust (blue), Ruby Flare Pearl (red), Blueprint, and Opulent Amber (brown).
Greater aerodynamic efficiency reduces wind noise while enhancing vehicle stability. The body uses high-strength steel and has a stiffer structure than the 2019s; that allows the front strut and rear multi-link suspension to have greater agility, a smaller turning circle, and a smoother and quieter ride.
The fourth-generation Highlander is 2.36 inches (60mm) longer than before in the cargo area, and the second row can be slid an extra 1.2 inches further up to increase distance between the second and third rows.
The L and LE come with a second-row bench for seating for eight, while the XLE and Limited grades come with a Captain’s Chair second row with seating for seven and the option of a second-row bench for seating for eight. The Platinum grade will come standard with a Captain’s Chair second row with seating for seven. Either way, the large rear doors provide easy access, while versatile seat folding features make it easy to enter the third row. Passengers in the third row benefit from a standard three-zone climate control. With all seat rows in use, Highlander has over 16 cubic feet of carrying space behind the third row; folding the split fold-flat third-row seatbacks opens the space to 40.6 cubic feet, and then folding the second row increases that to 73.3.
The 295-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is the base engine; it has both direct fuel injection and port fuel injectors, with dual varialbe valve timing that helps generate 263 pound-feet of torque for the 8-speed automatic transmission. An optional towing package provides a 5,000-pound towing capacity, and includes a heavy-duty radiator and engine oil cooler; the package also has Trailer Sway Control. The V6 also has a Stop/Start system so the engine shuts when the driver stops, then instantly restarts when the driver’s foot lifts from the brake pedal.
Ten years ago, Toyota introduced the first hybrid SUV in its class, the 2006 Highlander. The new Toyota Hybrid System in the 2020 Highlander Hybrid combines a high-efficiency 2.5-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine with two electric motors in a system that’s more compact and more efficient than before. A variable cooling system (electric water pump, electric thermostat) and a fully variable oil pump further improve engine efficiency. The bottom line is an eye opener for the efficiency-minded: 240 total system horsepower and an EPA-estimated 34 combined MPG.
The hybrid is now available in either FWD or AWD. The transaxle mounts the electric motors (MG1 and MG2) coaxially rather than in-line, and the resulting smaller and lighter package reduces frictional losses. The gas engine and MG2 work in concert to deliver dynamic performance, while both MG1 and MG2 charge the hybrid battery. To reduce the transaxle’s size and weight, the reduction gear is now a parallel shaft gear, rather than a planetary, and a new multi-function gear integrates the power-split planetary ring gear, parking gear, and counter-drive gear.
New computer integration and a smaller, lighter power stack installed directly above the transaxle reduce energy transmission losses. The battery pack is small enough to be installed under the rear seats, so it does not take up any cargo or passenger space. As on many modern vehicles, the Highlander Hybrid offers selectable NORMAL, ECO and SPORT driving modes that let the driver choose the vehicle’s performance personality. The bonus is the EV mode, which allows electric-only driving at low speeds for short distances. Using sequential shifting, the driver can “downshift” to increase the regenerative braking in steps, which fosters greater control when driving in hilly areas, for example.
The 2020 Highlander gets a grip on any road with a choice of front-wheel drive or three different available all-wheel drive systems: two for the V6 models and one for the Highlander Hybrid. The AWD system can send up to 50 percent of available torque to the rear wheels to counter wheel slip. Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD with Drive Mode Select and Driveline Disconnect is available for the Limited and Platinum; it also uses couplings to actively manage torque distribution between the left and right rear wheels. A sophisticated AWD Integrated Management (AIM) manages Electric Power Steering (EPS), throttle control, transmission shift control and drive torque distribution to continually optimize handling before wheel slip can happen.
Using the Multi-Terrain Select control dial on the console, the driver can maximize traction when driving through inclement weather or road conditions. Mud & Sand mode works well for beach driving, while Rock & Dirt mode optimizes AWD traction for trails. The driver can monitor, in real time, torque allocation and slip control on the Multi-Information Display (MID).
In hybrid models, the rear electric motor operates independently, with no mechanical connection between the transmission and the rear wheels. Preemptively distributing more driving force to the rear wheels, such as when accelerating, helps suppress front wheel slip during off-the-line starts. The system also enhances cornering agility by helping to reduce understeer.
The cabin offers has optional Qi wireless charging. On Limited and Platinum grades, new ambient LED lighting sets a relaxing mood. Inset steering wheel controls are used on all grades.
The L and LE seats have woven cloth in Graphite or Black; the XLE adds embossed Softex® artificial leather trim in Harvest Beige, Graphite or Black, while the Limited has those colors in perforated leather trim. The Platinum has embossed, perforated leather trim in those three colors plus Glazed Caramel.
All grades come with Apple Car Play®, Android Auto™, Alexa In-Car compatibility, Waze, SiriusXM®, and Wi-Fi connectivity through AT&T, all with one year of Toyota Safety Connect. XLE and Limited grade have optional Dynamic Navigation. Platinum grade has standard Dynamic Navigation and the 12.3-inch screen. The JBL® Premium Audio System is standard for Limited and Platinum grades, with 11 speakers in nine places and Clari-Fi® technology breathes.
Toyota’s 36-month/36,000 mile basic new-vehicle warranty applies to all components other than normal wear and maintenance items. 60-month warranties cover the powertrain for 60,000 miles and against perforation from corrosion with no mileage limitation. Hybrid-related components are covered for 8 years/100,000 miles, whichever comes first from original date of first use when sold as new. The 2020 Highlander also comes with normal factory-scheduled maintenance for two years or 25,000 miles, whichever comes first, and 2 years of Roadside Assistance, regardless of mileage.