A Better Best-in-Class Crossover: 2020-2021 Toyota Highlander
Has it been four generations already? Nearly two decades after the first 2001 Highlander, the fourth generation is here. The unibody Highlander had a four-wheel independent suspension and was based the then-best-selling Toyota Camry; it was a time when Subaru had put its Legacy wagon onto stilts and called it the Outback, turning a niche vehicle into a hot car. The 2001 Toyota Highlander boasted superior comfort and a reputation (backed up in reality) for quality and reliability. Later, with the hybrid version, it added impossibly good fuel economy. The 2020 builds on these inherited traits with a brand new chassis and platform.
Giving up the pretense of off-roading paid off in comfort and efficiency; since hardly anyone drives even Jeeps on anything rougher than gravel, that worked for customers, and the Highlander has been America’s best-selling (at retail, excluding fleets) midsized crossover from 2016 through 2019.
The 2020 Highlander joins the Camry, Corolla, Prius, and RAV4 on the new Toyota global architecture (TNGA). Gas mileage is an impressive 24 mpg (combined) with the V6 engine, and an even more impressive 36 mpg (combined) with the hybrid.
Every model comes with pre-collision warning, pedestrian detection, full-range dynamic cruise control, lane departure alert and mitigation, automatic high beams, lane tracing assistance, and road sign spotting.
Bigger and better
The fourth-generation Highlander is 2.36 inches (60mm) longer in the cargo area; the second row slides an extra 1.2 inches further up for third-row legroom. Having more high-strength steel makes the Highlander stiffer than the previous model, allowing for better tuning for the suspension for agility, ride, and a smaller turning circle. It is, in short, more agile, more comfortable, and quieter than ever. The front “wishbone” suspension uses MacPherson struts while the rear is a multi-link setup; there are stabilizer bars front and rear.
Large rear doors provide easy access to the second row; folding seats help with the third row. Three-zone climate control is standard now.
With all seat rows in use, Highlander has 16.0 cubic feet of space behind the third row; with the third row folded, it’s 48.4; and with second and third row folded, 84.3 cubic feet.
The 295-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, also seen on the Camry and Avalon, uses “D-4S Injection”—direct fuel injection with port fuel injectors, coupled with intelligent variable valve timing of intake and exhaust valves. Torque is rated at 263 lb.-ft. The 8-speed automatic transmission, with an exceptionally wide range, provides strong launches with good highway mileage. The engine has a stop/start system for better mileage, cutting the engine at full stops when possible and restarting when the brake pedal starts to lift.
Gasoline versions can tow up to 5,000 pounds when equipped with the towing package (which includes a heavy-duty radiator, engine oil cooler, and better fan); Trailer Sway Control (TSC) helps to control unwanted trailer movement.
The hybrid uses a 2.5-liter dual-cam four-cylinder engine with two electric motors; it has electric motor-assisted variable valve timing on the intake camshaft, and intelligent variable valve timing on the exhaust camshaft. A variable cooling system (electric water pump, electric thermostat) and a fully variable oil pump further improve engine efficiency. The end result is 243 total system horsepower and up to 36 mpg, combined, 24% better than the prior generation's 29 mpg rating. What's more, it's available in front or all wheel drive.
The transaxle now has the electric motors in a coaxial arrangement, rather than in-line, reducing frictional losses. Both motors can charge the battery. The reduction gear has moved from being a planetary to a parallel shaft gear to save space, 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.
The Highlander hybrid lets the driver select between normal, economical, and sport modes, with a full-battery mode for low-speed driving. The system allows the illusion of sequential shifting, using regenerative braking.
Smart all wheel drive
With the gasoline L, LE and XLE, the optional AWD system can send up to 50% of available torque to the rear wheels to counter wheel slip when necessary. The Limited and Platinum boast dynamic torque vectoring, using couplings to actively manage left/right torque distribution; the system doesn't wait for wheels to slip, but uses a computer which manages power steering, throttle, the transmission, and drive torque distribution. A multi-terrain select dial lets the driver pick the best program: mud and sand, rock and dirt, or automatic. The display shows real-time torque allocation and slip control.
Other features include hill-holding, trailer sway control, and downhill assistance. The rear driveline is disconnected when front wheel drive is all that's needed (not a particularly new feature).
The hybrid system uses a separate rear-mounted electric motor to power the rear wheels when needed. It can send more driving force to the rear wheels, e.g. to prevent front wheel slip on launch.
Models, colors, and trims
Buyers may also be able to get blind spot monitoring, rear cross path alerts, auto park-braking, and intelligent clearance sonar, if they buy a high enough trim level (the base model is L, moving up through LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum; the Hybrid has the same grades except L.) How to tell the models apart? The lower grades have a black grille with silver trim, while Limited and Platinum have chrome grille trim and chrome-plated lower rear fascia. They also have better headlamps and 20-inch alloy wheels, a first for the Highlander. The Platinum comes with a silver-painted front bumper and rear fascia, and unique wheel design.
Inside, L and LE buyers get Graphite (dark gray) or black cloth; the XLE has embossed Softex® artificial leather in beige, gray, or black. The Limited uses perforated leather in the same colors. Platinum has embossed, perforated leather trim in those colors and Glazed Caramel. The L and LE grades come with a second-row bench (8 passenger); the XLE and Limited grade come with a captain’s chair second row, with the bench optional. Platinum only comes in 7-passenger form.
The 2021 Toyota Highlander, the first Highlander to get the XSE badge, is between the XLE and Limited. It has the V6 and front or all wheel drive, but swaps in higher-rate springs, a different rear stabilizer bar, lower friction shocks, and retuned power steering. It has a unique front fascia, grille, lower spoiler and intake (integrated into the new bumper), headlamps (with black accents and light-strip DRLs), and rocker panels. It also has the first exposed dual-tip exhaust on a Highlander, with black roof rails, mirror caps, and window moldings. The interior uses black Softex seats with fabric inserts, and carbon fiber finishes on the dash, with an optional red-and-black-leather interior. The 1200 watt JBL sound system is standard. Toyota expects 12% of buyers to get the XSE.
Colors are Blizzard Pearl ($425), Celestial Silver Metallic, Midnight Black Metallic, and (new) Magnetic Gray Metallic, Moon Dust (striking blue, extra cost), Ruby Flare Pearl (red, extra cost), Blueprint, and Opulent Amber (deep brown).
Comfort and interiors
Sound-damping materials have been optimized, focusing on the frequencies that interfere with conversation. Limited and Platinum grades have laminated front side window glass.
All grades come with Apple Car Play®, Android Auto, Alexa, Waze, SiriusXM®, and Wi-Fi, along with a year subscription to Toyota Safety Connect. All but L get Service and Remote Connectivity while XLE brings optional Dynamic Navigation (standard on Platinum).
A new 12.3 inch touchscreen, meeting or beating the best of most competitors, is standard on Platinum; other models get 8-inch screens. A 1,200-watt JBL sound system with Clari-Fi® is standard on Limited and Platinum.
Toyota’s typical outstanding value is clearly evident in the Highlander L grade, where the standard equipment list includes features that one might expect in an upgraded model:
L: Safety gizmos, 18 inch alloy wheels, 3-zone automatic climate control, two-inch trip computer, 8-way power driver's seat, auto up/down power windows (all of them), 8-inch touch screen, LED headlamps and taillamps, privacy glass where legal, Smart Key entry.
LE adds: Power liftgate, blind spot monitor, LED fogs, leather-trimmed wheel and shifter
XLE adds: 10-way power driver’s seat, second row sunshades, power front passenger seat, 7-inch driver display, garage door opener, auto dimming rear mirror, heated front seats, special wheels and door handles, power tilt/slide moonroof, roof rails, and stuff noted in text.
Limited adds: 120V power outlet, ambient lighting, cargo cover, driver-seat memory, hands-free power liftgate, heated/ventilated front seats, puddle lamps, scuff plates, projector-beam headlamps, wood trim, other stuff in text.
Platinum adds: adaptive, self-leveling headlamps, digital-display rearview mirror, heads-up display, heated second row seats, illuminated scuff plates, panoramic moonroof, rain-sensing wipers, birds'-eye camera, other stuff noted in text.
Selected 2020 Highlander specifications
Horsepower: 186 hp (gasoline portion of hybrid), 243 hp (full hybrid system), 295 hp @ 6,600 (gasoline V6)
Torque: 175 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm (four-cylinder hybrid), 263 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm (gasoline V6)
Fuel required: 87 octane (regular)
Emissions: ULEV 70 (standard), SULEV 30 (hybrid)
First gear is 5.519:1, 8th is 0.673:1, reverse is 4.22. The front differential is 3.003:1 for gasoline engines.
How far have we come? See our 2010 Highlander Hybrid writeup/review