By Casey Williams
When the Toyota Highlander arrived for 2001 as a more affordable version of the ground-breaking Lexus RX, it changed the industry. Unlike almost all SUVs at the time, the Highlander rode on a version of the Camry’s unibody architecture instead of a truck frame. This gave the vehicle the space of an SUV, but the ride and handling of a mid-size sedan. Every automaker followed Toyota’s lead since. Completely redesigned for 2020, the Highlander proves it still leads the segment it helped create.
It’s not easy to make what is a very large box stylish, but Toyota’s designers performed admirably by giving the Highlander a wide stance, beefy hoodlines, deftly chiseled bodysides, and wedgy taillamps. Its rear fenders could be mistaken for classic Mercedes, which feel very upscale on a three-row crossover. Our Platinum trim is further distinguished by a black grille with chrome trim, chrome-plated lower rear facia, projector headlamps, and unique 20” wheels. The body is 2.36” longer, which appears in the cargo area and by allowing an additional 1.2” of slide for the middle row.
That space pays dividends inside where passengers will think they stepped into a luxury limo. Embossed and perforated leather seats look more Maybach than Toyota, especially when heated/ventilated up front and heated in the middle row. A heated steering wheel, panoramic sunroof, three-zone climate control, and 1,200 watts of JBL audio bring it too.
Life in the front row is dominated by a flashy 12.3” touchscreen that comes standard on Platinum editions (an 8” version is standard). It intuitively controls the audio and navigation systems, employing actual tuning/volume knobs, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Alexa In-Car compatibility. Devices further connect with onboard Wi-Fi and wireless charging in the armrest. From behind the wheel, I especially appreciated the wide head-up display, rain-sensing wipers, and digital image rearview mirror. A birds-eye camera eases maneuvering in tight quarters.
Behind the chrome winged Toyota badge is a 3.5-liter V6 delivering 295 horsepower and 263 lb.-ft. of torque – all routed to the optional all-wheel-drive system through an eight-speed automatic transmission. That’s the right amount of power for a vehicle this size – enough to stomp onto freeways and pass on two-lane highways while balancing fuel economy, which rates 20/27-MPG city/highway. Properly equipped, the Highlander can tow up to 5,000 lbs. of RV, boat, or classic car.
If there’s a downside to large boxes on car chassis it’s that they sometimes feel hollow and bouncy. There’s some of that with the Highlander, but engineers tuned the four-wheel independent suspension to provide a controlled and comfortable ride. Thicker windows and more insulation keep things quiet. Dynamic torque vectoring AWD over-rotates wheels to help sharpen corners and give the big wagon a nimble feel. There’s also a drive mode selector that configures torque transfer between front/rear wheels and side-to-side. It’s all quite sophisticated.
Given the Highlander’s key mission of transporting families, safety was a priority. Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 comes standard on all 2020 Highlanders and includes pre-collision alert with pedestrian detection, crash mitigation auto braking, full-range adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, and lane tracing assist. You can also add a blind spot monitor, rear cross traffic alert, rear auto braking, and parking sensors. The Multi-Terrain Select control system configures the powertrain for Mud & Sand or Rock & Dirt. Hill start assist and hill descent control help too.
The auto industry has changed tremendously since the Highlander first rolled out, but Toyota continues to evolve and adapt the crossover to America’s needs. By adding a third row, power, luxury, and advanced safety systems, Toyota kept the Highlander on top. Base models start at $34,600, but rose to $49,225 for our Platinum edition with all-wheel-drive. Key competitors include the Subaru Ascent, Honda Pilot, Kia Telluride, Buick Enclave, and Ford Explorer.

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