SAN ANTONIO – The 2020 Toyota Highlander channels the spirit of the Camry midsize sedan as Toyota shifts its focus from cars to SUVs. There’s nothing flashy about the Highlander, but the midsize SUV promises the characteristics that made Toyota a juggernaut: practicality, durability and resale value.
The new Highlander goes on sale in mid-December. Prices range from $34,600 for a base front-drive model to $50,200 for a loaded all-wheel-drive hybrid.
At 194.9 inches long, the 2020 Highlander is about 2.4 inches longer than the current model. Versus key competitors, it’s 1.6 inches shorter than a Honda Pilot, about 4 inches shorter than a Ford Explorer and 9.4 inches shorter than a Chevrolet Traverse.
The Highlander’s other competitors include the Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Subaru Ascent and Volkswagen Atlas.
The Highlander is Toyota’s pitch to family buyers who are abandoning midsize sedans in favor of SUVs. But don’t write the Camry off yet. It remains Toyota’s No. 2 seller in the U.S., behind the RAV4 compact SUV.
Safety and driver assistance features
Forward collision alert and automatic braking
Automatic high beams
Lane departure alert with steering intervention
Road sign recognition
Lane tracing assist
Blind spot alert
Cross traffic alert
Hill start assist
Trailer sway control
I spent a day driving gasoline and hybrid Highlanders around the Hill Country in central Texas. The SUV is comfortable, with plenty of room in the front two rows of seats and a usable back seat. Laminated front side windows contribute to a quiet interior.
Cargo space behind the third-row seat increases to 16 cubic feet. Useful, but smaller than the best competitors.
The front seat has simple controls and plenty of storage. The steering wheel has flush controls for cruise, audio and other functions. I expected the feature to be confusing compared to wheels that have elevated switches for the most frequently used functions, but it seems reasonably intuitive. Android Auto joins Apple CarPlay among standard features.
Most models have an 8-inch touch screen. The top of the line Platinum gets a 12.3-inch screen Toyota claims is the biggest in its class.
The ride and handling are competent but don’t draw attention to themselves. Brakes are large and sturdy.
The standard six-cylinder engine has adequate power for suburban errands and highway cruising. The six-cylinder engine's EPA combined city/highway fuel economy rating improves 1 mile per gallon to 23 for all-wheel-drive models. Also 23 mpg, the combined figure for front-drive Highlanders is unchanged from 2019.
The six-cylinder engine produces 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque. An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard.
Toyota dropped the 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine that used to be the Highlander’s base engine.
LED headlights and taillights
12.3-inch touch screen on Platinum models.
8-inch screens on others
Heated and ventilated front seats
Three-zone climate control
1,200-watt JBL sound
Second-row bench or captain’s seats
Push button start
Perforated leather seats
20-inch alloy wheels
Smaller engine means big mpg gains for hybrid
In contrast, Toyota replaced the 2019 Highlander hybrid’s six-cylinder gasoline engine with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder to improve fuel economy.
The result, a whopping 24% improvement in combined EPA rating to 35 mpg with four-wheel-drive and 36 with front-drive.
The hybrid drivetrain is a $1,400 option you can get on any Highlander trim level. The hybrid engine and electric motor — two motors for all-wheel-drive hybrids, which have an electric rear axle — generate 243 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. Hybrids use a continuously variable automatic transmission.
With curb weights of 4,330-4,595 pounds, the Highlander hybrid won’t win many sprints, but it has enough power for daily driving.
Hybrid prices start at $38,200.
2020 Toyota Highlander at a glance
Seven- or eight-passenger, three-row, front- or all-wheel drive midsize SUV
Produced in Princeton, Indiana.
3.5-liter, 6-cylinder engine
295 horsepower @ 6,600 rpm; 263 pound-feet of torque @ 4,700
Eight-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy rating (Regular gasoline)
Front-wheel drive: 20 mpg city/28 highway/23 combined.
All-wheel drive: 20/27/23
2.5L four-cylinder + electric motor
243 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 175 pound-feet of torque @ 4,400 rpm
Continuously variable automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy rating (Regular gasoline)
Front-wheel drive: 36 mpg city/35 highway/36 combined.
All-wheel drive: 35/34/35
Wheelbase: 112.2 inches
Length: 194.4 inches
Width: 76 inches
Height: 68.1 inches
Curb weight: 4,145-4,595 pounds
Passenger volume: 141.3 cubic feet w/o sunroof; 136.1 w/panoramic
Cargo volume: 16 cubic feet behind third row
Follow Detroit Free Press autos critic on Twitter @mark_phelan.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: 2020 Toyota Highlander review: What if a Camry were an SUV?