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Review: 2020 Toyota Highlander channels Camry's spirit in a three-row SUV

Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press
Review: 2020 Toyota Highlander channels Camry's spirit in a three-row SUV

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.

2020 Toyota Highlander midsize SUV

Safety and driver assistance features

  • Forward collision alert and automatic braking
  • Pedestrian detection
  • Automatic high beams
  • Lane departure alert with steering intervention
  • Road sign recognition
  • Lane tracing assist
  • Blind spot alert
  • Cross traffic alert
  • Parking sensor
  • Hill start assist
  • Descent assist
  • Trailer sway control

Driving impressions

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.

Top models of the 2020 Toyota Highlander have a 12.3-inch touch screen.

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.

Available features

  • Head-up display
  • LED headlights and taillights
  • Wireless charging
  • Apple CarPlay
  • Android Auto
  • 12.3-inch touch screen on Platinum models.
  • 8-inch screens on others
  • Navigation
  • Bluetooth
  • Heated and ventilated front seats
  • Three-zone climate control
  • 1,200-watt JBL sound
  • Second-row bench or captain’s seats
  • Push button start
  • Power tailgate
  • Wood trim
  • 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 2020 Toyota Highlander has 16.0 cubic feet of space behind its third-row seat.

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

  • Prices: $34,600-$50,200
  • Seven- or eight-passenger, three-row, front- or all-wheel drive midsize SUV
  • Produced in Princeton, Indiana.

Gasoline drivetrain

  • 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

Hybrid drivetrain

  • 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

Dimensions:

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?