It is a bedrock certainty of the auto biz that no good idea will go un-copied.
Toyota pioneered the three-row crossover craze with the 2001 debut of the midsize Highlander.
In a single stroke, Toyota gave buyers itching to drop the family minivan a viable alternative.
Almost immediately, the rest of the market followed and the Highlander soon faced a deep bench of very good competitors.
Beating back the hordes
This year, Toyota moves to beat back the hordes with the fourth-generation Highlander. The 2020 Highlander moves to Toyota’s global platform, which also underpins the Camry and Avalon sedans and the RAV4 compact crossover.
The made-over Highlander is a bit wider than its predecessor and 2 inches longer in both wheelbase and overall length. Cargo space behind the third row wins big in the transition; the cargo hold grows from a miserly 13.8 cubic feet to a class-appropriate 16 cf.
The standard features list grows longer this year and there are newly available options.
For the first time, Highlander is available with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa smartphone integration. An 8-inch touchscreen is standard; top trims get a 12.3-inch display.
Big infotainment updates
The touchscreen-based infotainment system is updated with a simplified and more logical menu structure. Redundant hard buttons dot the center stack and console, supplementing the touchscreen’s operation. The system also responds to voice commands.
Styling is updated both inside and out and the cabin feels more refined. Upgraded interior materials and new noise-reduction efforts create a relaxed — and relaxing — place to spend time.
There are plenty of casual storage spots, including a nifty padded shelf just below the instrument control panel.
Even in its higher trims, Highlander steers clear of opulence, leaving the luxury mission to Toyota’s Lexus division.
Five well-equipped trims
The 2020 Highlander is available in L ($34,600), LE ($36,800), XLE ($39,600), Limited ($43,650) and Platinum ($46,850) trims. Hybrid versions of all but the L are available for an additional $1,400.
Base L and LE models use second- and third-row bench seats to seat eight. Higher trims can be fitted with captain’s chairs in the second row, limiting total seating to seven.
Third-row seating remains a kids-only proposition.
The base Highlander is equipped with keyless entry and ignition, tri-zone automatic climate control, a 4G LTE WiFi hotspot, satellite radio and LED headlights. A rear-seat reminder urges drivers to check the rear seat for items they may have left back there, including children and pets.
Toyota’s Safety Sense suite of driver-assist features is standard. It includes adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection, and automatic high-beam headlamps.
Tuned for comfort
The Highlander is a front-wheel-drive vehicle, with available AWD. AWD Highlanders feature a driver-adjustable terrain-select system that optimizes the drivetrain for mud/sand, rock/dirt and snow.
The Limited and Platinum trims get a torque-vectoring rear differential that distributes power between the rear wheels for better traction and handling in slippery conditions. When cruising, it can disconnect the rear driveshaft for greater efficiency.
All models are powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 295 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque. It’s paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission that readily steps down a gear or two when extra thrust is needed for merging or passing.
The Highlander runs the 0-60 sprint in 7.3 seconds.
Maximum towing capacity is 5,000 pounds. The Hybrid is rated at 3500 lb.
The hybrid system teams a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine and two electric motors to generate a combined 243 horsepower.
Underway, the Highlander drives like a smaller rig and is fairly nimble in traffic. Its suspension is tuned for comfort and allows a fair bit of body lean in the corners. Steering responses are precise, if somewhat slow, and a solid on-center channel keeps Highlander tracking straight and true.
The Highlander feels substantial and well-planted at highway speeds. Around town, its compliant suspension dials out the impact of all but the biggest potholes and broken road surfaces.
The 2020 Toyota Highlander doesn’t break much new ground. Instead, it cements the Highlander’s outsized role in the strong three-row CUV segment.
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2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum AWD
Vehicle base price: $34,600
Trim level base price: $48,800
As tested: $51,112 (includes destination and handling)
Options: Special color paint charge; carpeted floor mats; carpeted cargo mat; cargo cross bars; universal tablet holder
Tow rating: 5,000 lb. gas/3,500 hybrid
EPA rating: 23 combined/20 city/27 highway
regular unleaded fuel specified