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2020 Toyota Highlander First Test: Improved But Imperfect

© Motor Trend Staff

From Motor Trend

Sales-wise, the Toyota Highlander is unstoppable. In 2019, it was the best-seller in its three-row competitive set, despite being an outdated model for most of the year. The fourth-generation Highlander went on sale in December, and the SUV will continue to sell like hotcakes regardless of reviews like these. Fortunately, the new Highlander is an improvement over its predecessor, although it still falls into some of the same traps.

We were bummed that such an important model couldn't join us for our SUV of the Year competition because it was too new. Now that we've spent significant time behind the wheel and recorded some test numbers on the Highlander, we have a better idea of how this segment stalwart stacks up to that competition's winner—the Kia Telluride—and the rest of the segment.

Let's start with perhaps the Highlander's biggest strength: its interior. And for a family SUV, that's not a bad thing. Editor-in-chief Mark Rechtin praised the value offered by our XLE AWD tester, calling it "a screaming deal." "The interior feels nicely upgraded, worth the money you are paying, especially its $42K as-tested price," he noted.

The faux-leather seats on our tester feel soft and premium to the touch. Toyota put a lot of TLC into the cabin layout, with an easy-to-use shifter, thoughtful storage cubbies incorporated into the dashboard, and an infotainment system that (finally) incorporates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Its 8.0-inch touchscreen has simple menus, but our editors noted it's slow to respond and placed a little bit too far out of reach.

© Motor Trend Staff

Drivers will find the Highlander easy to see out of thanks to the position of the instrument panel and the model's exterior design. There are also perks for second-row passengers. The Highlander has more inches of second-row legroom than the Honda Pilot and Ford Explorer, although it's not as spacious as the Telluride. In this row, you'll also encounter plenty of headroom in the Highlander, as well as two handy USB ports.

The third row is a different story. Toyota made it relatively easy to access, but it feels particularly cramped once you get back there. Essentially, it's a penalty box for small children, much like it was on the previous Highlander. "It seems like Toyota only wanted to do the third row for emergencies and forgot about the rest of the family," MotorTrend en EspaƱol managing editor Miguel Cortina lamented. Numbers back up our sentiments; the Highlander offers 27.7 inches of legroom in the third row, compared to the Pilot's 31.9, Explorer's 32.2, and Telluride's 31.4. Fortunately, Toyota didn't leave the cargo bay small. Cargo capacity increased from 13.8 to 16 cubic feet on the new model, although that's still not a lot compared to rivals (ahem … Telluride).

© Motor Trend Staff

One of the most significant updates on the 2020 Highlander is the new, more rigid platform that improves ride quality. But the Highlander remains tuned for comfort, and it still exhibits some body roll. "It's supple over bumps but floaty over the big stuff," associate online editor Nick Yekikian summed it up. Road test editor Chris Walton praised the Highlander's smooth ride overall, but noted "wild bounding" over poor pavement. It's "all spring, no damper—another Toyota trait." Some editors complained of too much wind noise coming off the side mirrors, as well as some road noise. The ride doesn't live up to that of the Telluride, which is quiet and composed.

© Motor Trend Staff

Toyota made another major change by discontinuing the base four-cylinder engine. The 3.5-liter V-6 carries over from the previous model, making 295 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque. It's no surprise that it took the 2020 Highlander the same amount of time to run from 0 to 60 mph as the previous-gen model. The Highlander hit 60 in a respectable 7.2 seconds, matching the Telluride's time. The Ford Explorer is quicker, reaching the mark in 6.8 seconds with its four-cylinder engine, and the Honda Pilot creams the competition with a time of 6.2 seconds.

The Highlander has enough power, but many editors disliked how that power is delivered. Cortina described "a few hiccups here and there" in the eight-speed transmission, but features editor Christian Seabaugh found it more inhibiting.

© Motor Trend Staff

"Continuing a long, frustrating tradition for Toyota, the Highlander's 3.5-liter V-6 makes the majority of its power way higher in its powerband than most customers would feel like operating, while the transmission is geared so long and tall that it takes forever to get there," he opined. Yekikian said, "The engine is gravely at high rpm, and the transmission holds on the gears for pretty long."

This sometimes frustrating powertrain is relatively efficient, though. Our tester gets an EPA-estimated 23 mpg in combined city and highway driving, making it pretty fuel conscious for an AWD SUV. The Pilot AWD gets 22 mpg, and the Telluride AWD gets 21 mpg. The Explorer AWD tops out at 23 mpg. If you're really looking for fuel efficiency, the Highlander Hybrid is an intriguing option.

You can count on the Highlander XLE to reach a full stop quickly. In our tests, the SUV took 116 feet to come to a standstill from 60 mph, putting it on par with the sprightly Pilot. The Telluride and Explorer took longer: 126 and 121 feet, respectively. Walton credited the Highlander's firm, linear pedal and consistent brake performance in multiple runs, but also said the SUV exhibits a lot of dive under hard braking.

© Motor Trend Staff

The Highlander recorded an impressive time in our handling tests. On the figure-eight course, the Toyota finessed the curves in 27.4 seconds at an average 0.63 g, putting it ahead of the Pilot, Telluride, and Explorer. The Pilot recorded the next best time of 27.6 seconds at 0.62 g.

That said, we noticed some strange behavior during the test. Testing director Kim Reynolds first ran the Highlander through the figure eight with traction and stability control off, and the individual wheels spun at times while cornering. Reynolds noted it was difficult to manage the throttle accurately enough to control it and maximize traction, and an AWD overheating message came up on the dash. After he reactivated traction and stability control, the Highlander felt more confident and became faster.

© Motor Trend Staff

Our editors couldn't agree on the Highlander's steering feel. "It's light but gives you good feedback of what's happening on the road," Cortina noted. Walton called it "surprisingly well weighted." But Rechtin called the steering vague, and Seabaugh also lamented the lack of feel that's pretty common in the segment. Yekikian noted the light steering and the Highlander's overall easy-to-drive feel. One thing's clear, though: If you're looking to carve canyons, other vehicles in the segment feel more agile. That said, the Highlander makes a decent U-turn.

© Motor Trend Staff

Unfortunately, the Highlander isn't quite the Telluride-fighter we were hoping for despite its solid test numbers. Our real-world experience finds it lacking slightly in utility and driving fun. It has improved greatly, but only enough for it to maintain its middling status in the segment. The Highlander remains a reliable, efficient, and capable family hauler (as long as you're not carrying seven or eight people on a regular basis). The few hundred thousand customers who will inevitably buy it this year will be well served.

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Bloom Magazine: 2020 Toyota Highlander First Test: Improved But Imperfect
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