Redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander: new look, larger siz

2020 Toyota Highlander

2020 Toyota Highlander

What changes will make the 2020 Toyota Highlander different?

Everything from stem to stern. The all-new fourth-generation of Toyota’s popular midsize crossover SUV will debut for model-year 2020. It’ll have new styling, updated drivetrains, more convenience features, and should continue with seating for up to eight passengers.

Expect a more aggressive-looking design, with only modestly larger exterior dimensions but a useful increase in passenger space, particularly in the third seating row. The ’20 Highlander will of course continue to offer both front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive (AWD) and will return with conventional gas engines as well as a gas-electric hybrid powertrain.

Highlander will remain a crossover with a body and frame as one unified structure. It’ll again slot into Toyota’s lineup between the midsize 4Runner and the full-size Sequoia, both of which employ heavier-duty body-on-frame truck-type construction.

This crossover was last refreshed for model-year 2017, but the ’20 will be the first all new design since model-year 2014. It’ll help Toyota keep pace with more recently redesigned rivals, such as the Honda Pilot and Chevrolet Traverse, as well as with vehicles new to its competitive set since ‘14, like the Volkswagen Atlas. It’ll also be a response to the redesigned 2020 Ford Explorer and to two new model-year ‘20 entries in the three-row midsize-crossover set, the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride.

Despite sticker prices that generally track higher than the segment average, Highlander remains a consistently strong seller for Toyota. Helped by generous incentives, demand was up a healthy 15 percent through October 2018, well outpacing the 3-percent gain for the midsize-crossover segment, which includes both two- and three-row models. Indeed, Highlander sales trailed only those of the Explorer among all midsize crossovers. That’s a remarkable achievement for a vehicle design this long in the tooth.

Should I wait for the 2020 model or buy the 2019?

Waiting for the next-generation Highlander insures you’ll have a versatile crossover packed with Toyota’s most up-to-date styling, technology, and features. It’ll look current for several years to come and is very likely to be more fuel efficient than the outgoing model. Unfortunately, it’s almost certain to cost more, as well.

If on the other hand you’re looking for a sweet price on a fine family crossover – and if you’re a little leery of Toyota’s new styling direction — the outgoing Highlander is worth considering.

Only the slightly sporty SE model has road manners that come close to rewarding a demanding driver. But any 2019 Highlander is comfortable, quiet, and refined. Credit Toyota with making the gamut of safety features standard on even the least expensive trim level. And don’t overlook the brand’s excellent reputation for reliability and resale value.

About the only thing unlikely to change for the 2020 Highlander is its core grade structure. Expect the return of base LE, volume-selling XLE, sporty SE, luxury Limited, and flagship Platinum grades. Hybrids will probably return in LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum grades. To those, it’s possible Toyota will add an entry-level L trim and perhaps an off-road-themed Adventure version. Figure the return as well of special trim packages, such as the blacked-out Nightshade Special Edition added for model-year 2019.

Will the styling be different?

Yes, radically so. Only Toyota stylists know for certain what the 2020 Highlander will look like, but we can make educated guesses based on the automaker’s redesigned 2019 RAV4: expect the Highlander to essentially be a grown-up version of that compact crossover.

That suggests a far bolder and more angular body than that of the shapely but conservatively styled 2014-2019 Highlander. A prominent hexagonal grille flanked by large vents replace the outgoing model’s horizontal-bar theme. The headlights will adopt a more aggressive appearance and the fog lights will relocate higher in the fascia’s vents. More dramatically flared wheel arches, more slope to the rear-most roof pillar, and taillights that wrap around the rear corners and spread across the liftgate are likely.

The ’20 Highlander’s cabin should also adopt the RAV4’s design language. Toyota’s likely to keep the instrument cluster simple, with a large speedometer bookended by the tachometer and fuel gauge. Centered within the speedometer will be a customizable display for trip, navigation, audio and other information.

Following the trend, expect the infotainment screen to be liberated from the dashboard to stand tabletlike atop the central instrument panel. It will host the latest version of Toyota’s Entune infotainment interface that likely will for the first time offer support for Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto. Revamped climate controls will be mounted higher on the central control stack and should feature a simpler layout that’s easier to understand and work at a glance.

Highlander will likely grow slightly. The most important change would be a longer wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles). Wheelbase is critical to interior packaging and a long one should translate to more passenger legroom, particularly in the second and third seating rows. The outgoing Highlander has one of the shortest wheelbases in the class – virtually every rival exceeds it by several critical inches. More legroom – and additional cabin width – could improve passenger accommodations from acceptable to outstanding.

Expect the 2020 L, LE, Hybrid LE, and Hybrid XLE models to accommodate eight passengers on two front bucket seats and three-person second- and third-row bench seats. The other models would have two second-row captain’s chairs and seven-passenger seating. On all but the SE and Adventure models, Toyota may well continue to allow buyers to substitute the second-row bench for the captain’s chairs at no extra charge.

A fractionally longer body would improve cargo volume, from today’s middle-of-the-pack 13.8 cubic feet behind the third row, 42.3 behind the second, and 83.7 behind the first.

Any mechanical changes?

Yes, starting with a more modern understructure that’s lighter and stronger than the outgoing model’s. The 2020 Highlander will migrate to the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), a modular platform that also underpins the redesigned RAV4 as well as the automaker’s Avalon, Camry, and Prius cars. A more solid structure and retuned suspension should improve Highlander’s handling without compromising its traditionally excellent ride quality and interior refinement.

Under the hood, we think gas-only Highlanders will borrow engines and transmissions from the Camry. Highlander L and LE versions with front-wheel drive would use a 2.5-liter four-cylinder of roughly 200 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. Optional on the front-drive LE and standard on all other ’20 Highlanders would be a 3.5-liter V-6 with some 300 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque.

Those numbers would be minor increased over the outgoing Highlander’s four- and six-cylinder engines. But more advanced powertrain technology, combined with reduced vehicle weight, should improve both performance and fuel economy. Expect all gas models to have an eight-speed automatic transmission; the outgoing four-cylinder was paired with a less efficient six-speed automatic.

The redesigned 2020 Highlander Hybrid could adopt a version of the gas-electric powertrain in the Lexus RX 450h crossover from Toyota’s premium division. It would be an updated take on the outgoing Hybrid, pairing a 3.5-liter gasoline V-6 with a battery-powered electric motor to produce a net 308 horsepower (Toyota doesn’t publish combined torque output). A continuously variable automatic (CVT) would again be the sole transmission.

If there is an entry-level L grade, we think it will be front-wheel drive only, as would any other model with the four-cylinder engine. V-6 LE, SE, XLE, and Platinum Highlanders would offer the choice of front-wheel drive or AWD. An Adventure model would be AWD only, as would the Hybrids.

The ‘20 Highlander SE would likely continue with a lowered sport suspension and more grip-oriented tires for sharper response, while an Adventure grade would have a raised suspension and tires with a bigger sidewall. Such a Highlander would be more capable off-road than other ones, but its capability would not match that of midsize crossovers such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee or Subaru Ascent.

Will fuel economy improve?

Almost certainly. The outgoing Highlander’s EPA ratings are already near the top of the class and we’d venture improvements of 1 mpg in city/highway/combined for the new one. And Toyota’s engineering acumen may well produce bigger gains.

For ’20 Highlander gas-only models with the four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, expect EPT ratings of around 21/25/22 mpg city/highway/combined. V-6 versions could see ratings of about 22/28/24 mpg with front-wheel drive and 21/27/23 with AWD. Hybrids, which would be AWD only, would rate about 30/28/29 mpg. All models would use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline.

Will there be new features?

Yes, but probably not as many as you might think, considering the high level of amenities the outgoing model offers.

Every ’20 Highlander will again come standard with Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P). This suite of driver-assistance features includes forward-collision warning with autonomous emergency braking and pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction, automatic high-beam headlights, and radar cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead. Kudos to the automaker for including these valuable aids on every Highlander, although we’d urge it extend blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection to all ’20 Highlanders; for 2019, only XLE models and above had it.

Based on the success of the 2019 Highlander’s model-equipment ladder, look for the L and LE to have LED headlights along with the usual complement of power accessories, plus cloth upholstery (the LE would have nicer fabrics and interior materials), multiple USB power points, and Entune infotainment with a 7-inch touchscreen and support for CarPlay and Android Auto. The LE would add a power driver’s seat.

The XLE would have blind-spot alert, rear cross-traffic detection, tri-zone automatic climate control, height-adjustable power rear liftgate, keyless access with pushbutton engine start, power sunroof, 8-inch infotainment screen with an upgraded version of Entune, upholstery trimmed in Toyota’s SofTex faux leather, and heated front seats. The SE and Adventure would have specific suspensions, wheels, and interior trim, but their convenience features would largely mirror those of the XLE.

The Limited grade would gain genuine leather upholstery in the first two seating rows (the third would still be SofTex), ventilated front seats, driver-seat memory, upgraded audio system, imbedded GPS navigation, and rear-obstacle detection. Platinum versions would adopt captain’s chairs for the second row, a panoramic sunroof, rain-sensing windshield wipers, heated steering wheel, heated outboard second-row seats, 360-degree camera, and front-obstacle detection.

Will 2020 prices be different?

Count on an increase – Toyota hiked base prices about $800 for model-year 2019—but the ’20 Highlander will need to remain competitively priced. Suggested retail will probably continue slightly above that of direct rivals, although several competitors offer more powerful top-line versions that breach the $50,000 threshold. The only 2020 Highlander likely to have a $50,000 base price is the Hybrid Platinum model.

Our base-price estimates include Toyota’s destination fee, which was $1,045 on the 2019 Highlander. And for the gas-only models, we estimate base price with front-wheel drive. Expect AWD to add another $1,500 or so.

Equipped with the four-cylinder engine, estimated base price is $32,000 for the 2020 Highlander L and around $33,000 for the LE.

With the V-6, look for the LE to start around $35,000, the XLE around $40,000, and the SE around $42,000. Estimated base price is $44,000 for the ’20 Highlander Limited and $47,000 for the Platinum. The Adventure would be AWD only and probably be priced from around $45,000.

In the ’20 Highlander Hybrid line, expect the LE to start around $41,500, the XLE around $43,000, the Limited around $46,500, and the Platinum around $50,000.

There probably won’t be many factory options. Perhaps there would be an LE Convenience Package, which would add keyless access/pushbutton ignition, power liftgate, three-zone climate control, and 8-inch infotainment screen. Such a package could cost about $1,000. A rear-seat entertainment system with support for Blu-ray movies would be available on XLE and higher grades for about $1,900. Second-row captain’s chairs for the XLE, SE, Adventure, and Limited could replace the standard bench seat at no extra charge.

When does it come out?

Expect Toyota to preview the next-generation Highlander at a major North American auto show in early calendar 2019. Look for a 2020 Highlander release date in fall 2019.

Best competitors

Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride and Sorento, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]