LACAR takes the newest Highlander out for a spin and finds that Toyota is poised to defend its market share in the red-hot crossover SUV space.
If you’re the CFO of a mainstream automotive OEM, there’s only one battle worth fighting: the battle for supremacy in the red-hot SUV/CUV marketplace. Americans love their wide-open spaces, and that only somewhat ironically applies to the interior of our vehicles as well.
No stranger to excelling in providing the driving public with what they want, Toyota has no shortage of experience in the SUV space. The 4Runner (along with the Bronco and Tahoe) was one of the founding members of the SUV society, the RAV4 practically invented the CUV space, and the Highlander was the top-selling crossover SUV for years.
The Highlander, first introduced in 2000 has been a hit year in and year out. With more choices than ever for lucky consumers, Toyota is launching its fourth-generation amid an all-out war for market supremacy. Judging from my week with the top-of-the-line 2020 Highlander Platinum AWD, it won’t be easy to wrest share from Toyota and the well-established Highlander marquee.
I’ve had a long and positive relationship with the Toyota Highlander, dating back to the first generation. Toyota, specifically PR overlord Ming-Jou Chen, was kind enough to provide a loaner so that I could shuttle my girlfriend and our friends around our favorite place on earth, the Napa Valley. The Highlander was a comfortable private wine train and impressive enough to show my girlfriend the benefits of becoming my wife.
Fast-forward a decade, and my wife and I (and our new baby) were minutes away from pulling the trigger on a Sienna at my second favorite stomping ground, Longo Toyota. Right when I was about to turn in the cool card (btw I know minivans are fantastic, this is 30’s Glenn), I caught a glimpse of the all-new third-generation Highlander. It looked like it had ditched its RAV4 bulbiness for a more truckish feeling. Once we caught a glimpse of the interior, we were hooked.
It was like whoever designed the USS Enterprise was recruited by CALTY. It looked futuristic, and it was functional to the nth degree. There were USB ports and cupholders everywhere, captain’s chairs with integrated tray table, and most eye-catching of all — the most cleverly designed backlit shelves for cell phones and other items incorporated right under the entertainment stack. I swear those shelves sold the car for us. To this day, whoever designed the interior of the Highlander deserves to have their jersey hung up in the lobby at Toyota’s Plano HQ and the keys to a gold Highlander.
Make that a 2020 Highlander Platinum, the top trim of the new generation. It is a worthy successor and poised to help Toyota defend its position at the pinnacle of crossover SUV sales.
Third-generation owners will recognize the 2020 Highlander immediately. While technically a ground-up redesign on Toyota’s newer TNGA platform, most of the exterior sheet metal is carried over. Except in the front, where Toyota has transformed the Highlander with modern styling cues including creases, flares, and power bulges n the hood to make it much more aggressive and relevant design-wise. The headlights are edgier than before, and the Highlander’s grill takes on the Toyota truck design language first debuted on the current-generation Tacoma and used on the new RAV4 to great success.
From the sides and the back, you’d be forgiven for mistaking this for a 2019 Highlander. The only obvious tell is the taillights that are sleeker than those on the outgoing model. Our tester came in an attractive blue called Moon Dust and featured 20-inch wheels that are available on Limited and Platinum trims only. On the Platinum, the front lip and rear “diffusor” are painted a satin silver. Other than this detail and the wheels, all Highlander trims share essentially the same exterior design. The result of these updates is that the new Highlander strikes the right balance of conservative and aggressive. It would fit right into the Lexus stable as well as other luxury marquees. With other mainstream brands like Hyundai, Kia, and Chevrolet stepping up their design game in the red-hot SUV market, the Highlander’s good looks will be key to preserve market share.
The Highlander’s greatest strength has always been its interior design. It is attractive and highly-functional from bow to stern. The Highlander packs a lot of utility and creature comforts into its 136.1 cubic feet of passenger volume.
The third-generation wowed buyers with cleverly designed elements such as the integrated shelves right under the entertainment stack, the plethora of USB charging ports, and the multitude of cupholders. The ease of ingress and egress for second and third-row passengers also contributed to its success.
The new Highlander builds on this legacy with softer padded surfaces, ambient lighting, and an innovative center console design that incorporates a full-size tray with Qi wireless charging. The charging tray features a small slot that is open so that you can access your phone without having to open the entire console. Underneath the charging tray you have enough room to store your purse or a small laptop.
Seating surfaces not only look great with perforation, but they are very comfortable. Padded surfaces throughout the Highlander are noticeably softer than the outgoing model. I took advantage of the ventilated seats as temperatures crept up and found the HVAC controls to be intuitive both and efficient — very important for parents on the move.
I do find that the Platinum’s interior is a bit overwrought in terms of the numbers of colors and patterns used. I counted six, including a silver faux carbon fiber (two levels of wrong) and a faux wood. Thankfully the more affordable trims including the still-luxurious Limited trim feature more cohesive interiors.
The Platinum gets several tech upgrades over its less expensive brethren: digital display rearview mirror, heads-up display, heated 2nd row seats, and birds-eye camera to name a few. From an infotainment perspective, the Highlander has what it takes to keep every family member happy, especially in Platinum trim. The apex predator of the Highlander clan boast a large 12.3″ touch screen that makes multitasking a breeze. The premium JBL sound system features 11 speakers and 12-channel DSP amp that packs a 1200W punch. While COVID canceled our Carribean cruising plans, JBL’s Clari-Fi technology brought the spirit of aloha to life thanks to its ability to upsample digital music.
The feature my kids loved the most in the Highlander was decidedly low-tech: a clear look at the sky above. The Highlander Platinum features a massive panoramic moonroof that runs almost the length of the roofline. We found that super fun to use, especially on our way to catch the 1.2-second Air Force Thunderbirds show.
With a crossover SUV like the Highlander, the KPIs are not so much its horsepower (295) or torque (263 lb-ft.) but rather its cargo capacity and MPG. With the second and third rows folded flat, I found the Highlander to be almost as useful as my Tundra thanks to its ability to stow 84.3 cubic-feet behind the driver and passenger seats. Its MPG of 23 combined (20 city/27 highway) is more than respectable, considering our tester was the all-wheel-drive variant.
The Platinum and Limited models featured Toyota’s newest Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD drive mode to help keep things copacetic on the road. This type of torque vectoring technology is the kind that used to be limited to sports cars like the GT-R (ATESSA system) and the Honda Prelude Type SH.
Lest you think the Highlander is merely pretending to be a capable SUV, it also comes with some trailering and off-roading technologies as well: Hill Start Assist Control (HAC), Trailer Sway Control (TSC), and Downhill Assist Control.
The Final Judgement
The 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum is the result of Toyota’s commitment to keeping the Highlander in the top tier of the competitive SUV space. There’s a lot to appreciate in this package. That being said, for my money I would strongly consider the Platinum’s stablemate the Hybrid Limited which rings in about $3,000 less. However the panoramic moonroof and 12.3-inch head unit make a strong case for treating yourself. If there can be only one, it may as well be the best.
For more information on the 2020 Highlander Platinum AWD V6, visit Toyota’s website.
2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum AWD V6
|Price As-Tested||$51,122 including delivery, processing, and handling fee|
|Mechanical||3.5L V6 engine|
8-speed automatic transmission
AWD with Dynamic Torque Vectoring
|Safety & Convenience||Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) 2.0|
Dynamic Radar Cruise Control
Lane Departure Alert
Blind-Spot Monitoring w/ Rear Cross-Traffic Alert
Bird’s Eye View Camera
|Exterior||20-inch Alloy Wheels|
LED Headlights w/Adaptive Front Lighting System & Auto-Leveling
Hands-Free Power Liftgate
Panoramic View Moonroof w/Sunshade
|Interior||Power, Heated & Ventilated Front Seats|
3rd Row 60/40 Split-Fold Flat Seats
12.3” Touchscreen with Dynamic Navigation
JBL 11 speaker, subwoofer, and amplifier
USB Media, 4 USB Charge Ports
Android Auto & Apple CarPlay Compatible
Qi-Wireless Smartphone Charger
Digital Rearview Mirror w/Homelink