2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Test Drive Overview

Highlander Hybrid

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2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Test Drive Review

2020 Toyota Highlander The most fuel-efficient Highlander Hybrid yet makes its debut.

7.2 /10
Overall Score

Toyota’s three-row crossover SUV got a major makeover for the 2020 model year, entering its fourth generation of production since debuting as a 2001 model. There’s been a Highlander Hybrid since 2006, and the new model is the most fuel-efficient example yet, with a new engine and two electric motors, all riding on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform.

Look and Feel

7/ 10

Over four generations, the Highlander has really come a long way. It started out as a cute ute, a crossover little brother to the body-on-frame 4Runner. Over the years, the Highlander grew and morphed into a minivan replacement, far outselling the Toyota Sienna in the process. The new Highlander takes a step toward muscularity in this iteration, with chiseled fenders, a raked windshield, and an assertive stance. A quick glance at the front end may fool you into seeing the offspring of a Subaru Outback and a Chrysler Pacifica, but closer examination reveals the Toyota logo in the center of a pair of chromed wings over a trapezoidal grille opening. In typical Toyota fashion, the Highlander’s paint is rich and deep, chrome is lustrous, and Hybrid badging is subtle and tasteful.

Inside, the Highlander borders on luxury, with a layered dash, clean design, and interesting geometry. The center stack is the most complex construction. It looks like the 12.3-inch infotainment screen and HVAC controls are on a palette at the end of a handle that crosses the front passenger’s side of the dash. There’s a reasonable amount of restraint, with a controlled amount of buttons on the center stack, center console, and steering wheel. Our Platinum trim-level car was equipped with a pair of comfortable second-row captain’s chairs (a bench is available as a no-charge option on XLE and Limited trim levels).

Performance

6/ 10

The 2020 Highlander Hybrid has a new 16-valve, 2.5-liter four-cylinder D-4S gasoline-injection engine running on the Atkinson Cycle, with dual variable valve timing and auto stop/start, tuned to produce 186 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque.

The four-cylinder engine works with two electric motors—MG1 and MG2. MG2 works with the gas engine to power the wheels, while MG1 (with some help from MG2) charges the hybrid system’s nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack, which lives under the rear seats. Combined system output is rated at 243 hp. An electronically-controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) with standard front-wheel drive (FWD) or available all-wheel drive (AWD) gets things in motion.

The EPA estimates the Highlander Hybrid will achieve 36 mpg city, 35 mpg highway, 36 mpg combined with FWD; 35/34/35 mpg combined with AWD. This is a big bump in gas mileage over the non-hybrid Highlander, which tops out at 21/29/24 in L-trim with FWD.

The Highlander gets four-wheel independent suspension (MacPherson struts in front, multi-link rear with stabilizer bars at both ends), electric power assisted rack-and-pinion steering, and power assisted disc brakes with an electronic parking brake.

Don’t expect a hot rod experience with the Highlander Hybrid. The CVT is fine, but even when you select Sport mode over the default Eco or Normal, there’s a little bit of rubberbanding, or lag in acceleration, as if the Highlander is reluctant to sacrifice fuel economy for sprightliness. Still, it does a pretty good job of managing its substantial curb weight (from 4,330 pounds to 4,595 pounds, depending on configuration), and remains composed and stable through the corners. Passengers will praise the smooth, comfortable ride, while drivers will be longing for a whip to bring out a little more giddyap.

Form and Function

8/ 10

Short of going full minivan, it’s hard to match the Highlander Hybrid’s utility and passenger-friendly features. The dash is a warren of cubbyholes, with some genuinely clever and useful open storage areas in the spaces between the layers. There’s a great tray in the middle of the center stack that makes a perfect slot for a breakfast burrito. Eight cupholders and four bottle holders can be found in the cabin—perfect for a family hauler.

The overhead console houses map lights for the driver and front-seat passenger, sunglass storage, and a fold-down conversation mirror, a great way to maintain visual contact with the second and third rows without turning around. The center console is chock full of storage, including a big covered bin under the center armrest. There are so many places to stash things the challenge will be remembering where you’ve put them.

The second row, especially in our Platinum trim level's heated captain’s chairs with fold-down armrests, is roomy and comfortable, and the second-row seats fold down to make room for cargo. The third row has three seating positions with sliding headrests and a recline function. Arrange the front and second rows to the right positions, and you’ve got three rows of seating with adequate legroom for full-size passengers. Headroom is a challenge in the third row for those over six feet tall—so don’t send them back there.

Thanks to the smart packaging of the hybrid battery under the seats, cargo space in the Highlander Hybrid is the same as the gasoline-powered models. You can transport up to 16 cubic feet of luggage behind the third row. Fold the 60/40-split third row flat, and you’ve opened up 48.4 cubic feet. Flop down the second row, and a warehouse space of 84.3 cubic feet becomes available for your junk and detritus.

Tech Level

8/ 10

Visible tech is abundant on Highlander, along with a bunch of technology that works transparently in the background. Base models get an 8.3-inch touchscreen interface with the Audio Plus sound system, which includes six speakers, HD Radio, and SiriusXM with a three-month free trial. Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and streaming audio, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, and Advanced Voice Recognition are standard as well.

Safety Connect and Remote Connect each come with a one-year trial, and Service Connect comes with a 10-year trial. A three-month trial of WiFi Connect comes with up to 2GB of data. Premium Audio with Dynamic Navigation is standard in Limited and Platinum (optional in XLE), and upgrades to 11 speakers and JBL with Clari-Fi, and a 12.3-inch touchscreen replacing the 8.3-inch one.

A USB media port in the center console, along with four USB charging ports and two 12-volt outlets are standard. A single 120-volt (100-watt) outlet is located at the bottom-rear of the center console (standard on Limited and Platinum).

The instrument panel also hosts some tech, starting with a 4.2-inch Color LCD Multi-Information Display (MID) on the Hybrid LE trim, growing to a seven-inch MID on XLE, Limited and Platinum.

Platinum models get a 10-inch color head-up display with a speedometer, Road Sign Assist, navigation prompts, and Hybrid System Indicator—a very useful feature, and particularly well-executed. You even use this one while wearing polarized sunglasses.

All Highlander models get a backup camera, and Platinum models get a Bird’s Eye View Camera with Dynamic Grid Lines (optional on Limited). This feature includes Perimeter Scan, overhead 360-degree view in low-speed drive and reverse, and curb view, leaving no excuses for scraped wheels or scarred bumpers. Platinum models also get a digital rearview mirror, a handy feature for a three-row SUV, because a full load of passenger heads can often block outward visibility. Homelink is standard on all models, an easy system to pair with your garage door opener. A power liftgate is also standard, making unloading when you get into the garage a little easier.

Standard Smart Key System is included on all models, and also includes push-button start. A Qi-compatible wireless smartphone charger is standard on all Hybrid trim levels.

Safety

8/ 10

As a family hauler, the Highlander has to reach some high standards. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), it is a Top Safety Pick. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has not yet posted crash-test ratings for the 2020 Highlander, but the previous generation consistently received five-star ratings, and we'd be surprised if the fourth-gen didn’t follow suit.

Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 (TSS 2.0) is standard on all models. This suite of passive and active driver-assistance systems is made up of pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning with steering assist, automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control, traffic-sign recognition, and cyclist detection. Each Highlander also incorporates the Star Safety System consisting of stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, and Smart Stop Technology. Safety Connect is also standard on all models, including a three-year complimentary trial subscription. This system includes Emergency Assistance, Stolen Vehicle Locator, Roadside Assistance, and Automatic Collision Notification.

Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is also standard on all Highlander Hybrid models.

Beyond the packages, there are a ton of safety-related features on Highlander, as you would demand from any vehicle designed to transport your most precious cargo (your family). Highlights include child-protector rear door locks, a collapsible steering column, energy-dissipating interior trim, Hill Start Assist Control, Downhill Assist Control, electronic parking brake, tire pressure monitoring system, LED headlights, fog lights, taillights, and brake lights. Eight airbags, including side-curtain airbags for each row, also contribute to occupant safety.

In certain situations, the available AWD system on the Hybrid can also help keep you safer, especially in slippery or wet conditions.

Cost-Effectiveness

6/ 10

Highlander Hybrid prices range from $38,200 for a Hybrid LE FWD to $50,200 MSRP for a Platinum AWD model, plus a destination charge of $1,120. The step up from FWD to AWD is $1,600 for LE and XLE, $1,950 for Limited and Platinum. The difference in price between gasoline-only Highlander models and Highlander Hybrid models is just $1,400.

Our test vehicle was a 2020 Highlander Hybrid Platinum AWD with an as-tested price of $52,512, including a $425 special color (Ruby Flare Pearl—totally worth it), $318 for carpet floor mats and a cargo mat, $350 for cargo crossbars, $99 for a universal tablet holder, plus the $1,120 destination charge. If the territory north of $50,000 makes your head hurt a little when you think about a Highlander Hybrid, you’re not alone. The federal and state tax breaks for hybrid and electric vehicles have run out on Toyota vehicles, so you’ll have to calculate fuel savings and good feelings about the environment to help ease the sting. Choosing an LE or XLE model soothes the wallet, and gets you the same hybrid powertrain and most of the same safety features. You’ll be missing the latest tech, like a head-up display, and you’ll have to be content with a slightly lower level of comfort and luxury, but not a lot.

This midsize three-row crossover class is pretty crowded, but there aren’t a lot of hybrid examples running around. The Ford Explorer Hybrid (starting at $53,475), Acura MDX Sport Hybrid (starting at $45,396), and corporate cousin Lexus RX 450hL (starting at $47,775) are the three main entries. We might include the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan in the list of competitors, because it’s really about function.

If you need a three-row crossover and you’re willing to add $1,400 to your budget to get a hybrid, the Highlander Hybrid is a competent choice.

Updated

Jason Fogelson has reviewed hundreds of cars, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles and ATVs for websites, magazines and newspapers. He is based in the Detroit area.

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