New Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a very nice place to spend some time
By Jim Bray
It may not be the most compelling vehicle to drive, but Toyota's Highlander is a wonderful place in which to go from point A to point B, and its hybrid version may even save you some gas money.
But, oh, does it wallow! And that CVT!
Still, that could just be me. I don't like driving a vehicle that handles curves like a hovercraft, but I can see why people would love this vehicle. It's modern, it's powerful enough, it's equipped very nicely, and it has an interior that's nothing short of exquisite. And it's apparently all-new for 2020.
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Toyota, not surprisingly, calls it the "Best Highlander ever" and says it's been redesigned from the ground up. The base 2020 Highlander lists from a pretty reasonable $39,990, but you can go up – a lot up – from there. And unlike years past where there was a hefty enough premium for going hybrid that you'd have to drive to the moon and back to cover the extra cost, Toyota says this new hybrid version will only set you back an extra two grand over the "equivalent gas" version.
Toyota also touts its newly available "Dynamic Torque Vectoring All-Wheel Drive with Driveline Disconnect and Multi Terrain Select," which in theory should enhance handling and performance on and off the road, and the company also says that all 2020 Highlander models come with Toyota's Safety Sense 2.0 suite of nannies and aids and stuff, and connected services including stuff like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which in my experience can be really handy at times – especially if you don't want to pay for a navigation system in the vehicle itself.
I spent a week in the Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD, recently and I liked it a lot. A lot. Mostly because of that terrific interior, which is comfortable and classy and works very well.
Toyota claims its 2020 Highlander offers "Best-in-Class fuel efficiency" (for the Hybrid) as well as the "Largest in Segment" 12.3-inch Multimedia Display. Fuel economy is claimed to be up to 6.7 litres/100 kilometres, which is pretty fine for a relatively large vehicle such as this. I never achieved that, but I was born with a lead foot and rarely get the mileage claimed.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the upgraded fuel consumption downgrade is the fact that the new Highlander hybrid comes with a four-cylinder engine rather than the V6 of days gone by. But you know, I never really missed it and that surprised me a lot. This hybrid version's 2.5 litre inline four, when combined with the electrical stuff, puts out 243 Net horsepower, and that's undoubtedly why I didn't miss the 3.5 litre V6, which is a wonderful engine in its own right, too much.
Riding on Toyota's New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform, the 2020 Highlanders feature upgraded agility, a tighter turning circle, and it offers the smoothest and quietest Highlander ride yet.
It sure is smooth and quiet, but that damn CVT's whiny groan intrudes into the lovely cabin when you tromp the gas – not worse than other CVT's but typical of them. And while it may have upgraded agility, according to Toyota, as I mentioned above it certainly is capable of nodding agreeably over frost heaves and in reasonably tight cornering it reminded me of one of those old land barges of days gone by.
Okay, that's probably an exaggeration, but the Highlander is definitely not a drivers' car. It doesn't claim to be, though, and that's fine. Heck, I daresay most of its target audience will be little less prone than I am to driving a big three row SUV as if it were a Lamborghini anyway.
Still, it could be at least a tad tighter. I drove it in Sport mode nearly exclusively and it still left something to be desired, though it was noticeably more interesting in Sport.
The exterior styling changes are evolutionary – you might confuse the 2020 for the last generation if you don't pay attention, but inside it appears Toyota has been channelling its South Korean competitors as well as Mazda: the interior is classy and high end looking and feeling, appearing to be more like a Lexus than a "mere Toyota." It's very nice indeed.
The company says its folks upgraded "everything from the doors to the seating, including better seat-folding features to improve access to the third row." There's also more legroom, though if that also applies to the third row it must have been a really, really tight place to be in the past.
You can configure the Highlander as a seven or eight-person vehicle by choosing between a bench second row and captain's chairs. If you don't need the eighth seat, I'd opt for the captain's chairs because not only are they nicer than the bench, they should also make access to the third row better
Access to the third row in Toyota's bench-equipped sample was pretty easy insofar as actually moving the second row out of the way. But it's definitely not designed for the old and fat to get back there. Neither is the third row. I managed to crawl back there and intended to stay there for a drive but once I got in, I wanted out again right away.
That said, if your need for a third row is more casual and infrequent, this one should work fine. And you can just leave it folded down the most of the time and increase your hauling capability.
Toyota has made available a nearly dizzying array of Highlander choices – there are five gas versions and four hybrids. The base Highlander L (starting at $39,900CAD) offers only front wheel drive and the second-row bench. The base all-wheel drive version is the LE AWD ($43,490 base price), and from there you can add more features and goodies until you reach the stratospheric Platinum AWD (starting at $53,990), which is a new trim level for the Highlander. It's a seven-passenger model that gets special 20-inch alloy wheels and unique interior and exterior styling cues.
The base hybrid is the Hybrid LE AWD (starting at $45,490), which is also a new trim level for 2020. It's an eight passenger all-wheel-drive model with 18-inch alloy wheels and includes everything you get on the gas engine LE model, but adds LED fog lamps, a Softex-covered steering wheel and shifter, and a power tailgate (which is always handy).
From there you can go right up to the Hybrid Platinum AWD (starting at $55,990). It's also a new trim level for the Highlander Hybrid and besides the AWD it comes with all the features of the gas-engine-powered Platinum grade.
Toyota's sample Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD is one level down from that, and starts at $53,690. It not only gives you everything you'll find on the gas-engine Limited model, it also adds two 110V, 1500W high-power outlets.
Not only that, but Toyota claims that, compared to its 2019 equivalent, the 2020 Limited starts at $3,570 less than its predecessor.
I think Toyota has done a really nice job with the new Highlander and I'd love to try the V6 with Captain's chairs. Sure, it isn't the "ultimate driving machine" but that's not its mandate – er, persondate. My biggest "non-wallowing" complaint is the third row, but as mentioned it's not meant for biggish oafs like me anyway (though, as noted above, others have managed…).
This Highlander also makes me salivate for the new Venza, which Toyota is turning into a real, two row SUV instead of the tall wagon (and a darn fine one) the old Venza was. That was a vehicle my wife and I nearly bought, except that we couldn't find a used one in our price range (we bought a used RAV4 instead, and are very happy with it).
So, if you want this kind of vehicle, but don't need that third row (assuming most other differences between the upcoming Venza and the already-arrived Highlander are roughly equivalent), you may want to wait until the Venza hits dealerships this summer. It appears that it's only going to be available as a hybrid, which is a shame, but at least you may save some gas money.
Copyright 2020 Jim Bray