Mountain Wheels: Redesigned Toyota Highlander pushes popular crossover into flashier territory
For a long time, I considered the Toyota Highlander to be in the “just right” territory of the midsize SUV world. Back in the days when a RAV-4 was a tiny, tinny little box, Highlander offered more comfortable territory for goods and passengers without bordering on SUV overload. Its hybrid version was also a nice-running package, overall.
Nowadays, all of the legacy brands in the SUV universe have gotten bigger, brasher and bolder as Americans opted to pursue them as family vehicles. So it makes sense that the fourth-generation Highlander should also come off as a considerably different animal, with changes that make it more contemporary.
Here’s a big one: The 2020 platinum model I drove, with all-wheel drive, was a hefty $51,112, though the more basic end of the family’s five-model new generation starts at $34,600. A new all-wheel drive hybrid option is also available in four levels of trim.
Certainly, at the platinum level, I also got every potential bell and whistle possible, including the all-wheel drive system that features a multiterrain select mode, driveline disconnect for front-wheel drive-like mileage during regular driving and torque vectoring built in for better handling.
It did get a bit longer for this model, gaining 2.36 inches of overall length, allowing the second-row seats to slide more than an inch farther than before to prevent intergenerational passenger squabbles. Total cargo capacity is also up to 84.3 cubic inches if you flatten the second- and third-row seats.
The biggest overall change is probably a much more aggressive design style, both inside and out, with a squeezed-up nose and face, faux front skid plate, very strong body lines (particularly over the rear wheel arches) and a very long sweep of cabin glass all the way back to the third row. Platinum’s absolutely gigantic 20-inch wheels look like they came off a super-expensive Infinity QX80.
Look at it from a slightly different angle, however, and you’ll notice something peculiar going on. As vehicle styles in this category have homogenized, I’ll be damned if the Highlander doesn’t look like a cross between the Subaru Outback and the Ascent, Subaru’s own awfully Highlanderish three-row, large-but-not-gigantic SUV.
Yeah, it’s a strange new world of chiseled faces and seven- or eight-passenger capacious vehicles. As the best-selling car in the segment, the hope is that this new Highlander will offer enough to keep it on top of the heap.
Underneath it all, Highlander gets a platform shared with other new Toyotas, emphasizing safety and scalable architecture. Also new is a 295-horsepower V-6 engine, which delivered exactly the 23 combined mpg mileage promised, and gives the vehicle more all-around power. An optional towing package offers capability to haul up to 5,000 pounds.
At the platinum level, it’s all leathery comfort inside, including two large, plush captains chairs in the second row and reasonably sized third-row seating. The textured, highlight-stitched and very brown door panels and dash tops were offset by a lighter-colored, knee-level sub-dash across the cabin.
Controls and displays have been heavily modified up front, with a very large touchscreen display (12.3 inches on the platinum model, 8 elsewhere) that divides into thirds, itself the centerpiece of a big pod of air and audio controls that just kind of springs off the dash at you — great for controlling a 1,200-watt JBL sound system. There’s also an oddly reconfigured console with a strange slide-top center armrest containing a hidden phone-charging pad, which itself pops up to gain access to a large storage space. Digital instrument displays scroll through a million data details including a digital speedometer.
I was happy with Highlander’s performance during a summertime drive along beat-up asphalt and gravel in the South Platte Canyon roads southwest of metro Denver. Bang it hard enough and you’ll sense a bit of hollow resonance from it being a relatively large empty box.
Highlander also gets the full Safety Sense 2.0 package, mixing up niceties such as automatic high beams, radar cruise control and mild steering assist for lane-keeping.
Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Greeley. Contact him at email@example.com.
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