When it goes on sale this week, the 2020 Toyota Highlander SUV will mark its fourth generation. Redesigned inside and out and riding on a newly engineered platform, Toyota’s roomy Highlander still offers three rows of seats for up to eight passengers. And it will again be offered in a fuel-efficient hybrid model – although you’ll have to wait until spring to buy one.
- A four-cylinder engine now powers the Highlander Hybrid; the new powertrain is similar to the one in Toyota’s popular RAV4 Hybrid.
- Dropping the V-6 for a smaller engine helps the Highlander Hybrid to improve fuel economy by almost 25 percent.
- For the first time, Toyota will offer a front-wheel-drive Highlander Hybrid, in addition to the all-wheel-drive version with its electrically driven rear axle.
- The base Highlander is $35,720, including delivery, with the least expensive hybrid model starting at $39,320.
Toyota has redesigned the Highlander for 2020, including updating the hybrid version with a new powertrain. (Photo: Toyota)
Get on the bus
There’s a term used by transportation wonks called “passenger miles per gallon.” This allows a comparison of the relative efficiency of different modes of travel. For example: A city bus, which returns only single-digit fuel economy, could possibly out-score even a 58-mile-per-gallon Hyundai Ionic Blue hybrid, the most fuel-efficient internal combustion vehicle sold today. This is because that bus can carry dozens of riders, yet the hatchback has seats for only five.
It’s this concept that came to mind while test-driving the Highlander Hybrid. Although Toyota’s big three-row SUV is nowhere near the most fuel-efficient vehicle on the market, it is the only hybrid that can seat eight. Toyota says that a front-drive Highlander Hybrid will return 36 mpg combined, with the all-wheel-drive version just one mpg behind at 35. While official EPA numbers are not yet finalized, if these estimates hold true the Highlander Hybrid would be far and away the most efficient large vehicle on the market that doesn’t have a plug.
Toyota switched out the Highlander Hybrid’s V-6 gasoline engine for a smaller four-cylinder, and gained a large improvement in fuel economy. (Photo: Toyota)
The standard, non-hybrid Highlander still uses Toyota’s 3.5-liter V-6 gasoline engine, which makes 295 horsepower. The Highlander Hybrid, however, is now primarily powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Toyota is not disclosing all the specifics of the hybrid system in the Highlander, but it’s not that different from the hardware in the much smaller and lighter RAV4 Hybrid. The gas engine and a pair of electric motors drive the front wheels, while a third electric motor in the back spins the rear axle. Unique to the Highlander Hybrid is a new front-drive model, which jettisons the third motor in the interest of saving some weight.
Total system output in the Highlander Hybrid is 243 hp regardless of whether it’s front-drive or all-wheel-drive. (This is because the limitation of the system comes from the amount of current available from the small nickel metal hydride battery pack, which is located under the second-row seat.) For a vehicle that weighs around 4500 pounds, this is not a whole lot of power. By comparison, the old Highlander Hybrid boasted 306 horses from its combination of a V-6 engine and three electric motors.
The Highlander Hybrid is now offered in a front-wheel drive version for the first time. (Photo: Toyota)
Pedal to the metal
The new Highlander Hybrid is larger, with a roomier cabin and more legroom. Most trim levels are also heavier, and acceleration suffers. Although the electric motors do a good job of filling in for a bigger engine at lower speeds – Toyota says they produce more torque –full-throttle blasts for freeway merging or overtaking require patience. Loaded up with an extra volleyball team worth of passengers than we had on our test drive, performance is likely to slide from acceptable to barely adequate.
Yet that’s really the only complaint we can levy against the Highlander Hybrid. Like its RAV4 Hybrid sibling, the Highlander Hybrid delivers a mostly smooth and effortless driving experience.
It’s just as eager to shut down its gas engine when you lift off the throttle, although the system won’t maintain all-electric mode for long. Regenerative braking is seamless. It is a little easier to tell when the electric motors are kicking in with assist, and clearly they’re under more stress here, tasked with motivating an extra 600 pounds of bulk than in the RAV4. But the Highlander Hybrid doesn’t feel particularly heavy at the wheel and we saw fuel economy readings from the instrument panel firmly planted in the mid-30s throughout a few hundred miles of driving on a mixture of roads.
Toyota has finally introduced Android Auto compatibility to its infotainment systems for the 2020 model year, Highlander included. (Photo: Toyota)
Updated and up to date
Toyota can finally brag about the Highlander’s infotainment technology, as it’s among the company’s first models to get full compatibility with both Android Auto and Apple Carplay. An 8-inch touchscreen is standard and a large 12.3-inch screen is available. Both offer good ergonomics and ease of use, with hard buttons along the sides of the screen, as in other recent Toyota models. Toyota has also incorporated Amazon Alexa capability into the Highlander, which works through your smartphone.
Also standard in the Highlander is Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, a grab bag of advanced driver assistance features including adaptive cruise control, lane departure assist, automatic braking. A one-year subscription to Toyota’s Safety Connect roadside assistance program is included, which will automatically notify Toyota’s call center if the vehicle is involved in a collision and can be used to help locate it in the event of a theft.
The third row in the Highlander Hybrid can fit three across, giving it a maximum seating capacity of eight, more than any other hybrid. (Photo: Toyota)
Where is the competition?
Highlander sales are flat overall this year, yet sales of the old hybrid model are up over 26 percent. Toyota has even bigger ambitions for 2020. With the new hybrid’s bump in fuel economy, Toyota expects to more than double sales, accounting for 20 percent of the new Highlander’s volume.
This would seem like a fairly bold claim, except that it mirrors Toyota’s experience with the wildly popular RAV4 Hybrid. And although the Highlander Hybrid is not nearly so perfect as its smaller sibling, it has even less competition. Surveying the landscape of other three-row hybrids produces relatively few options. Both the Acura MDX Sport Hybrid and the Volvo XC90 T8 are pricey luxury SUVs.
The only vehicle somewhat close to the Highlander Hybrid is the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid. While it’s a plug-in hybrid that could potentially deliver better mileage than the Highlander Hybrid, without being charged up it’s only rated at 30 mpg combined. Plus, there’s no all-wheel-drive version of the minivan offered. And yes, it’s a minivan.
That leaves the Highlander Hybrid as the clear winner in the passenger miles per gallon competition. If you’re looking for a big vehicle that can most inexpensively and efficiently ferry around a large number of people, this is the way to do it.