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2020 Toyota Highlander Grows a Little, Gets More Efficient Hybrid

Competes with: Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Nissan Pathfinder, Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas

Looks like: Still conservative but more sculpted, with a cleaner face and broader, upswept haunches

Drivetrain: 295-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and eight-speed automatic transmission or gas-electric hybrid system with 2.5-liter four-cylinder, two electric motors and 240 total hp; front- or all-wheel drive

Hits dealerships: December 2019 for gas model; February 2020 for hybrid

The New York International Auto Show is known for high-end vehicle debuts, but one of the stars for the 2019 edition is a redesigned and very mainstream 2020 Toyota Highlander three-row SUV.

Related: More New York Auto Show Coverage

The Highlander was a pioneer in car-based three-row crossovers, but the category has grown into a large, intensely competitive set of family haulers that are more stylish alternatives to a minivan. The new Highlander faces traditional rivals like the Honda Pilot and Nissan Pathfinder, but also a wave of new competition that includes the Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas, Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride.

The 2020 Highlander is a little bigger, a little more stylish and a little more tech savvy — yes, Android Auto will show up in this Toyota, and you can get a 12.3-inch touchscreen in top trim levels. The Highlander also sets itself apart from the competition with a revised gas-electric hybrid version and much improved fuel efficiency.

The 2020 model will come in five trim levels, adding a new base L model below the LE, XLE, Limited and Platinum, with the hybrid powertrain offered on all but the L. The former LE Plus and SE trim levels disappear. The L is aimed at a value shopper and includes nearly all of Toyota’s package of safety and driver assist features, as well as 18-inch alloy wheels, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, three-zone climate control, LED lights and an 8-inch touchscreen.

Stronger Face, Broader Shoulders

A new, stronger black grille is centered on a more sculpted, cleaner front end. Along the side, sharper character lines sweep into visually stronger rear shoulders. The rear end is a bit more sculpted with slimmer, more angular taillights.

The 2020 Highlander also moves to a version of Toyota’s stiffer global platform. The nameplate historically been one of the smaller three-row SUVs on the market, which gave it a tighter third row than in many rivals. Toyota says the fourth-generation 2020 Highlander grows about 2.4 inches in length, though the automaker did not specify the new wheelbase. It also says the second row gets an extra 1.2 inches of sliding range.

New Trim and Tech Inside

The new interior design and dashboard have been upgraded with softer-touch surfaces and contrast stitching. L and LE trim levels have seating for eight with a second-row bench seat; the XLE and Limited get second-row captain’s chairs and seat seven, although a second-row bench is optional; and the top-of-the-line Platinum is available only with captain’s chairs. Seats are cloth in the L and LE, Softex faux leather in the XLE and perforated leather in the Limited and Platinum. Toyota says that the new platform and new soundproofing also quiet the cabin.

In addition to nicer trim, the interior gets a tech makeover. An 8-inch touchscreen is standard, but the Platinum adds a new 12.3-inch display. Apple Carplay and Amazon Alexa compatibility is standard, as is Android Auto – the final feature nice to see proliferating among Toyota models. Also standard are satellite radio capability and a Wi-Fi hot spot. Wireless phone charging, ambient LED lighting and a premium JBL stereo are available.

Cargo space behind the third row grows to 16.1 cubic feet, up some 2 cubic feet versus the 2019. Fold the seats, however, and cargo volume behind the first and second rows diminishes versus the outgoing Highlander, at least on paper.

Familiar V-6 or New Hybrid System Under the Hood

Last year’s venerable 3.5-liter V-6 (295 horsepower, 263 pounds-feet of torque) carries over for gas models, mated to an eight-speed automatic. A stop-start system is standard. The four-cylinder gasoline powertrain offered on the prior generation’s base model has been dropped. V-6 towing capacity with the optional tow package is 5,000 pounds, unchanged from before.

Front-wheel drive is standard with the V-6. The L, LE and XLE trim levels offer an all-wheel system that can send up to 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels. Limited and Platinum trim levels offer more sophisticated torque-vectoring AWD that also can predictively split torque between the rear wheels to aid handling. It also has mud-and-sand and rock-and-dirt drive modes as well as a downhill assist.

The Highlander Hybrid now uses a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine. It puts out 240 combined system horsepower, down from a net of 306 hp for the 2019’s V-6-based hybrid system. But Toyota estimates it will deliver an EPA combined rating of 34 mpg, up about 17 percent from the 28 or 29 mpg EPA rating for the 2019 hybrid.

For the first time in a Highlander, the hybrid version also now will offer both front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, the latter using a separate electric motor for the rear wheels that operates independently with no mechanical connection.

The hybrid system offers Normal, Eco and Sport driving modes, plus an EV mode with

low-speed electric driving for short distances. It also analyzes the driver’s habits as well as road and traffic conditions to optimize efficiency. The battery pack sits under the rear seats, and Toyota claims it does not cut into cargo or passenger space.

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Standard Safety Tech

All 2020 Highlanders include the second-generation Toyota Safety Sense suite of safety and driver assistance technology. It includes a front collision system with automatic braking and pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist and automatic high beams, plus a new lane-centering steering assist and road-sign recognition. A blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert is standard on the LE trim level and up. Rear cross-traffic automatic braking is available on the Limited and up. A 360-degree camera system is available on the Limited and standard on the Platinum.

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