Auto Show Face-Off: 2020 Ford Explorer Vs. 2020 Toyota Highlander

highlander-explorer-lead.jpg 2020 Toyota Highlander (top), 2020 Ford Explorer | photos by Christian Lantry

The vehicle of choice for many larger families has become the three-row SUV, and a redesigned version of one of the most popular entrants in the class — the 2020 Toyota Highlander — debuted at the 2019 New York International Auto Show. Another popular entrant, the Ford Explorer, first appeared in redesigned form for 2020 in January, but with both on hand in the Big Apple, it was a great opportunity to see which one has the better tech features, cabin storage, and second- and third-row comfort. Here’s what we found.

Related: More New York Auto Show Coverage

Instrumentation: Explorer

09-ford-explorer-19-nyias-2020-front-row--instrument-panel--interior.jpg 2020 Ford Explorer | photo by Christian Lantry
02-toyota-highlander-19-nyias-2020-front-row--instrument-panel--interior.jpg 2020 Toyota Highlander | photo by Christian Lantry

It wasn’t that long ago when all-digital instrument panels were a thing for luxury vehicles, but the technology has rapidly spread to the mainstream and is an option for the 2020 Explorer. Measuring 12.3 inches, the screen has crisp, vibrant graphics that are as nice as a tablet’s. The Highlander’s analog instrumentation isn’t out of the ordinary for the class, but it doesn’t elevate the feel of the cabin the way the Explorer’s digital dash (when equipped) does.

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2019 Ford Explorer XLT
49,993 mi.
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2019 Ford Explorer XLT
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Multimedia System: Highlander

04-toyota-highlander-19-nyias-2020-center-stack-display--front-row--interior.jpg 2020 Toyota Highlander | photo by Christian Lantry
10-ford-explorer-19-nyias-2020-center-stack-display--front-row--interior.jpg 2020 Ford Explorer | photo by Christian Lantry

Both the Explorer and Highlander come with standard 8-inch touchscreen multimedia systems that incorporate Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity, but their optional displays are quite different: The Explorer offers a vertically oriented 10.1-inch touchscreen while the Highlander Platinum has a 12.3-inch dashboard screen. The Explorer on the show floor had the standard display, but comparing optional screen to optional screen, Toyota has the edge with its massive center display in a more conventional orientation.

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2019 Toyota Highlander XLE
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2019 Toyota Highlander XLE
14,545 mi.
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Console Storage: Highlander

03-toyota-highlander-19-nyias-2020-armrest--center-console--front-row--interior--storage.jpg 2020 Toyota Highlander | photo by Christian Lantry
12-ford-explorer-19-nyias-2020-armrest--center-console--interior--storage.jpg 2020 Ford Explorer | photo by Christian Lantry

The center console can become a dumping ground for various odds and ends, so smart storage solutions are key. The Explorer has a sizable tray where the dashboard meets the center console as well as a bin underneath the center armrest, but the Highlander takes this category with its huge storage bin under its front center armrest that’s big enough to hold a purse or small bag. It also has an updated version of its predecessor’s dashboard device tray that’s a useful perch for a connected smartphone. I’m surprised it hasn’t been widely copied by competitors.

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Second-Row Comfort: Highlander

05-toyota-highlander-19-nyias-2020-interior--second-row.jpg 2020 Toyota Highlander | photo by Christian Lantry
13-ford-explorer-19-nyias-2020-interior--second-row.jpg 2020 Ford Explorer | photo by Christian Lantry

Both the Explorer and Highlander offer second-row captain’s chairs instead of a standard bench seat. The captain’s chairs reduce the total seat count to six in the Explorer and seven in the Highlander, but they make it easier to access the third row using the pathway between them.

Both the Explorer’s and Highlander’s captain’s chairs slide forward and backward to share available legroom with third-row passengers, but the Highlander’s seats are slightly more comfortable overall. The difference comes down to the seat cushions in the Highlander, which are a bit longer and offer better thigh support.

Third-Row Comfort: Explorer

15-ford-explorer-19-nyias-2020-interior--third-row.jpg 2020 Ford Explorer | photo by Christian Lantry
07-toyota-highlander-19-nyias-2020-interior--third-row.jpg 2020 Toyota Highlander | photo by Christian Lantry

The Explorer’s and Highlander’s third rows are designed for children, but I still climbed back there to find out which one is less of a penalty box for adults. With seat cushions that are close to the floor and little legroom, your knees end up close to eye level. Neither offer anything approaching comfort, but the Explorer’s third row has a slight edge thanks to greater headroom.

The last time we tested three-row SUVs, a 2017 Highlander came in last place in a field of four contestants. With the 2020 Highlander, Toyota has fixed some of the things that held its predecessor back — but not everything. We’ll know better where these SUVs fall in the three-row pecking order once we’ve had a chance to drive them, but if you need a third row that can carry adults or teens, you’re better off looking at competitors like the Volkswagen Atlas or Chevrolet Traverse.’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments. 

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