Toyota chose not to mess with success in redesigning the 2020 Highlander mid-size SUV. It’s an all-new Highlander, moving to a version of Toyota’s newest global platform. But it also is a conservative redesign, sticking to the formula that has been selling big numbers, with significant but not revolutionary improvements. We poked around the redesigned 2020 Highlander during its debut at the 2019 New York International Auto Show.
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Most obviously, Toyota chose not to up-size the Highlander even as both the number and the bulk of its “mid-size” SUV rivals has grown. An additional 2.36 inches in overall length for the 2020 Highlander comes mostly in the wheelbase, which adds a little more room inside and slightly easier access to the third row, but the Highlander remains shorter overall than most of the competition.
That tidier size carries into 2020 what has been a strength and a weakness of the current generation. It’s an undiluted plus for parking, maneuverability and more carlike driving feel, not so if you have full-size needs for third-row seat room or hauling. I think it’s a good move, despite the givebacks, because I suspect most people want a third row for occasional or just-in-case use. Less bulk is more useful more of the time.
But be forewarned that the third row, as in 2019, remains thinly cushioned and low to the floor, which left me sitting knees-high. More than an inch more forward slide for the second row helped only a little with the limited legroom. The third-row recline provided enough headroom but cut into the luggage space behind. That space grows a little (about 3 cubic feet) from the extra length to be more competitive, unless you give it back to put a tall person in the third row (overall cargo specs are not yet official, I was told).
That said, the new Highlander also gets a look that still is conservative but easier on the eyes, with more sculpting and a less busy and more Tacoma-like front end. The quality of interior materials and trim remains very high, with a new design that still skews more toward practical than posh in a good way. And the front seats continue to impress me as among the most comfortable on the road.
The dashboard design is cleaner and has a nicer cover and trim in the upscale model on display but continues to have the very practical in-dash shelf, now with a divider for less sliding. A cool new 12.3-inch screen looks great, but it’s standard only on that top trim level and optional just on the next lower, so most buyers will get a far less dramatic 8-inch display. Why not make the big screen standard to be a distinctive part of the Highlander’s identity? These are not cheap vehicles. However, the Highlander will now be more competitive in tech with its first Wi-Fi hot spot and Android Auto smartphone integration along with Apple CarPlay.
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Toyota’s solid V-6 carries forward and the four-cylinder is dropped (no one will miss it). But notable is a significantly more fuel-efficient hybrid powertrain. It’s offered on all but the base model and newly offered for 2020 with front-wheel drive as well as all-wheel drive. We can’t yet know how it drives, but Toyota’s estimate of a 17 percent gain to 34 mpg combined mileage is eye-popping for a family hauler.
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