Like a bountiful harvest pouring forth from a horn of plenty, there’s no shortage of three-row SUVs available today. The Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride are popular options, to name a few, but there’s also the Mazda CX-9, Subaru Ascent and even Volkswagen’s updated 2021 Atlas. Of course, Chevrolet will also happily sell you a Traverse. But if compact car-rivaling gas mileage is a priority then Toyota’s made things easy. The Japanese automaker’s Highlander Hybrid is really the only choice.
LikeLexus-like refinementLuxurious interiorSuperb efficiency
Don’t LikeCurious placement of wireless chargerUninspired infotainment systemSmall third-row seat
The most important numbers
Just how economical is the Toyota Highlander Hybrid? Well, engineers made this latest model around 20% more efficient than the previous generation, which translates to 36 miles per gallon city and 35 mpg highway for a front-drive model. Range-topping Platinum-trim variants with all-wheel drive are slightly less efficient, though the difference is, honestly, negligible. My review unit stickers at 35 mpg city, 34 mpg highway and 35 mpg combined. In real-world use, the trip computer indicated 31 mpg and change during testing, which I got without even trying. If you drive in a more conservative manner, you might even be able to beat those EPA estimates.
How dominating is the Highlander Hybrid’s fuel-economy performance? Well, in comparison, a rear-drive Ford Explorer Hybrid, arguably its only direct rival, returns a claimed 27 mpg city, 29 mpg highway and 28 mpg combined. Grab four-wheel drive and those figures are even lower, making this Toyota’s efficiency scores look all the more impressive.
There’s a lot of sculpting along the body sides.
Two motors, one engine
Enabling this SUV to sip fuel like when you take that first, tongue-scalding slurp of piping-hot coffee is a familiar drivetrain. Behind that broad, smiling grille you’ll find a two-motor hybrid system built around a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. That gasoline-burner is matched to a pair of electric motor-generators that, among other things, function as a continuously variable transmission. Total system output clocks in at 243 horsepower, a more-than-adequate figure, if hardly a thrilling one.
It’s true, I wish the Highlander Hybrid had a little more giddy-up. That drivetrain is mostly smooth and quiet, though you do know when it’s straining. Give this vehicle the spurs and unmistakable four-cylinder thrum becomes apparent. No, it’s not obtrusive, especially in Limited and Platinum models, which feature laminated front-window glass for an even quieter cabin, but you can hear that combustion engine churning away at certain times.
The 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is efficient and upscale
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Highlander Hybrids can tow a modest 3,500 pounds. That should be enough for a small boat or a couple of dirt bikes, stuff like that. Non-hybrid models are a bit more capable, able to drag up to 5,000 pounds.
When shedding speed, the Highlander Hybrid’s brakes are easy to modulate and the pedal feels good under your tootsies. Regenerative braking, which puts electrons back into the battery pack for use later, is smooth, and the transition to friction braking just about seamless.
Since it’s a hybrid, this SUV can also be driven short distances in electric-only mode — emphasis on short. This is not a plug-in hybrid, so EV range isn’t a real factor, but the Highlander can silently motor down your block or waft into the garage without disturbing anyone.
Aside from hoses and cables, there’s not much to see here.
The softer side
The Highlander’s cabin is extremely well done. Even though its dashboard is oddly asymmetrical, the materials used and overall versatility are excellent. My tester has plenty of soft leather, rendered in a hue called Glazed Caramel. It’s rich looking and exclusive to the range-topping Platinum model.
Beyond all that, there’s no shortage of USB ports, the storage cubbies on the dashboard are super handy and the center-console bin is borderline cavernous, with a caveat. Someone thought it was a good idea to put the wireless-charging plate underneath the center armrest, which slides away like the lid on a roll-top desk. Not only does this layout block access to that center bin, the pad itself is too small to accommodate larger handsets in cases. My iPhone 8 Plus doesn’t fit in the recess, though it still charges while tipped up at a slight angle. I have so many questions about this design decision.
For the most part, passenger comfort in the Highlander is a strong point. Its front buckets provide La-Z-Boy levels of cushiness and the second row ain’t too bad, either. Unfortunately, the third row is a disappointment. Almost no vehicles in this class will comfortably accommodate adult passengers in their rear-most seats for any significant length of time. But this Toyota’s third-row legroom is the tightest among major competitors. According to manufacturer-published figures, it has nearly six fewer inches of legroom than a Chevy Traverse, and that is a huge difference.
The Highlander Hybrid’s cabin is nicely designed and well built.
In keeping with the Highlander Hybrid’s polished and nicely trimmed cabin, it only takes you about 10 seconds behind the wheel to realize how refined it is. It’s quiet, smooth and, in a lot of ways, feels like a Lexus. This vehicle’s ride quality is supple and the steering is light to the touch but quick enough to make the Highlander seem at least a little bit agile.
An infotainment system with a 12.3-inch touchscreen is available. It can be had in Limited models, though it’s standard equipment on the Highlander Platinum. Aside from integrated navigation, it also gets you an 11-speaker JBL sound system, which is loud and clear.
That display is quite nice, both crisp and colorful, but I’m not a fan of the software that runs on it. Toyota’s multimedia offerings tend to have outdated user interfaces and confusing menus. While it’s not terrible, the Highlander’s infotainment array is more of the same. I find it a bit too complicated, it’s not very pretty and then there’s a weird smattering of mismatched physical buttons underneath the screen. At least Amazon Alexa compatibility as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard across the range, so you only have to use Toyota’s infotainment offerings for as long as it takes to plug your phone in.
This is not my favorite infotainment system around
Protecting every Highlander owner, no matter their budget, Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard across all trim levels. This includes things like automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control, traffic sign recognition and lane-departure warning with steering assist. This last item effectively keeps the Highlander centered in its lane of travel. It’s very good, though it seems a tiny bit less accurate than Honda or Nissan systems these days. Keyless entry with pushbutton start is standard across the board, ditto LED foglights and taillamps.
Illuminating the darkness, Platinum models come with super-bright LED adaptive headlights. Not only are they self-leveling, they swivel as you turn the steering wheel to help improve visibility. Rain-sensing windshield wipers are standard as well.
The Highlander Hybrid is offered in four trim levels, each of which can be had with either front- or all-wheel drive. An entry-level LE version, the most affordable offering in the range, is priced at $39,320, including $1,120 for destination. As for my top-of-the-line Platinum model, it checks out for $52,512, a much steeper figure.
You could do far worse than the Toyota Highlander.
Right now, the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride are the shining stars in the three-row utility-vehicle segment. They’re upscale and refined, versatile and stylish, plus they offer loads of tech. These corporate twins are good at just about everything and, in some ways, better than this Toyota, even without available hybrid power.
The 2020 Toyota Highlander is an excellent three-row crossover, certainly one of the best available today, especially in hybrid form, which offers unbeatable fuel efficiency.