About an hour west of our offices lies the Toyota Motor North America, Inc. Chicago Regional office. Past corporate parks and strip malls, we ventured out to be the first ones to get behind the wheel of the brand new Toyota Highlander. This is a big deal primarily because the 3rd-generation Highlander was the best-selling midsize SUV in 2019 with nearly a quarter of a million of them sold.
The last Highlander did a great job of combining handsome looks with easy driving, reliability, and good comfort and room for adults in at least the first two rows, if not the third row. But it was definitely due for a redesign inside and out. Its challenges in the 2020/2021 model years are myriad thanks to an ever-growing field of midsize competitors that are both new and improved. We witnessed the 2021 Highlander first hand and behind the wheel courtesy of Toyota. Let's take a closer look at the totally redesigned Highlander that's already in showrooms.
Still Looks Like a Highlander, Only Way Better
The Toyota Highlander has never been a stunning SUV, but that certainly doesn't mean it hasn't been attractive. In fact, with each generation, the Highlander has improved its looks, and that includes this one. The Highlander isn't just redesigned, it sits on what's known as the new Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA-K) that also underpins the current Camry, Avalon, and RAV4. The advantages of the new platform include increased capability, comfort, and safety over the outgoing model.
TNGA-K utilizes copious amounts of high-strength steel, which increases chassis rigidity and also allows Toyota to tune the suspension for better agility. It also provides for an improved turning radius and a smoother ride with less noise, something the driver and occupants will notice. We certainly did on our drive, which we'll get into more later.
The new Highlander also takes advantage of more aggressive styling. It looks more muscular thanks to big fender bulges, and the overdone lower chrome grille is thankfully gone. The front is now dominated by a single grille with attractive black mesh and a single bar instead of two. The headlights are more aggressively swept back into the body. The front fascia is simpler than before, and it has a stronger presence, as a result.
Most notably, however, is the body itself. It looks like there's more meat on the bone, and it helps the new Highlander separate itself from more conventional-looking crossovers like the VW Atlas and the Chevy Traverse. The more aggressively tapering side glass now comes to a point just ahead of the D-pillar, and the sculpting of the rear fender is very dramatic. From our perspective, it even borrows some of its contours from the Toyota FT-1 Concept (the car that led to the Supra sports car). This gives the new Highlander a sportier, more aggressive appearance.
The List of Improvements is Really Long
Toyota has typically done a very good job of infusing their cars with great standard and optional features (except for the excessively long delay with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto). This time around, there's even more to love in the new Highlander. First and foremost is the robust Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 that's now standard across the Highlander line. It comes with the following features:
- Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection: Simply put, this system prevents you from rear-ending someone or from making contact with a pedestrian who steps into the path of the vehicle. It sends visible and audible warnings and may apply brake assist, or if warnings are ignored will apply braking to slow the vehicle down.
- Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control: The system works in stop-and-go traffic and maintains a preset distance from the vehicle in front of you at a preset speed. It will also come to a full stop in normal driving conditions and return to the preset speed when safe.
- Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist: The Highlander will provide an audible warning when it senses the vehicle crossing solid lane markers without the turn signal activated at speeds above 32 mph. Steering Assist will help steer the vehicle back into the lane using small adjustments.
- Automatic High Beam: When activated, the system engages high beam headlights (increasing driver safety) and toggles them off when vehicles are detected in the Highlander's path.
- Lane Tracing Assist: This is a new feature added to the set and essentially works with the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control to keep the Highlander in its lane even in traffic.
- Road Sign Assist: This is also a new addition to the Safety Sense package. The system uses a forward-facing camera that detects speed limit signs, stop signs, yield signs, and do not enter signs and projects them for the driver to see.
- The Highlander also benefits from an updated All-Wheel Drive system in the gas models (L, LE, and XLE), and there's a new Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD system in gas models (Limited, Platinum) that enhances the Highlander's handling capabilities.
- In terms of in-car technology, the optional 8" touchscreen in the 2019 model is now the standard on the L, LE, and XLE while a much larger 12.3" touchscreen is optional on the Limited trim and standard on the top Platinum trim. Dynamic Navigation is optional on XLE and standard on Limited and Platinum.
- There's also a brand new 10" color Head-Up display and a Premium JBL 1,200-watt JBL sound system with 11 speakers and a subwoofer (both optional equipment). Additional good news in terms of more standard equipment is all-new Apple CarPlay/Android Auto/Amazon Alexa and 5 USB ports for the device-dependent. It also gets SiriusXM satellite radio standard, along with a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot across the trim line.
- The Highlander can also be outfitted with a new Qi-compatible Wireless Smartphone charging deck located in the center armrest. Additionally, Hybrid premium trims levels benefit from standard 120V cargo area outlets for easy charging.
The Trim Levels Grow
So, you might not find it a big deal that the Highlander comes in Hybrid guise just like the model before it. In fact, Toyota has offered a hybrid version of the Highlander since the first-generation. It isn't until you dig into the details of the fourth-gen Highlander Hybrid that you realize how far it's come. The new Highlander Hybrid is more of everything compared to the 2019 version.
Not only is it more efficient than before it now gets Best-in-Class efficiency (35 city / 35 highway / 35 combined). That's way up from the 29 city / 27 highway / 28 combined from the 2019 model. Toyota also added a front-wheel drive Hybrid model to cater to those in drier climates where rain/snow aren't prevalent. That configuration adds 1 mpg to the city and combined estimates, and it's also more affordable than the AWD version.
The Highlander also gets a brand new top trim. The Limited used to be the cream of the Highlander crop, but Toyota has added a Platinum trim for the fourth-generation Highlander in both gas and Hybrid models. Platinum trim brings more standard features than the rest of the lineup and adds premium wheels and that beautiful Glazed Caramel leather as an interior option.
Even more impressive than the new Platinum trim is the totally new Highlander XSE, which will show up later this fall. It takes the same designation used from the Camry and Avalon XSE trims and applies the same thinking to the Highlander thanks to racier styling in the front fascia, wheels, and interior. But it's not all show. The XSE also gets:
- Sport-tuned suspension and Available Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD for improved handling and better road feel.
- Sport-tuned steering that increases effort and precision.
The Interior Gets Way Upgraded But Not With Space
The new Highlander might just be the brand's best interpretation of their cabin design language. It takes the lines of the Camry and Avalon's interior and maximizes the bigger space of the Highlander for a more airy interpretation that works extremely well. The 2019 wasn't bad, but you could easily tell that it was time for the Highlander to grow up. Mediocre ergonomics and styling have been replaced by a truly handsome interior that draws the eye to the details. The entire instrument panel and center console look fresh and attractive, and the quality of the materials is excellent.
Seat quilting in the higher trim levels (as well as the new seat shape across all trims) looks high-grade. Front occupants enjoy the right balance of support and cushioning, as well. There's even a new "Glazed Caramel" hue in Platinum trim that imbues the Highlander with a premium look. Ergonomics are also superb. Center stack controls are easier to use, and the new layout of the steering wheel controls is far more intuitive.
In a world of ever-growing three-row SUVs, it's clear that the Highlander had to gain some interior space, but it's not as big as we would've liked. When competitors like the twin newcomers Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride offer serious room, it makes sense for the #1 midsize passenger SUV to grow on the inside. The increase, however, is only relegated to the second-row occupants and the cargo space behind row three.
Whereas the 2019 Highlander had 38.4 inches of second-row legroom, the 2020 grows to 41.4. Third-row legroom remains at a conservative 27.7 inches, but the cargo room grows and additional two cubic feet+ when the third row is up (13.8 cubes in the 2019, increased to 16.0 in the 2020). Sadly, overall cargo space with the back two rows folded flat grows by less than one cubic foot.
The Difference in the Driving
We're glad the rather tepid four-cylinder engine is no more. The 295 horses in the V6 work well with the transmission and the chassis to create a solid driving experience. It feels more connected to the road than the previous model, and acceleration feels strong and responsive. It's clear Toyota made significant improvements in the driving experience thanks to the new TNGA-K platform upon which the Highlander rides.
We didn't get seat time in the Hybrid trimmed model, so we're eager to see what advantages (other than improved efficiency) it has over the 2019 model. It's clear that Toyota was able to improve the driving dynamics of the new Highlander and the lack of big changes in the overall dimensions certainly aid in that department.
The new Highlander isn't a radical departure from the proven Highlander formula, and that's a very good thing. In virtually every capacity, the 2020 Highlander ups its own ante by providing improved styling, tech, safety, materials quality, and driving dynamics. Where it falls short is in the additional legroom for third-row passengers and the cargo space, but those minor issues fall into shadow when you consider everything the new Highlander does so well. It's a great expression of the most successful midsize SUV, and it means that even in the face of stiffer competition, the 2020 Highlander may still retain the mantle.