Guess you could say they were on to something.
Nearly two decades later, such family-friendly SUVs are red hot. Automakers, including Toyota, are cranking them out as fast as they can to keep up with consumer demand. The current Highlander has been the top-selling retail model in the segment since 2016 and is coming off its best sales year ever. It’s kept the momentum going in 2019, posting its best February sales ever and holding steady through the first quarter of the year.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Right?
Guess again. In April, Toyota returned to the Jacob Javits Convention Center to unveil the fourth-generation Highlander.
“Eighteen years ago, on this very stage, we made a world premiere that changed the game,” said Jack Hollis, group vice president and general manager of the Toyota Division. “Today, we’re changing it again.”
The all-new 2020 Highlander retains its core strengths of quality, durability, reliability and safety. But those are just table stakes in this fiercely competitive segment.
So, to set itself apart, the latest iteration introduces a dramatic new design direction that exudes more power and sophistication. Call this Highlander the strong, athletic type with a sculpted shape, chiseled lines, aggressive stance and modern attitude. This can be seen in such details as a more refined front grille, premium projector headlamps and — on the Limited and Platinum grades — the model’s first-ever 20-inch alloy wheels.
The new Highlander gained 2.36 inches in overall length, expanding the already ample cargo area to a maximum of 40.6 cubic feet and increasing the distance between the second- and third-row seats for more passenger comfort. Yet, the Highlander is still just under 195 inches to retain the vehicle’s hallmark ease of maneuverability and parking.
Under the Hood
This balance between competing concerns is due in part to the new TNGA platform that gave Toyota the opportunity to rebuild the Highlander from the ground up. Thanks to its lower center of gravity and more extensive use of high-strength steel, Chief Engineer Yoshikazu Saeki and his team were able to fine-tune the front strut and rear multi-link suspension tuning for optimal agility yet also deliver a smoother and quieter ride.
Customers will have a choice of two powertrains: a smooth 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine that can produce up to 295 horsepower or the next-generation Toyota Hybrid System that, between its gasoline engine and electric motors, can generate 240 horsepower.
Those who opt for the gas model will enjoy the benefits of Toyota’s innovative D-4S Injection system, Dual Variable Valve Timing with intelligence and Direct Shift 8-speed automatic transmission. Stop and Start Engine System is also part of the package. It shuts off the engine when the vehicle comes to a complete stop and then instantly restarts it when the driver lifts their foot off the brake pedal, making the Highlander quieter and more fuel efficient.
Highlander Hybrid buyers, meanwhile, will be able to choose between a 2WD or AWD drivetrain. They’ll also appreciate a manufacturer-estimated 34 mpg in combined city/highway driving — a 17 percent improvement over the current model. And its smaller, more efficient and faster-charging battery pack now fits under the rear seats, so it doesn’t constrain passenger or cargo space.
In the Cabin
The all-new Highlander also ups the ante when it comes to the passenger experience, with such perks as:
- Apple CarPlay®, Android Auto, Alexa In-Car compatibility, Waze, SiriusXM, Wi-Fi connectivity through AT&T standard across all grades
- Toyota Safety Connect with a one-year trial subscription standard across all grades
- Toyota Service and Remote Connect on LE grades and above
- Dynamic Navigation and a largest-in-segment 12.3-inch screen available on Limited grade and standard on Platinum
- A 1,200-watt, 11-speaker JBL Premium Audio System standard on Limited and Platinum
- Plenty of USB charging ports and available Qi wireless charging
And did someone ask about safety? The new Highlander’s answer to that question is Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, standard on all grades. This suite of active safety technologies includes:
- Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection
- Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control
- Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist
- Automatic High Beam
- Lane Tracing Assist
- Road Sign Assist
The only downside? Everyone will have to wait until winter to get their hands on the 2020 Highlander. The first V6 models will arrive at dealerships in December, followed by the hybrid in February 2020.