Hard to believe that it was twelve years ago that I sold both my Toyota Prius and Volvo XC90 to buy a Toyota Highlander Hybrid. It was a really useful upgrade in size, capacity and capabilities and the new vehicle offered decent fuel efficiency and a good driving experience. I kept that Highlander for almost a decade before I downsized to a Mazda CX-5 a few years ago. I’ve written about my Highlander experiences and the improvements to the vehicle back when I reviewed the 2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid.
Though body shapes evolve, modern vehicle design is all about the interior and about smart driving tech, and the new 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum AWD (as it’s formally called) is no slacker in that regard. This newest Highlander featured the full set of Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 smarts, including pre-collision and pedestrian detection, lane departure assist, automatic high beams, radar cruise control, lane tracing assist and road sign assist. Basically it’s about 50% of the way to an autonomous vehicle. You’re driving, but the car is constantly analyzing the surrounding environment and making adjustments to help you stay safe. Personally, I really like all the modern tech safety features and if you haven’t driven a modern safety-smart car, it’s a great safety net.
But let’s start with an exterior shot! Here’s the vehicle I drove for a week in all its Ruby Flare Pearl glory:
As you can see in the photo, it’s quite functional at the farm, though I’m not sure I was ready to haul hay bales from storage to the barn quite yet. Heck, the vehicle loan company would probably have made a fuss about having to spend two days trying to clean out all the bits of hay and straw that would have inevitably gone everywhere!
Having said that, it’s a chic car and the ruby red is a striking color that looks just as good at a parking lot nestled between BMWs and Teslas as it does kicking up dirt in the back 40. It even features a TRAIL driving mode and you can disable much of the anti-slide safety features if you really want to try taking it off road. It’s also all wheel drive, which is a must-have in the Colorado winter, particularly for any sort of mountain driving.
The configuration I had is a 2 + 2 + 3 setup. Yes, the Highlander has a fold-up third row bench seat. I haven’t driven a 2 + 2 configuration in a while, and found it comfortable for passengers as long as there weren’t too many of them:
Certainly the space between the middle seats in this configuration could be great if you have siblings who aren’t entirely compatible being jammed on the same bench seat, but of course a fifth passenger must therefore be shoved into the very back, and the third row is not appropriate for anyone of other than a child’s size due to the lack of legroom. Here’s how that looks when I have half the 60/40 seat folded down, just so you can get a “longer” view of the interior:
This is the “LA41” leather trimmed seat interior and the color was just as attractive as you can see in the photos. It’s also really comfortable, weirdly so for an SUV that should somehow feel at least a bit tough and rugged. But people don’t want tough and rugged interiors, they want all the fancy bells and whistles, and Toyota definitely delivers with the 2020 Highlander Hybrid LTD.
The dash also shows off all the many tech features with a fairly complicated layout:
In the armrest (just barely visible on the lower center of the image) is a hidden Qi wireless charger and the front has a 12V and two USB-3 plugs handy for smart devices too, and it also features CarPlay and Android Auto! Toyota’s been very slow with Android phone support, but the 2020 Highlander line finally includes support for both iPhones and Android phones. There are also lots of little shelves carved out of the dash: You can see one just below the environmental controls and another as part of the glove compartment area on the passenger side. So nice to have plenty of places to stash the various accoutrement of life. The shelf immediately above the shifter also has a cutout so you can run a wire down into one of the USB plugs (though you’ll do best with a really short wire to keep things neat).
Still, if you count, there are around 50 different controls, switches and knobs on the armrest, steering wheel, dashboard and center console. We humans have become very sophisticated in our interaction with these vehicles. And that’s not to mention the complex and sophisticated entertainment, navigation and car settings features available through the nav screen. My suspicion: most people just avoid touching any of the buttons out of sheer overwhelm. What’s your take?
One of the challenges of being a car reviewer is that by driving lots and lots of cars we gain a lot of experience with complex and varied dash and cockpit designs. We then end up more forgiving of complexity and can forget that for a new owner all of this can be quite daunting. For example, check out the new, bright, and cartoonish main gauge display:
Yes, I was seeing a delightful 35.5 mpg fuel efficiency, but boy is there are lot going on here with colors, icons and other display information. It’s no wonder the center portion is a screen that can be adjusted to display less information.
Even the rear passengers have lots of control. Not only do they have access to two 2.1 Amp USB-3 plugs and a 110V power plug, but they also get this quite advanced environmental control panel with seat warmers too:
No question, your kids will love this Highlander with all these bells and whistles!
And legroom? They’ve got that too. It’s comfortable for adults too, as you can see:
But with all of that there are some odd glitches too. The biggest hiccup I noticed was that the display screen for the navigation system is not only not non-glare, but actually pretty high glare. If the front passenger is in sunlight, it’s almost completely unviewable:
This falls into the “don’t they drive these things before they sell them?” category for me, but it was rather problematic and would be annoying if you had to deal with it on a daily basis. The combination of the angle of the screen and its high gloss finish just doesn’t add up to a good daytime bright sunlight experience.
One final view of the rear of the Highlander and its stylish lines:
While there are some quirks of the design, notably that overly reflective nav system display, there’s really so much to like about this vehicle that makes it a worthy descendant of my own Highlander Hybrid from those many years ago. Fuel efficiency is much better – who can complain at 36mpg for a big three-row SUV? – the drive is surprisingly peppy in SPORT mode, and there are more creature comforts than you can shake a stick at. All with AWD, Android Auto support, a third row that you can fold down and ignore, and much more. If I needed the additional space, this would be on my short list, even with its high price. Definitely worth checking out!
2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum AWD in Ruby Flare Pearl. 2.5L 4-cylinder engine featuring the ECVT continuously variable transmission and trail mode. Optional accessories included: Carpet Floor Mats, Cargo Cross Bars, Universal Tablet Holder. Ruby Flare Red has a $425 color surcharge. MSRP: $50,200. AS DRIVEN: $52,512.
Disclaimer: Toyota loaned me the Highlander Hybrid for a week’s driving in return for this review. Darn nice of them, actually. #letsgoplaces indeed.