Redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander Is a Smooth Operator

Evolved midsized SUV shows improvements but faces tougher competition

2020 Toyota Highlander driving, front

Update: Since this first drive was originally published in December 2019, we finished testing the Highlander.

See the complete Toyota Highlander road test.

This all-new Toyota Highlander has numerous updates throughout to make it feel more modern than its previous generation, but it doesn’t stray from the established Highlander formula. What has changed is its competitive landscape, with fresh models from Hyundai, Kia, and Subaru giving three-row SUV shoppers other compelling choices.

To get an early sense of how this new Highlander measures up, we rented a pre-production model from Toyota. It is a top-of-the-line Highlander Platinum with all the bells and whistles, giving us a chance to try out all the features. We will buy a more mainstream Highlander XLE when it reaches dealerships, allowing us to test what's expected to be the most-sold version.

We will put it through more than 50 tests at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center, including those that evaluate acceleration, braking, fuel economy, handling, car-seat fit, and controls. Consumer Reports digital members will get access to that full evaluation as soon as it’s available.

We present our first impressions of the new Highlander below.

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What we rented: 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum AWD
Powertrain: 295-hp, 3.5-liter V6 engine; eight-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
MSRP: $48,800
Options: Audio upgrade ($1,050), color ($425)
Destination fee: $1,120
Total cost: $51,395

CR’s Take

The most dramatic changes to the Highlander are the more extroverted styling and the move to a more efficient 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine on the hybrid version in the 2020 model year. There are other improvements throughout, with many changes addressing weaknesses in the previous model, such as the drab interior and transmission that could have been smoother.

Based on the Platinum model we sampled, the new Highlander has a good ride and handling balance, well-sorted transmission that adds refinement to the driving experience, and thoughtful interior details and soft-touch surfaces.

This new Highlander has an edge in vehicle dynamics over the recent rivals that makes it more satisfying to drive. But the Highlander is short on excitement overall. There isn’t any attribute that stood out, and that may be just fine with those who are loyal to the Highlander brand. Being a smartly designed model with few shortcomings is a good distinction in a crowded market. Factor in Toyota's reputation for reliability, and the Highlander is certain to command strong market share and please its owners.