The 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum earns a participation trophy

The modern three-row crossover SUV needs to haul a bevy of people in comfort, style, and with the latest technology. The redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander does all these things, but excels at none of them.

Squaring off against the Hyundai Palisade, Honda Pilot, Volkswagen Atlas, Dodge Durango, and the Kia Telluride, which was The Car Connection’s Best Car To Buy 2020, the Highlander can fall flat on its droopy face.

With a TCC Rating of 7.2 out of 10 the 2020 Toyota Highlander pleases with the best infotainment system offered in a Toyota, solid safety gear, and comfortable seats, but its design is busy, the seats are narrow, and the third row is small.

I spent a week with the 2020 Toyota Highlander in top Platinum trim running errands, making a Costco run, hauling kids, and road tripping to find where it hits and misses. Here’s what I learned.

Hti: Comfy front half

The first two rows of seats were supportive, comfy, and featured an upright seating position. The road-trip worthy seats were firmer, and slightly less fatiguing, than the soft thrones found in a Honda Pilot.

Miss: … but you must be this wide to ride

But at 5’10” with an average build, I felt the seats were as wide as I’d be comfortable. Had I been the 240 pounds I was after those great four years of college the seats might have felt a bit narrow.

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

Hit: Best infotainment yet

It’s as if Toyota’s been listening or something. The Highlander’s 12.3-inch touchscreen infotainment interface is the best setup the automaker offers today, though that isn’t a high bar. The screen is crisp, clear, and has a high resolution. The interface is easy-to-use and shames the dated looking tile-based setup found in the Honda Pilot. It mostly lives in a split-screen space with two functions running at once, such as Apple CarPlay and the climate control settings.

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

Miss: … but it’s still compromised

Toyota doesn’t distinguish audio controls for navigation and music. The choice ends up being directions screamed at you by Waze or barely hearing your music. So let’s say you’re driving around rocking out to Neil Diamond and you’re approaching a turn, then Waze interjects as loudly as Diamond, screaming at you to hang a right. A silly workaround that people shouldn’t be required to use is to go into Waze’s settings before plugging in a phone and changing the app’s volume output. Most vehicles on sale today make the audio control specific to the feature being used, so that the navigation on Waze would remain as it was in your phone, and the “Sweet Caroline” would keep rocking out based on the car’s volume setting. In the Highlander, it’s one volume setting, regardless of the source.

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

Hit: It’s what’s on the inside that counts

The 2020 Highlander features an attractive asymmetrical dashboard featuring slim trim and an air vent on the passenger side and controls slightly canted towards the driver with a mix of materials and finishes. Its dashboard makes the Honda Pilot and Volkswagen Atlas look downright boring. The large 12.3-inch touchscreen is reasonably well integrated rather than looking like a tablet that’s been slapped upon the dashboard. Those in cold climate states where gloves are necessary for half the year will appreciate the knobs, buttons, and control switches.

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

Miss: … but cars aren’t people

Mom was right: It’s what’s on the inside that counts. That mostly applies to people. As much as I want cars to be people, the 2020 Toyota Highlander comes off as a dowdy frump. In the front it droops, as if it’s melting in some spots. That might have been good for Dali, but not Toyota. From straight on, the drooping sides look as if it’s frowning; the rear looks as if the tailgate and fenders are melting away from the taillights, and the flare in the rear door gives it a heavy look from a side profile. Its best angle is the front three-quarter view.

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

Hit: I can see

In an era of thick pillars, small windows, and safety sensor arrays mounted near the rearview mirror it’s become hard to see out of cars. The forward vision out of the Highlander is terrific. The A-pillars are thin, the B-pillar don’t obstruct the driver’s view while turning your head, and the hood line is low. Bonus points for the scallop in the center of the hood that mimics what you’ll find on the mighty Land Cruiser.

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

Miss: … where you are going, not where you’ve been

Rear vision is mediocre due to a small rear window and the angle of the D-pillars. The Volkswagen Atlas and Kia Telluride both have larger rear windows and provide better sight lines.

Hit: Room for things

With family vehicles it’s not just about storage, because anyone can create a large cargo hold. It’s the clever storage areas for knick knacks, snacks, and doodads that reflect an automaker’s ability to address its customers’ needs. The Highlander had a terrific shelf under the climate controls to stow a smartphone. The front center armrest didn’t lift up, it slid back to reveal the available wireless smartphone charger. Below it, a massive storage compartment swallowed an electronics case, snack cup, two snack bags of Goldfish, a fruit pouch, four face masks, a small bottle of hand sanitizer, a set of kid’s headphones, and there was room to spare.

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

Miss: Mediocre third row

The third row wasn’t really suited for adults, and was somewhat of a punishment for kids. The seat bottom was low and flat, and due to the wheelbase of the Highlander the second-row passenger horse traded for legroom and everyone lost in the end. The Atlas, Telluride, Pilot, and Palisade all feature more comfortable, usable third-row seats.

At $51,112 the 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum is expensive and the competition is nicer, cheaper, and better at hauling the family. Like a C student it ticks every box expected and needed of a family-oriented three-row crossover SUV with ample storage, decent comfort, and easy-to-use technology. But it fails to stand out, innovate, or lead in a competitive segment of family haulers.
2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum V-6
Base price: $35,720
Price as tested: $51,112
EPA fuel economy: 20/27/23 mpg
The hits: Best Toyota infotainment system yet, comfortable seats (first two rows), handsome interior, great storage cubbies
The misses: Mediocre third row, homely exterior, narrowish seats.

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