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The 2020 Toyota Highlander.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

So far, Toyota’s mission to paste smiles onto engaged drivers of its vehicles has been hit-and-miss. It began convincingly with the 2018 Camry, which entranced those of us who value keen steering and agile handling. And of course, the revival of the Supra sports car validates CEO Akio Toyoda’s promise to build “no more boring cars.”

With the latest Corolla, however, Toyota’s commitment seemed to waver. Sure, the 2020 redesign drives better than its predecessor, but a gearhead’s dream date? Not quite.

Now we have a complete redo of the Highlander. Like any mid-size three-row crossover, the 2020 Highlander’s main mandate is to maximize space, comfort and utility for the family. If Toyota baked in some engaging dynamics as well, that would be a bonus. Understandably, it wasn’t a priority.

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So, what did Toyota prioritize for the fourth-generation Highlander, which is now built on the same TNGA-K platform as the Camry and RAV4?

First and foremost, Toyota is touting the hybrid version’s 19-per-cent lower fuel consumption. Highlander has offered the pocket- and planet-friendlier gas/electric option since 2006, and it remains a rarity in the segment. Nonetheless, it doubled down on the feature for 2020.

Toyota is also highlighting available trick all-wheel-drive systems, and the usual advances in connectivity and automated driver-assist systems.

Besides the hybrid option, the Highlander also stands out among its peers with a three-person third-row seat. The new body is 60 millimetres longer but still at the smaller end of the segment. The base powertrain is a carryover 3.5-litre V-6 paired to an 8-speed automatic transmission. Despite reduced body weight and aero drag, V-6 fuel consumption is little changed – but still near best in class.

After a day spent driving Highlanders through Texas hill country, I collared Toyota engineering project manager Yuji Homma and asked what one thing he’s most proud of in the 2020 Highlander. His answer: Ride comfort. I can’t argue with that, though with the proviso that Texas roads don’t challenge a suspension the way frost-ravaged Canadian pavement will.

The main mandate of the redesign was to maximize space, comfort and utility for families.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

I can also confirm that the Highlander feels planted and confident through curves, even without having driven the versions that promise the most driver engagement – namely, the V-6 Limited and Platinum, which have an advanced all-wheel drive that can vary torque distribution between the left and right rear wheels to enliven turn-in response on winding pavement (LE and XLE V-6s have a simpler AWD).

That said, the ace up the Highlander’s sleeve is the hybrid. For 2020, a 2.5-litre four-cylinder gas engine replaces the previous 3.5-litre V-6 and is paired with a more efficient motor-generator-transmission package. As before, AWD is provided by an electric motor at the rear.

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Smoother than the V-6 even when the gas engine is running, the Hybrid is only 0.2 seconds slower to 97 km/h – and 35 per cent less thirsty. After one very sedate rural drive, my test vehicle’s trip computer showed 5.0 L/100 km. A more real-world drive that mixed some clear freeway running with a lot of stop-and-go delivered 5.8 L/100 km. Most drivers in most conditions won’t do that well, but still – the hybrid’s government combined figure of 6.7 L/100 km out-scrooges most compact sedans. That, for an eight-seater that can tow 3,500 lbs!

The Highlander V-6 goes on sale in January in L FWD, LE, XLE, Limited and new Platinum grades, starting at $39,990 and topping out at $53,990. Prices of carryover trims are within a few hundred dollars of last year’s (some up, some down) but with more standard kit across the board. Arriving in the spring, the Hybrid will offer LE through Platinum grades, each for $2,000 more than the V-6.

Toyota Canada expects the gas/electric model will account for 25 per cent of 2020 Highlander sales. I think the only thing that might stop it going much higher than that is if they can’t build them fast enough.

Tech specs

  • Base price: $39,990
  • Engines: 3.5-litre V-6; 2.5-litre four-cylinder/electric-motor hybrid
  • Transmission/drive: V-6: 8-speed automatic/FWD or AWD; Hybrid: CVT automatic/AWD
  • Fuel consumption (L/100 km): V-6 FWD: 11.9 city/8.3 hwy; V-6 AWD: 11.7 city/8.6 hwy; Hybrid: 6.7 combined (estimate)
  • Alternatives: Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Subaru Ascent, VW Atlas

Looks

Despite some tweaks to the styling, the 2020 Highlander is still clearly a Highlander.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Apart from deeper sculpting of the body sides, it’s still recognizably a Highlander – and that’s a good thing. All trims get LED headlamps, and wheel sizes range up to 20 inches.

Interior

The finish quality in the interior approaches luxury-segment levels.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Toyota says the 60-mm stretch has all been devoted to upsizing the cargo space, which means passengers are still left with less space than in most other three-row mid-sizers. The second row is roomy enough, but squeezing an adult into the third row means pushing the second-row seat well forward, and still the third-row rider would be squatting with knees pointing skywards. Up front, the driving position is not especially high-and-mighty, but slim A-posts and well-placed door mirrors maximize visibility. Clear gauges in the main cluster are supplemented by a touchscreen on a big squarish panel that also houses hard buttons for audio and HVAC. Fit and finish approach luxury-segment levels.

Performance

The V-6’s linear launch is welcome, though the claimed 0-97-km/h time of 7.5 seconds is ho-hum and accompanied by a gravelly engine soundtrack when it’s working hard. It feels like the gearing was selected to prioritize fuel economy and relaxed cruising, not acceleration.

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Technology

Toyota's connectivity suite now features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Toyota now joins the connectivity mainstream, adding Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility to the 8- or 12.3-inch display screens. New-to-Highlander features include Connected Services across the board; wireless charging and a JBL 11-speaker, 1,200-watt audio on the Limited trim; while the Platinum adds a head-up display, camera rear-view mirror and panoramic-view monitor. Also standard is the comprehensive Toyota Safety Sense suite of semi-autonomous driver aids.

Cargo

The Highlander's cargo capacity still trails most of its segment competition.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Cargo room behind the third row has grown to 454 L from 390 (not counting some shallow but useable storage below the deck) which is still below segment norms. All the seats fold flat and flush, but again, most alternatives can carry more stuff.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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