2020-2021 Highlander Hybrid: Family Flexibility and Amazing Fuel Economy
The all-new 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid improves on the previous model in most areas. Notable changes include revised styling, better fuel economy, and increased cargo space. For families, five USB ports and standard Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Alexa are nice perks as well. It’s a well-rounded midsize SUV that offers a lot for families.
For safety, the 2020 Highlander aced every single IIHS crash test and again earned a Top Safety Pick award. The only minor blemish in crash avoidance ratings is a “Poor” headlight rating in the LE and XLE trims that kept the Highlander from the highest TSP+ award (an “Acceptable” or “Good” IIHS-rated headlight system must be standard on all trims to qualify for the top award in 2020). The NHTSA recently crash tested the 2020 Highlander at Safercar.gov. Highlander Hybrid earned a 5-star overall rating again, with 4-star ratings in the government’s frontal crash tests. Commendably, Toyota makes all the necessary active safety features plus Safety Connect crash notification standard on every trim level, even base models. That means no hunting for them on dealer’s lots or being forced to pay for the highest trim level with a pricey tech options package to find a model that qualifies for top safety awards. The 2021 model updates to Safety Sense 2.5 with a few improvements.
As for carseats, the situation is like the outgoing model. Notably, you will have little trouble installing almost any car seat in the 2nd row captain’s chairs. The center of the optional 2nd row bench seat is somewhat narrow, but it will accommodate a narrow carseat or booster and carefully selected 3-across setups. You can now even “borrow” LATCH anchors to install a car seat in the center of the 2nd row, but the wider spacing will not work with rigid LATCH car seats. Toyota requires you to check the car seat owner’s manual first to verify compatibility for anchors that are 18.6 inches apart to use lower anchors in the middle seat. Thankfully, head restraints can still be removed for taller forward-facing car seats in the 2nd row.
The third row has the same drawbacks as the previous generation Highlander. Namely, there are no lower anchors present and the single top tether anchor is for the center seat that is too narrow to work with the largest carseats. While you can technically install one correctly there, many that fit will be too wide to allow another passenger or carseat from sitting on either side. A carseat installed in the center will likely prevent the fold down of the 60/40 split seat back. The middle seat has a ceiling mounted shoulder belt that is a minor inconvenience, but since the lap belt anchors determine car seat positioning and do not crossover with the outboard seatbelt anchors, this should not be a problem for installation beyond the narrow spacing.
The left and right side head restraints are not removable in the 3rd row, so there could also be related issues with certain taller forward-facing car seats or boosters. Fortunately, they don’t project as far forward as they do in some other vehicles. The second row can be adjusted to give the 3rd row a little more legroom now, but the third row seat cushions are still quite low to the floor and relatively short, limiting thigh support. That makes the back seat best suited for kids in backless boosters and tweens who no longer need a car seat.
It should be noted that these drawbacks are a disadvantage mainly if you need to put two forward-facing harnessed car seats in the 3rd-row. For the vast majority of families with two or three young kids, the 8-passenger Highlander is still a great choice and that third row is quite practical for kids in booster seats, teens and even shorter adults. Models like the 2020+ Ford Explorer and 2021 Subaru Ascent edge the Highlander in both safety evaluations and car seat flexibility with additional lower anchors and top tether anchors in the third row. The Honda Odyssey and Pilot remain arguably the friendliest mainstream vehicles for car seats.
Driving the Highlander Hybrid is like most mainstream midsize SUVs: Great for around town and on the highway, but not particularly exciting to drive. Even so, it is quite competent in terms of routine handling and braking and the suspension adeptly soaks up road imperfections, making it great for a small family road trip! Power is good for passing and from stops, though the 4-cylinder engine is a little noisier than the 6-cylinder model from the previous generation. Otherwise, the ride is quiet, comfortable, and smooth overall.
One exciting aspect is that you can get 35 mpg around town on regular gas, while typical midsize SUVs with AWD are lucky to get 20 mpg city. In fact, I was able to achieve 42.6 mpg over almost 175 miles of driving on relatively flat roads in the Chicago suburbs without heat or air conditioning in use. Even in nearly ideal conditions, that is truly amazing for such a large, heavy vehicle that doesn’t have a plug. I do note that previous journalists averaged a more typical 30-35 mpg overall, based on the fuel economy history. I observed 35 mpg in limited highway driving. Expect fuel economy to suffer in cold winters or with constant A/C or heater use.
- Amazing 35 mpg with AWD in a midsize SUV!
- Many active safety features standard on ALL trims
- IIHS Top Safety Pick
- NHTSA 5-star overall rating
- 2nd row adjusts farther for more legroom and rear-facing carseat flexibility
- Apply Carplay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa now standard
- Intuitive controls: knobs and hard buttons provided for many functions
- Five standard USB ports with 2.1 amps charge capability
- Smooth accelerator and braking transitions to hybrid mode
- Ride comfort is very good, and the cabin is quiet
- Handing and braking are solid for midsize SUV
- 3,500 pound towing ability
- Increased Cargo space behind 3rd row
- 3rd row seat has only one top tether anchor for the narrow middle seat, no lower LATCH anchors and is low to the floor
- Rear access and seat folding more cumbersome than some competitors
- Rear visibility is only fair, but camera helps
If you liked the previous generation Highlander, the all-new 2020 model is better in most ways. Quite simply, you buy the Hybrid version because it achieves an astounding 35 mpg around town and frugal drivers may be able to exceed that, except in very warm or cold weather. That will easily pay off the extra $1400 investment for the hybrid powertrain within a few years if you drive enough miles where gas is expensive, but more importantly you will burn a lot less fuel. I’m glad to see that Toyota listened to families who want a more fuel efficient 3-row option. Makes far more sense than a 300+ horsepower family hauler that can accelerate a little faster on the way to school or a store, so you get to the next stop sign a few seconds quicker.
The Highlander Hybrid is still reasonably quick and smooth with its hybrid powertrain and offers a comfortable ride with great fuel economy. The base LE Hybrid model is around $40,000 with AWD and is well-equipped, including advanced crash avoidance features with standard Safety Sense. It is a solid choice to protect your family and the environment. Toyota’s reliability will keep it going through the 8 year, 100K mile hybrid system warranty.
Thank you to Toyota USA for loaning CarseatBlog the 2020 Highlander Hybrid for review. No other compensation was provided and all opinions are my own.