We've done quite a few spec comparison posts involving three-row family crossovers, and when included, the Toyota Highlander has always been the runt of the group. While the rest increasingly seemed to be benchmarking each other toward greater girth, the Highlander was the outlier.
That changes a bit for the 2020 Toyota Highlander, but only a bit. It's now larger and more competitive, specifically in regards to the amount of cargo space aft of the third-row seat. As you can see below, this aligns the Highlander most closely to its long-time competitor the 2020 Honda Pilot. However, let's see how it stacks up to others in the segment, which is heavily populated now, so for the sake of space, we've selected the newest entries: Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade, Subaru Ascent and Ford Explorer. The order in which they are presented is random.
Performance and fuel economy
The 2020 Highlander is more than 200 pounds lighter than its predecessor, but has the same 295-horsepower V6 engine that was already one of the strongest in the segment. We'd say that would give it a leg up, but the Pilot and Explorer have proven to be sprinters, delivering 0-60 times in the low-6 range by some publications' stopwatches (or VBoxes, whatever). We don't expect the Highlander to beat them, but it may dip into the 6's. The heavy, less-powerful Subaru Ascent is most likely to take up the rear. It's fuel economy of 23 mpg combined also matches the Highlander and Explorer for segment-best. Remember, however, that the Explorer's turbocharged inline-four engine is likely more susceptible to differences in driving style (read: a heavy foot).
Of course, if you're really interested in fuel economy, the Highlander and Explorer are the only vehicles in the segment to offer hybrid versions. The Ford Explorer Hybrid puts a greater emphasis on performance, however, resulting in lower estimates of 25 mpg combined (AWD) and 28 mpg combined (FWD). By contrast, the new 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is estimated to return 36 mpg combined.
Passenger and cargo space
According to Highlander chief engineer Yoshikazu Saeki, he had a choice of two directions with the new Highlander. He could have indeed made it bigger, matching these very competitors, especially in terms of third-row and cargo space. Or, he could have maintained a smaller-than-average size. He obviously chose the latter. First, it was the size customers had come to expect. Would they be put off by something bigger? As customer loyalty had remained strong throughout multiple generations with this strategy, it seems safe to deduce that the current size is right for many. Second, by maintaining that smaller-than-average size, the Highlander also maintains a point of differentiation with its competitors.
Fair enough. However, there's no getting around the fact that the Highlander is less spacious for people and their belongings than all of these competitors. The Pilot is closest, but adults can actually fit in its third-row seats and children will be far more comfortable. The Palisade and Telluride are the best of this bunch in that regard and offer the most useful amount of space behind their third-row seats (especially the Palisade, as you can see here). The Explorer is pretty close.
Basically, as we wrote in the 2020 Highlander first drive, Toyota's three-row crossover is best for those who'll only occasionally use that third row. Everything else in this comparison stands a better chance as serving duty as a minivan replacement.
The new 2020 Highlander is indeed more competitive on paper, and we're sure its evolutionary changes will suffice for its band of loyal customers. However, the Kia and Hyundai siblings are so compelling on paper and in person, that even those loyalists would be wise to at least reconsider their allegiance. By contrast, as we discovered during the Ford Explorer first drive, it puts on a better show on paper than in person. Finally, the aging and rather dull Pilot doesn't seem to offer much beyond Highlander, while the Subaru Ascent doesn't make much of a case for itself on this spreadsheet.
How they compare in pictures
2020 Toyota Highlander
2020 Honda Pilot
2020 Kia Telluride
2020 Hyundai Palisade
2020 Subaru Ascent
2020 Ford Explorer