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  • How Does the 2020 Toyota Highlander Handle in the Snow?

How Does the 2020 Toyota Highlander Handle in the Snow?

Testing the Family Crossover’s Limits on a Snowcross

Mar 4, 2020
More on the 2020 Toyota Highlander!
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Let's imagine a worst-case driving scenario for the owner of a family crossover. You're driving down the road in your 2020 Toyota Highlander when suddenly, the skies open up and start pounding the pavement with freezing rain, sleet, and snow. The road starts to get curvy, and you, being of reasonable intelligence, slow down to prepare, then gently ease your SUV around the corner. You hit a slick patch, and luckily your stability and traction controls keep you on your intended trajectory, but not without some nervousness on your part, your hands gripped tightly on the wheel.
This is not the situation wherein you want to learn if your fancy new family crossover has the mettle to handle inclement weather. The perfect setting for that kind of intelligence gathering? A safe, controlled, and exciting snowcross.
Photo 2/25   |   2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum Hybrid Exterior Rear Quarter
As luck would have it, we found ourselves on just such a course, set up by Toyota at Utah's legendary Soldier Hollow Nordic Center, with access to nearly the entire lineup of all-wheel-drive vehicles offered by the automaker. On that long list were the 2020 Prius AWDe, 2020 Camry AWD, and 2021 Avalon AWD, as well as a few different versions of the RAV4 and Highlander. The latter two product lines became the focus of our visit to Wasatch County, Utah. You can read about our time in the RAV4 here [use RAV4 snow story].

Family-Friendly in the Frost

The 2020 Toyota Highlander is new this model year, built on the company's TNGA modular architecture and boasting greater stiffness, lower weight, and similar interior space relative to its predecessor. The new Highlander comes standard with Toyota's 295hp 3.5L V-6 with D-4S direct and port injectors, mated exclusively to an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Front-wheel drive is standard, and all-wheel drive is an option.
On L, LE, and XLE models, the Highlander's all-wheel-drive system makes use of a driveline disconnect and an open rear differential, relying on the traction control system to mitigate wheelspin when one of the rear wheels has grip and the other doesn't. However, on the top-dog 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum we sampled in Utah, that driveshaft leads to a more sophisticated, torque-vectoring rear differential with clutch packs that actively shuffle power to the right and left rear tires depending on how much grip they have. According to Toyota, up to 50 percent of the engine's torque can be sent to the rear axle, and that twist can then be split up to 100 percent right or left if need be.
Photo 3/25   |   2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum Hybrid Snowcross 01
Around the low-speed snowcross Toyota set up for us, the Highlander Platinum was very surefooted. With all of the traction aids active and the drive selector in Snow mode, the family SUV gave plenty of front-end push when zipping through corners, but dialing speed back to a more sensible pace kept us on the course with zero drama.
Surprisingly, deactivating all of the electronic nannies allowed us to drift the Highlander like a rally star. Booting the accelerator in these conditions revealed a pretty lazy throttle, but once the Highlander was underway, drifting lazy arcs through the corners was an absolute cinch. In fact, we found it easier to drive in this manner than the smaller and more aggressive Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road, possibly due to the Highlander's longer wheelbase and stouter, standard V-6.
The three-row crossover's unambitious all-season tires should have been a liability—seriously, if you habitually drive in temperatures below 45 degrees, spring for winter tires—but in these conditions, the 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum was stable and even fun. We were surprised that we could actually detect when the trick rear differential was shuffling power around, proving that it's not just a gimmick and that it actually affects vehicle dynamics.
Photo 4/25   |   2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum Exterior Front Grille

Effortless Fuel Efficiency

We also availed ourselves of the Highlander Hybrid that Toyota brought along. This model is obviously designed for fuel efficiency, more so than its 2019 predecessor since Toyota jettisoned the hybrid 3.5L V-6 in favor of a 2.5L I-4. The Hybrid's all-wheel-drive system is also on the novel side of the spectrum. The gas engine and an electric motor power the front wheels only, while a totally separate second electric motor turns the rear wheels. There's no driveshaft or transfer case to speak of, and the electric motors also provide regenerative braking when not in use.
As one might expect, the I-4 powertrain gives up some gusto to the V-6, even with the added hybrid boost. Total system output is 243 hp, down 52 ponies relative to the other Highlander we drove, and responsiveness suffers somewhat as a result. However, the so-called Electronic On-Demand AWD works seamlessly, with abundant low-speed traction and very little drama when driven on the snow course with a modicum of restraint.
The hybrid's power disparity meant that we had a slightly harder time accessing the stability control-off powerslides we enjoyed in the V-6 model. However, when pressed in conditions like these, the hybrid will boogie as well. We doubt the rear electric motor puts as much torque to the rear wheels as the gas engine would, but that torque is instantaneous and easy to access.
Photo 5/25   |   2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum Snowcross

Gift-Wrapped

After testing (and then hooning) the 2020 Toyota Highlander on the snowcross, we took a step back to evaluate the machine as a whole. Opinions on the new SUV's styling are split, with your author appreciating its smooth styling and subdued grille design (especially relative to the Camry and Avalon), while others find the Highlander to be a bit too forgettable and boring. The interior, however, is a clear leap forward for the Toyota SUV, offering a plethora of storage cubbies, upscale and attractive design, and comfortable front seats.
We must admit a lot of disappointment with the rear seats, however. It's all but guaranteed that the third rows of many of these midsize family crossovers are too small for fully grown adults, but your 6-foot-tall author found his head bumping the headliner in the second row as well. The panoramic sunroof found in both our Platinum and Hybrid Platinum testers eats up a whopping 2.3 inches of headroom for the second row and 2.8 for the front seats. We've never experienced such a notable loss in headroom in a crossover before, meaning families with growing teenagers should probably stick to the lower trim levels or look into the half-size-larger Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride.
Photo 6/25   |   2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum Hybrid Interior Front Cabin
Dry-road driving dynamics for both the 2020 Toyota Highlander and Toyota Highlander Hybrid were as expected. The slightly heavier gas-electric model is a bit more muted in its responses, but both offered a smooth ride, hushed interior, and tractable passing and merging talents. The stiff new chassis endows the Highlander with more handling verve than ever before, although it's still every inch a family crossover and not a Porsche Cayenne rival.
Whether the Highlander is a good fit depends on many things. Empty-nesters and those with smaller kids would appreciate its smaller exterior size and still-expansive cargo space, and fuel economy with both the gas V-6 and the hybrid I-4 are impressive for an all-wheel-drive machine of this size. The larger Telluride, Palisade, and Chevrolet Traverse offer more interior room at the cost of fuel efficiency and maneuverability, and each of the SUVs in question can tow up to 5,000 pounds.
However, the Highlander is one of few vehicles in its class to feature an available hybrid powertrain or a true torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system. That both features provide a palpably different driving experience cannot be ignored.

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