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2020 Toyota Highlander vs Ford Explorer

2020 Toyota Highlander vs Ford Explorer
Reviewed & fact checked by
James Murdoch

2020 Highlander vs Explorer - How do they stack up? Which is Better?

If you are the the market for a new SUV with a good amount of space, you might have already been told about the 2020 Toyota Highlander and one of its chief rivals, the 2020 Ford Explorer. Both of these vehicles have a long history of being top competitors in their segment, but is one of them better than the other this model year?

Both of these vehicles have some good things going for them. The Highlander provides a quiet ride but gets plenty of power from its sturdy V6 engine. The interior looks well put-together and upscale, and there are a lot of new standard features. On the downside, space is tight in the third row of seats, and the front passenger seat cannot be height adjusted. It does not feel as though this vehicle was redesigned, although you do get more cargo space than before and standard smartphone app integration.

On the Explorer, you will see that it has been fully redesigned. It has much more cargo space than before, and the rear-wheel drive (RWD) shows some improved towing and handling capabilities. A bunch of driver aids and tech features have been added for this model year, and you can choose between the new hybrid powertrain or the high-performing ST trim levels for something really fun. On the downside, the Explorer can seat 7 but has most trims configured for 6 with the two captain's chairs in the second row. Also, the price massively jumps the higher you go in trim levels. You do not get that many USB ports, and the interior materials look a bit too cheap to justify those price jumps.

Which of these two vehicles is the better buy? Is one of them the right vehicle for you? Read on through this comparison review to find out. We will go over their different powertrain options, drivability factors, and safety ratings and scores before determining which has the most value and is the overall best buy.

The Powertrain

The 2020 Toyota Highlander gives you just one gas-powered powertrain option: a 3.5-L V6 engine and an 8-speed automatic transmission. This powertrain serves up 295 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque, making it feel strong and capable of accelerating quickly. Front-wheel drive (which we will refer to from here on out as FWD) comes standard while all-wheel drive (known by the acronym AWD) is an option. There is also opt for a hybrid powertrain for those wanting to spend a little less on fuel.

The 2020 Ford Explorer, on the other hand, gives you an abundance of powertrain choices. The base, XLT, and Limited trims all come with a turbocharged 2.3-L 4-cylinder engine that puts forth 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. RWD is standard, but AWD is an option. You also get a 10-speed automatic transmission across the entire line-up.

The ST trim level gets a high-powered 3.0-L V6 engine that generates 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque. It has a sport-tuned suspension, the Trailer Towing package, and unique sport styling. If you are looking for a hybrid, the Limited does have a hybrid version. This features a 3.3-L V6 engine paired to a hybrid powertrain, which gets a combined 318 hp. The line-topping Platinum trim level has the same engine as the ST, but it loses some power output (365 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque), which it trades for an upgraded interior design.


What is it exactly that makes a vehicle 'driveable'? It is more than just a high-powered engine and a smooth-shifting transmission. Drivability includes how comfortable the vehicle is to ride in, how well the interior is put together, what kinds of tech features come on it and how functional they are, and how much the vehicle utilizes its space.

That being said, let's talk about the 2020 Toyota Highlander first. It gives you a smooth ride quality, even with the large 20-inch wheels equipped. Other SUVs struggle to get that type of smoothness from their larger wheels. The Highlander will accelerate quickly even when you fully load her up with people and cargo - again, something other SUVs sometimes struggle to do.

The Highlander has 16 cubic feet of cargo space when all seats are upright, so it is still not quite up to par with segment leaders. In fact, it lost some space, as there was previously 18.8 cubes available on the 2019 line-up. However, the materials have been vastly improved for this model year. There are a ton of soft touch surfaces to be found throughout the cabin, and you can select from the standard 8-inch touchscreen or the big and beautiful 12.3-inch screen that comes standard on the Platinum.

Smartphone app is also now standard, so you can sync up with your apps via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Drivers used to have to rely on a poorly-designed Entune system for accessing apps; thankfully, you no longer have to worry about that mess. Climate control works well, and tri-zone is standard, so you get an even distribution of air all throughout the cabin. Also, on the Platinum, you get a panoramic sunroof, surround-view camera, and a head-up display.

Now, let's take a look at what the 2020 Ford Explorer has to offer. This newly redesigned SUV gives you a fantastic balance between acceleration and handling and, in that regard, is a pack leader this model year. It takes turns lightly and seems eager to round through them. You also get a strong sense of road grip from the tires. This vehicle can handle a ton of power from the engine, and the turbo 4-cylinder base engine beats out a lot of the competition this year. The turbo V6 that comes on the ST is just ridiculously strong, and the 10-speed is phenomenal when it comes to shifting down when you request. It just has some issues with searching for gears during slow city driving.

When it comes to the Explorer's comfort level, you get some nicely designed front seats, but the optional massaging feature is worth skipping. When not in use, the mechanisms feel lumpy and bothersome. The second and third rows get progressively less cozy, and little imperfections in the road surface make their way in more than they do in competitors. There are also too many manual adjustments for the automatic climate control system for it to really feel automatic. The ride isn't that quiet either; engine noise is intrusive, as is the wind when you are going at a moderate speed down the highway.

The interior has a lot of space available, and you can easily adjust the driver's seat to find the right driving position. There is a ton of external visibility thanks to the plethora of glass and big mirrors mounted on the sides. The second and third rows just aren't comfy though. The second row has limited knee and leg room, and the third row is basically off-limits to adults. Relegate the kids to that row, but even they might complain! Additionally, the rear door access is kind of troublesome since the massive door pockets and prominent wheel arches obstruct your pathway in and out of the vehicle. The third row's folding mechanism is handy, but raising the row for passengers has to be done from the vehicle's hatch area - a tad inconvenient, if we may say so.

Technology on the Explorer is a highlight. The standard 8-inch touchscreen looks nice and has crisp graphics. The Sync infotainment system is pretty user-friendly, and smartphone app integration can handle your app needs. The Limited trim comes with built-in navigation and has a beautiful Bang & Olufsen premium sound system. We advise you to skip the optional 10.1-inch vertical touchscreen as it is way too skinny and therefore does not properly display the image from the rear-view camera or smartphone data.

The nice thing is that you get a decent amount of cargo space and a ton of small item storage areas. The LATCH system is also easy to use in the second row. RWD provides you with excellent towing capabilities when you equip the Trailer Tow package. This adds on an easy-to-access receiver hitch, 4- and 7-pin wiring, tow-haul transmission mode, and an enhanced blind spot monitoring system that encompasses the entirety of a trailer. Nifty, right? It is a 'must' if you plan on towing anything.

Buying Tip:

To avoid overpaying on a new car, shop prices online first. Get up front pricing before you walk into a dealership. We recommend the following free services; Car Clearance Deals, NADAguides, CarsDirect & & Motortrend.
These free services will offer you the lowest prices and supply you with multiple competing price quotes. You will know the best price before you visit the dealer.


Of course, safety is a big deal for automakers because they know it is a big deal for you, the consumer. You want to get a vehicle that you feel safe putting not just yourself but your loved ones in. You need something that will make you feel secure. That is why it is important to know how safe a vehicle is known to be before you invest in it.

The 2020 Toyota Highlander has the Safety Sense 2.0 bundle of driver aids, which means you get standard pre-collision warning with pedestrian detection. Dynamic radar cruise control comes standard as part of the bundle too, as do a lane departure warning, automatic high beams, a system that detects and alerts you to traffic signs, and a nifty system called lane tracing assist. For the most part, these features seem to work well, causing very little intrusion during driving.

The 2020 Ford Explorer has a lot of standard driver aids as well. It comes with automatic emergency braking, lake keep assist, cross-traffic alert, blind spot monitoring, and automatic high beams. If you go for the Limited, you get adaptive cruise control and lane centering, both of which work nicely. However, the alerts sound too much alike, and you might get erroneously accused of taking your hands off the wheel by the lane centering system.

As far as safety ratings go, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (known as NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (known by the acronym IIHS) have rated both vehicles for this model year. NHTSA gave the Highlander 5 stars overall, but it lost a star on the overall front crash driver's side. IIHS named it a Top Safety Pick, giving it "Good" ("G") ratings on all but the headlights. The Limited's LED projector beam headlights gave off some glare, and the LED reflectors on the lower trims gave off excessive glare.

NHTSA gave the Explorer 5 stars overall, and it only lost a star on the rollover test despite having a very reasonable rollover risk percentage (15.10 percent). There are several concerning complains that drivers have made already though. One is that the vehicle is non-responsive when pushing on the accelerator. Another is that there is an odd sound that happens at 20 mph, which can be due to a leak in the transmission coolant lines. The third is the scariest: Mid-row captain's chairs are not always fully locked into place, which can throw an occupant forward in the event of the crash. Recalls are abundant too. Those include fuel lines that might chafe together and cause a fuel leak, wire harnessing coming into contact with the A/C pulley or belt, reduced seat strength and not restraining occupants during a crash, and the vehicle being in Factory mode (which means it will not show warnings or gear selection on the instrumentation cluster).

Also, the IIHS gave the Explorer "G" grades on most things, but small front overlap front driver side earned an "Acceptable" ("A") fr lower leg and foot area being "Poor" ("P"). Headlights and the LATCH system also only earned "A" grades.

Which Has the Best Value

Now that you know quite a bit about the 2020 Toyota Highlander and the 2020 Ford Explorer, it is time to determine which SUV has the best value. The Explorer has a 2.3-L EcoBoost engine that is supposed to get better-than-average fuel economy (being EPA rated at 24 mpg combined on the RWD and 23 mpg combined on the AWD), but real-world tests show otherwise. The Explorer gets around 21 mpg combined, putting it below some low-rated competitors in this segment.

You will also find a lot of hard plastics inside of the Explorer. The design is boring and does not reflect the high price you will pay for it. The warranty is subpar too. The only thing the Explorer really has going for it is the fast pace and ability to handle winding mountain roads with ease.

The Highlander fares a bit better and is therefore our pick for best value. The LE trim has the most value with the cloth seats being the only downside. The higher trims get pricey, so stick to the LE for the best deal. It is comfy, spacious, and has a great ride quality.

Which is Better?

Overall, these two redesigned SUVs are going to still struggle to keep pace with rivals like Honda. The 2020 Toyota Highlander is the only one of the two that comes close to matching Honda's high standards. The Highlander might not look totally new and has higher trims that are too expensive, but the engine provides ample get-up-and-go power, and the interior feels comfortable. You can easily take a long road trip in the Highlander without its seats wearing out. Unfortunately, the Explorer lacks the finesse that Toyota is working to improve in the Highlander. This is a crowded segment, so you will likely look at a lot of options. But we think the 2020 Toyota Highlander should definitely be one that you test drive.

Used 2020 Toyota Highlander: