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First Drive Review: Redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander is friendlier for modern families

Toyota has redesigned the Highlander but hasn't reinvented the wheel - and that's a good thing.

Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

The redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander is so good, it will have you wondering why Honda even bothers to still sell the Pilot. Seriously. Toyota has hit the nail on the head with the redesign.

On the outside, the 2020 Highlander is more visually interesting though not wholly dissimilar in the new generation from the previous gen. Its design plays out best in bright colors from the available color palette like Ruby Flare Pearl, Moon Dust, and Blizzard Pearl.

2020 Toyota Highlander The 2020 Highlander is more visually interesting than its predecessor.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

Toyota sells the Highlander in the buyer's choice of two powertrain options. The gasoline-only 3.5-liter V6 is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and delivers 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque. A hybrid 2.5-liter four-cylinder delivers 243 horsepower and has over 600 miles of range.

The hybrid powertrain also has the benefit of achieving an estimated 36 mpg combined. That's a whopping 7 mpg more than the 2019 Toyota Highlander Hybrid was able to achieve and quite an impressive number compared to other three-row SUVs.

When driven back to back, there isn't too much difference between the two powertrains that the average buyer will notice - both are suitably confidence inspiring. The lack of horsepower in the four-cylinder is made up for by the electric burst of energy from the hybrid powertrain. Both models have a variety of drive modes designed to bring a level of customization to the vehicle's drive experience and inspire confidence.

2020 Toyota Highlander The Highlander has similar exterior design to the last-gen Highlander and the new Toyota RAV4.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

Toyota is selling the gasoline V6 engine-powered Highlander in five trim levels: L, LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum. Front wheel drive is standard in those and all-wheel drive is available.

The Highlander Hybrid is available in four trim levels: LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum. Like the V6 models, it's available in in front- and all-wheel drive variants.

2020 Toyota Highlander The interior of the Highlander is thoughtfully redesigned.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

With an available towing package, the V6 can tow up to 5,000 pounds.

Sitting inside the Highlander, one word comes to mind - thoughtful. Those that had their hands in designing the new Highlander must have spent significant time in the previous generations' models and listened to a lot of feedback. The feedback must have said to not reinvent the wheel, but rather refine it. Truthfully, the 2020 Highlander isn't completely dissimilar from where the last-gen ended up. It's a natural evolution, installing the latest comfort and convenience tech and improving on the interior features and easy usability Toyota has been known for.

2020 Toyota Highlander The second-row seats in the 2020 Highlander move forward and back more in this new generation.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

The Highlander comes standard with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa compatibility, Waze, SiriusXM, and a Wi-Fi hot spot. An 8-inch infotainment touch screen is standard while a 12.3-inch screens is available in higher trims. Top-tier models also get a 10-inch head up display. There are four USB ports and two 12-volt outlets in the Highlander.

Front row seats are comfortable for long spells though there is a lip to climb over when getting in. Once you're seated, the lip makes sense, offering a spot to rest your feet that's elevated from the cabin floor. The second-row seats have more forward-aft movability than in the previous generation and adults can fit in the third row.

This new generation Highlander gains 2.36 inches in length, which is translated right to its cargo area. The rear storage space remains a reasonable size for the modern family.

2020 Toyota Highlander AWD The rear seats fold flat in all models of the 2020 Highlander.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

All Highlanders come with a suite of driver assistance and safety technology known as Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. In all but the base model, blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert is added. Limited and Platinum trim levels also get rear cross traffic braking.

Where the Pilot no longer competes, the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride do. Those two models are the new darlings of the three-row SUV field and they also stand out for their interior appointments and features, comfort, and value proposition. If you're shopping for the Highlander, you'll want to cross-shop those two and forget stopping at the Honda lot.

The 2020 Toyota Highlander starts at $36,400 and the 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid starts just a tick higher at $38,200. Both are on sale now.

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The Hyundai Santa Cruz will debut next week but ahead of that, the design department is giving a closer look at the truck in a new video.

Photo courtesy of Hyundai Motor America

We'll see the Hyundai Santa Cruz in full for the first time when it debuts on April 15 but ahead of time, Hyundai is setting the stage for expectations with the model. To help with that, the company released a video today featuring the truck's design manager discussing the inspiration for the utility vehicle.

The quick one-minute video is hosted by Brad Arnold, design manager at Hyundai North America. The Southern California native is the leader of the team that created the Santa Cruz, a project that began years ago. He's joined in the video by Senon Franco, the lead designer at Hyundai North America.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

Photo courtesy of Hyundai Motor America
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As Arnold explains in the video, the design of the Santa Cruz started with a simple premise: "this is not a typical truck". Based on how Arnold describes the capabilities of the truck, that sounds true. It is meant to "thrive in dense urban environments and the open outdoors". One could argue that no full-size truck on the market today does that. Neither do most of the midsize models, though their sizing is better for that landscape.

Arnold says that the Santa Cruz is "small in size", a call that serves to remind viewers that the Santa Cruz isn't a big truck. It's more similar in size to the forthcoming Ford Maverick, a small truck that slots below the Ranger in Ford's lineup.

However, the company isn't even calling it a truck. The new model is being referred to as the Santa Cruz Sport Adventure Vehicle. This sounds a lot like how Kia is referring to the new generation of its Carnival minivan as a multi-purpose vehicle (MPV).

Arnold says that the design is meant to make the Santa Cruz not look like a truck. Rather, it's supposed to look "like a Santa Cruz". Part of that includes the front end, which looks like a carryover from the fascia of the 2022 Hyundai Tucson.

Among the other secrets Hyundai is giving away ahead of the product's reveal is that there will be more than one "efficient" powertrain, a flexible bed, "cutting-edge" connectivity, and all-wheel drive.

Watch the video for yourself below.

Design Inspiration | 2022 Santa Cruz | Hyundai www.youtube.com

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The 2021 Ford Explorer Enthusiast ST gives buyers more performance at a lower price.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

The Explorer lineup is getting a three-model enhancement for the 2021 model year. The Explorer Enthusiast ST, Platinum, and Platinum Hybrid will be making their way to dealership lots later this year in a targeted attempt to identify customer desires.

The new models join the just-announced 2021 Ford Explorer King Ranch, also a new addition.

2021 Ford Explorer Enthusiast ST

The Enthusiast ST grade takes a lot of what customers like about the existing Explorer ST and delivers it at a far cheaper price. The Enthusiast ST has a starting MSRP of $48,750 as opposed to the ST, which starts at $52,830.

Setting it apart from there Explorers is the Enthusiast ST's quad chrome exhaust tips, 20-inch machined aluminum wheels with painted pockets, and sideview mirrors with ST projection lamps.

The new model comes equipped with the same 3.0-liter EcoBoost engine that's in the Explorer ST that churns out 400 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque. A 10-speed automatic transmission completes the powertrain.

Ford has given the model a sport-tuned suspension and a top track speed of 143 mph. A standard Class III Trailer Tow Package provides towing capability of up to 5,600 pounds.

The cabin of the Enthusiast ST is complete with leather seating surfaces, unique Miko micro-perforated inserts, and City Silver accent stitching with the ST logo. There's a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, heated sport-style steering wheel with the ST logo, and paddle shifters.

The Explorer Enthusiast ST also features standard Ford Co-Pilot360 technology.

2021 Ford Explorer Platinum

2021 Ford Explorer Plat Ford has two new Platinum models coming to a dealership near you.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

2021 Ford Explorer Plat

The new Explorer Platinum is powered by a 3.0-liter engine and comes standard with rear-wheel drive. Four-when drive is available.

To make the Platinum version worthy of its upscale price tag, its packaging includes door handles with satin aluminum insert, liftgate appliqué, lower bodyside cladding insert, roof-rack side rails, a twin-panel moonroof, and a unique grille with satin aluminum finish. Its cabin is fitted with leather seats, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, dashboard, door rollovers, and door and front console armrests.

The 2021 Ford Explorer Platinum has a starting MSRP of $52,480. The hybrid version of that model starts at $53,085.

All the models are currently available for order via Ford dealerships. Deliveries are expected to begin this summer.

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