2020 Ford Explorer vs 2020 Toyota Highlander – Cincinnati, OH

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  • 2020 Ford Explorer

    A black 2020 Ford Explorer is facing left.

    Starting at


    2020 Toyota Highlander

    A black 2020 Toyota Highlander is facing right.

    Starting at


    87.8 CU. FT.Max Cargo Volume84.3 CU. FT.
    300-400 HPHorsepower295 HP
    5,600 LBSTowing Capacity5,000 LBS

    If you’ve been driving local roads lately, you have probably noticed an invasion of large and midsize SUVs, as more and more drivers have discovered the benefits of these versatile and dependable vehicles. The best of them combine the comfort and drivability of a luxury sedan, the roominess of a passenger van, and the storage and towing capacity of a midsize pickup truck. This is the value proposition of SUV manufacturers, and when you add in the infotainment features, improved fuel efficiency, and custom finishes of many of these vehicles, you are left with something that fits the bill for most people. Two of the SUVs that helped start the trend, the Ford Explorer, which debuted with the 1991 model year and the Toyota Highlander which came out a decade later, are still among the two most popular models. Both came out with new remodels in 2019, with the Explorer representing the sixth generation of this venerable midsize SUV, while the Highlander is the fourth generation of its line. They have come a long way from the original models, with the current iteration featuring three rows of seats and more aerodynamic lines. We had a chance to take a look at the new models of both vehicles to compare the 2020 Ford Explorer vs 2020 Toyota Highlander.

    The 2020 Ford Explorer is available in four trim levels. The base model is the Explorer XLT, which is rear-wheel drive standard with an MSRP of $36,675. In contrast, the 2020 Toyota Highlander has five trim levels and a lower price point. The Highlander L is the base model with an MSRP of $34,600. While the Highlander has the advantage of lower price points and one more trim level, the Ford Explorer offers its two top models as all-wheel drive standard. In addition, all Highlander models have the same powertrain, so you don’t get the advantage of an engine upgrade for buying a higher trim level.

  • Performance

    A blue 2020 Ford Explorer is driving on a road with hills in the distance.

    Engine Options

    As stated above, the 2020 Toyota Highlander has one standard engine for all trim levels, a 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve D-4S injection Atkinson cycle-capable engine with dual variable valve timing. This engine features start/stop technology to improve fuel efficiency. The Highlander’s engine has been rated to produce up to 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, and operates on an 8-speed automatic transmission. Toyota has announced that it will soon be producing the new Highlander with a 2.5-liter A25A-FXS I-4 hybrid engine with a continuous variable transmission (CVT). There is no additional information available about the Highlander hybrid at the present time.

    Ford offers the 2020 Explorer with four different engine options. The XLT and Limited feature a 2.3-liter EcoBoost I-4 engine with automatic stop/start. This engine is actually more powerful than the standard one on the Highlander, with up to 300 horsepower and 310 lb-ftt of torque. The Explorer ST and Platinum feature an even larger engine. The Explorer Platinum comes equipped with a 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6 engine that can produce up to 365 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque. The Explorer ST adds a Turbo to this engine, providing 400 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque. Finally, Ford offers the Explorer with an optional 3.3-liter hybrid engine that can provide between 450 and 500 miles of driving between fill-ups. All 2020 Ford Explorers come equipped with a 10-speed transmission.

    Towing Capacity

    All models of the 2020 Highlander have been rated to be able to tow up to 5,000 pounds. This is the same as the 2020 Ford Explorer with the hybrid engine. However, the Explorer XLT and Limited have been rated to tow up to 5,300 pounds despite having a smaller engine than the Highlander. The Explorer ST and Platinum are even stronger, being able to tow up to 5,600 pounds.

  • Fuel Economy

    A white 2020 Ford Explorer, which wins when comparing the 2020 Ford Explorer vs 2020 Toyota Highlander, is driving on a bridge near Cincinnati, OH.

    2020 Toyota Highlander

    The EPA has estimated that drivers of a 2020 Toyota Highlander with front-wheel drive 2020 will get 21 miles per gallon in city driving, 29 miles per gallon in highway driving, and 24 miles per gallon combined. Those numbers slip to 20 miles per gallon in city driving, 27 miles per gallon in highway driving, and 24 miles per gallon combined when the Highlander has the optional all-wheel drive. 

    2020 Ford Explorer

    These numbers are similar to those of the 2020 Ford Explorer. Drivers of the rear-wheel drive Explorer XLT and Limited are expected to receive fuel economy of 21 miles per gallon in the city, 28 miles per gallon on the highway, and 24 miles per gallon combined. The Explorer ST and Platinum, with the bigger engine and four-wheel drive, will get less fuel economy, about 18 miles per gallon in city driving, 24 miles per gallon in highway driving, and 20 miles per gallon combined. Still, none of them can compete with the Ford Explorer hybrid, which provides 27 miles per gallon in the city, 29 miles per gallon in the highway, and 28 miles per gallon combined. 

  • Interior

    The front black leather interior of a 2020 Ford Explorer is shown.

    Passenger Space

    The 2020 Ford Explorer is slightly larger than the 2020 Toyota Highlander, which can explain why it provides more interior space. With respect to the passenger compartment, the Explorer offers 152.7 cubic feet of space compared to between 136.1 to 141.3 cubic feet on the Highlander, depending on the model. This is why it is somewhat surprising that two of the Highlander models, the L and LE, claim to have room for up to 8 passengers on a 2/3/3 configuration of its three rows. The Explorer XLT, Limited and Platinum, and the Highlander XLE, Limited and Platinum are configured on a 2/2/3 basis, with room for up to 7 passengers. The Explorer ST has room for up to 6 passengers.

    This differential in interior space is borne out by the fact that the third row seats on the Highlander are practically an afterthought. Both models are fairly comparable in space for the first and second rows. The differences become pronounced when comparing the third row of seats. The Explorer provides an adequate 38.9 inches of headroom, 32.2 inches of legroom, 54.6 inches of shoulder room, and 40.9 inches of hip room. This is not the case with the Highlander, where the third row is particularly cramped, with passengers only getting 36.1 inches of headroom, 27.7 inches of legroom, 55 inches of shoulder room, and 45.6 inches of hip room. Anyone who is average height or taller, knows that the extra 4.5 inches of legroom truly does make a difference.

    Cargo Room

    It appears that Toyota has opted to exchange one con for a pro, as the space taken from the third row has been used to provide at least some cargo space in the Highlander. Nevertheless, drivers will still have more cargo space in the Explorer, with fully 87.8 cubic feet of space available with the second and third rows folded down. The Highlander will provide less space, only 84.3 cubic feet behind the first row of seats. This carries over to the space behind the third row of seats, where the Explorer offers more space than the Highlander, 18.2 cubic feet to 16 cubic feet. That ends up being a usable amount of extra storage for gear and groceries.

    Infotainment System

    The 2020 Ford Explorer comes equipped with the Sync3 infotainment system with Ford Pass Connect. This features an 8-inch color touchscreen, with an optional 10.1-inch color screen on the ST and Platinum models. The Highlander L and LE only have a 4.2-inch touchscreen, while the XLE and Limited have a 7-inch screen. The only Highlander model with a comparable screen is the Platinum with a 10-inch color touchscreen. Toyota does offer a 12.3-inch color touchscreen, but only as an optional upgrade on the Highlander Platinum. For anyone who wants to experience enjoyable entertainment features along with the spaciousness of an SUV, the Explorer clearly beats out the Highlander.

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