You could argue that the Toyota Highlander XU20 is just a 4Runner with a closed boot, but that’s like saying sriracha is just some ketchup with pepper added to it. And you’d be so wrong, they would take you away.

Because this is actually not a 4Runner with a closed boot. The story begins somewhere in 1993 when some business execs had a drunk par….I mean business luncheon and they thought “Hey, how about we take a Lexus ES and give it some stilts?” and they did some homework and they found out that only 7% of Chelsea tractor owners actually use them for they were designed and not for show off and doing the school run. And so they launched the very first Lexus RX and let it do it’s thing. And it did.

It did it so well in fact that they decided to continue the story and launch the second generation RX and that caught the attention of the parent company Toyota. They wanted a slice of this on-road-SUV cake and they wanted to use the Lexus RX recipe and so the Toyota Highlander XU20 was born in North America, Asia and pretty much everywhere except Australia and New Zealand where it was christened the Toyota Kluger but I’m gonna write a separate article for it.

So what are the main differences between the Highlander and the RX?

  • First of all would be the price. You could argue that the Toyota Highlander XU20 is a step behind the RX but the step is more of an actual step and not a huge leap as it would happen with the later editions, because Lexus wasn’t at the “laptop-on-wheels” phase yet. Sure, the interior was more bland and more conservative but it’s definatelly a very comfy and cozy place to be.
  • It had alot less options and bells and whistles. I won’t listen every single piece of kit not available on the Highlander compared to the RX, but I will just highlight the bigger ones. One of them being the optional air suspension on the RX, as the Highlander had to make due with an conventional suspension of which I will talk about later, and another one being the 3.5 V6 petrol engine which was exclusive to the RX but I doubt that it matters on this class of vehicles. 20 extra horsepower in this class and for a SUV is like drinking half a pint less on a weekend night. Sure, it’s less, but you won’t feel it that much.
  • And finally comes the main party piece for the Toyota Highlander XU20 and that was the 7 seat option, which the RX lacked. Sure, those 2 seats from the third row are more child-appropiate and may not matter that much to most people, but for the school run for which the Highlander was also designed, those back row seats can make quite the difference. Sure, children will avoid your car because it’s not the coolest one on the school run, but atleast you can cram as many as you can so it’s either walking or getting into the Highlander. And if they choose walking then they deserve to walk and should not be convinced any further.


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Toyota Highlander XU20 Engines


  • 2.4 l-4 2AZ-FE of 156 horsepower – The entry level engine for the entry level Highlander was decent but underpowered. It might look like Jay Cutler to some people, but when you make it haul around the 3700 lbs the Highlander commands + a posse of crotch goblins you will quickly understand why it wasn’t so popular. And those oil consumption issues didn’t help much either.
  • 3.0 V6 1MZ-FE of 203 horsepower – Now comes the complementary 3 litre petrol moment but I won’t bother you too much with it because all the fun’s at the next step.
  • 3.3 V6 3MZ-FE of 225 horsepower – Fun that is called Toyota’s legendary 3.3 V6 petrol, the start in a reasonably priced car. For the non american readers, this engine was the village bicycle of Toyota’s markets of freedom and is an anvil of engine when it comes to reliability. Sure, after 150,000 miles the engine develops an addiction to oil like I have an addiction to drinking beer and eating watermelon at the same time, and the cooling system must be kept in check because if the engine block cracks it can’t be repaired, but all in all this rolling (or revving??) monument of Toyota reliability is the engine to choose from.


3.3 V6 3MZ-FE hybrid of 270 horsepower – By this time Lexus was already experimenting with the hybrid powertrain on their luxury SUV so Toyota decided to test it out on the Kluger, the Highlander’s australian cousin. They ran the numbers, saw that it was worth it and in 2005 the Toyota Highlander hybrid was born. I’ve talked in depth about this hybrid powertrain in the RX article so I won’t repeat myself before I wreck myself. I just want to add that the Toyota Highlander XU20 Hybrid was the world’s first seven-seater hybrid, a distinction as exquisite as my taste in telly.


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Toyota Highlander XU20 Reliability Issues

  • Sometimes the air conditioning cables can unplug randomly and you will be left cold and alone, in the middle of the night. So if you see that your A/C unit taking a break, you might want to check the cables first.
  • “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature”, this can be said about the MacPherson suspension which was standard on the Highlander. There’s nothing really wrong with it, it’s just that it’s more expensive to replace when it goes and it will go pretty fast because this is a heavy car and if you plan to use those 3rd row seats frequently it will get even heavier.


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Toyota Highlander XU20 Verdict

The Highlander was a massive succes for Toyota and one of those names that cemented it’s reputation, along with the likes of Camry or Corolla. The quintessential Toyota SUV, back when the on-road SUV wasn’t really a thing. And they were as bold as Matt Lucas (or bald??) when they offered a FWD, 7 seater, reliable SUV. And it worked, and it can still work wonderfully for you even after all these years. Definatelly a best buy.


Which engines do I recommend? Give that the list is all petrol, I wouldn’t bother with anything else than the legendary 3.3 V6 3MZ-FE of 225 horsepower.