2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid vs Ford Explorer Hybrid: 3-Row Family Hauler Challenge

Both are brand new for this model year

2020 Ford Explorer Hybrid vs. 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. (Photos: TFLcar.com)
Ford Explorer Hybrid Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Pros Cons Pros Cons
More powerful than Highlander Hybrid Lower overall mpg Better than average mpg Smaller, less powerful hybrid system
Greater towing capacity Feels like a truck, drives like a truck Quiet and comfortable ride all-electric mode only good to 26 mph
B&O stereo system sounds better than Toyota/JBL Premium audio system Small infotainment screen Nicer looking interior w/better quality materials Intune infotainment software not intuitive as SYNC 3

The appetite for crossovers and SUVs is astounding, but that shouldn’t apply to their thirst for fuel. Hence, larger SUVs with hybrid systems are gaining popularity since they provide family-level convenience and savings at the gas pump. Here, I’m taking a look at two popular mid-size hybrid SUVs that aim to serve as the ultimate family haulers and eco-friendly do-gooders: the 2020 Ford Explorer Hybrid and 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid.  

Toyota Highlander Hybrid vs. Ford Explorer Hybrid: Strengths and weaknesses

Both the Explorer and Highlander benefit from a full makeover for the 2020 model year. However, the Highlander has a marginal lead when compared with the sixth-generation Explorer. First and foremost, the Highlander has a comfortable ride quality that belies its SUV roots and subdued noise levels inside the cabin that is almost Lexus-like. The Explorer, though, rides like a truck and feels like a truck.

That may seem odd to some, as the Explorer shifted away from a body-on-frame design back in 2010 with the introduction of the fifth generation. Nonetheless, the difference in ride quality between the two modern crossovers was immediately apparent, and it didn’t get any better after several hundred miles behind the wheel of the Explorer.

The Explorer Hybrid does possess a set of strengths that will appeal to owners who do more than ferry family and friends to soccer games. Namely, it has a 5,000 pound maximum towing rating, which exceeds the Highlander’s capacity by 1,500 pounds. That’s enough to haul a 16-foot Airstream trailer with ease.

If off-road capability is high on your checklist, the Ford Explorer Hybrid uses the same mechanical four-wheel drive system as the other versions of the Explorer. That component sharing means it retains the same trail and all-weather capabilities as its brothers, who don’t have electric motor assist. MSRP for the 4WD model is $52,537, whereas the sticker price for the RWD model comes in at $50,429.

The Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s all-wheel drive system engages a separate rear-mounted electric motor to power the rear wheels. This electric motor operates independently, with no mechanical connection between the transmission and rear wheels. Electronic nannies continually monitor wheel speed and traction to determine when and where power is needed to aid traction and cornering ability. The price premium for AWD models depends on which trim level you choose.

Fuel economy and power

This year, Toyota revamped the ultra-popular Highlander and ditched the V6 in favor of their 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Sure, power is down nearly 60 ponies (243 horsepower) compared to the previous generation Toyota Highlander Hybrid. However, fuel economy has greatly improved with an EPA-estimated 36 mpg for rear-wheel-drive and 35 mpg combined for all-wheel-drive.

The Explorer Hybrid, a newcomer to the electrification party, uses a thirstier, more powerful engine. Under the hood, the Explorer’s hybrid system consists of a 3.3-liter V6, a ten-speed automatic transmission and a 35-kilowatt motor driven by a 1.5 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Net output is a hefty 318 horsepower and 322 lb-ft of torque.

EPA estimates for the standard rear-wheel-drive model comes in at 28 mpg, whereas the all-wheel drive musters 24 mpg in combined driving. Be that as it may, the Explorer Hybrid’s EPA-estimated driving range is the neighborhood of 430 to 500 miles. The Highlander Hybrid, on the other hand, can squeak out around 600 miles on a single tank of gas if driven conservatively.

The advantage goes to the Explorer Hybrid when it comes to driving in all-electric mode. Under the right conditions, it can maintain a speed up to 50 mph using battery power. In contrast, delicately driving the Highlander Hybrid in EV mode is only useful up to 26 mph before the gas-burning engine is activated.

2020 Ford Explorer Hybrid
2020 Ford Explorer Hybrid Limited.

Safety feature comparison

For safety, the Explorer Hybrid comes standard with Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 driver assistance suite and Assist+ package, bundling forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and lane-keep assist. The Assist+ package adds full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane-centering tech, speed limit sign recognition and evasive steering assist. In the event of an accident, the 2020 Explorer has a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and aa Top Safety Pick+ award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Notably, the 2020 Highlander also earned the same top marks from NHTSA and IIHS. Accident prevention comes in the form of Toyota Safety Sense 2.0.

The Safety Sense suite of advanced safety features includes:

  • Pre-collision system with pedestrian detection
  • Full-speed range dynamic radar cruise control
  • Lane departure alert with steering assist
  • Lane tracing assist
  • Automatic high beams
  • Road sign assist
  • Cyclist detection

The fuel-efficient family SUV also features a standard backup camera and Star Safety System™ features like Enhanced Vehicle Stability Control, Traction Control, Anti-lock Brake System, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, Brake Assist and Smart Stop Technology.

Collectively, both family crossovers possess a full armament of passive and active safety features designed to protect its passengers and avoid accidents. 

2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid and small dog

Exterior design

The sixth-generation Explorer now has a longer wheelbase and shorter front overhang. The exterior design has evolved as opposed to taking on a radical new look. The front end and shape incorporate a little more flow and aerodynamics while still retaining its broad-shouldered presence and macho swagger.

The fourth-generation Highlander is maturing nicely. Even though Alex on Autos thinks the front end is reminiscent of a Subaru, the 2020 model design shows elements of restrained elegance, has a little more upright posture, and the rear fender bulge is more emphasized. In comparison with the previous generation, the length and wheelbase are stretched. Although, the front and rear hangover proportions seem a wee bit elongated.

Both mid-size SUVs have eight inches of ground clearance. However, the Highlander has a step-in height of eighteen inches—which is one inch lower than the Explorer. Something to think about for peeps who tire of climbing into tall SUVs.

Interior design

The Highlander’s latest dash design is not only smart looking but brings smart functionality if you like lots of usable storage space. There’s a passenger shelf above the glove box, another below the infotainment screen, and a third one with a flip-cover below that one. Plus, more places to stash goodies in the door pockets and underneath the center console armrest.

The ultra-wide 12.3-inch touchscreen display shown in the photos comes standard in the Platinum trim or as an option in the lower trim levels. Otherwise, the 8-inch display is the default screen. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and are both included in all the trim levels.

The same goes for the Explorer. An 8.0-inch LCD capacitive display is standard unless you order the Premium Technology Package. It includes a tall, tablet-style 10.1-inch touchscreen in the center stack and a 14-speaker, 980-Watt B&O Sound System by Bang & Olufsen. Quite frankly, the sound quality of the B&O system is leaps and bounds better than the 11-speaker, 1,200-Watt JBL Premium Audio System in the Highlander.

Seats galore

Overall, seat comfort for the front passengers is the same but different when comparing the two models. The Explorer seats are good at accommodating wider bodies and quite cushy on long trips. And the fans pushing air through the vented front seats do a better job of keeping your backside cool. The Highlander seats are a little firmer but equally as comfortable even after hours of highway miles. On the other hand, the max power setting for cooling couldn’t match the Explorer’s vented seats’ chilling power.

A couple of differences to note about reaching the third row. Accessing the last row is simple with the touch of a single button that quickly tilts the back and slides the captain’s chair forward. There’s also a bigger footpad when stepping into the cabin to access the third row.

Entry to the Highlander’s row of confinement begins by lifting a lever on the second-row seat’s side. Passengers captive in the third row can escape by pulling a lever on top of the captain’s chair. Whichever lever you pull, the seat will tilt and slide forward.

How legroom compares

Notably, the footpad stepping into the cabin is a little larger in the Ford. Power folding seats for the second and third rows are the norm for the Explorer, while the Highlander defers to having manual levers to fold the seats.

Interestingly, third-row passengers in the Highlander have 4.5 inches of additional legroom compared to the Explorer. However, second-row passengers in the Explorer enjoy a two-inch advantage over the Highlander. Check the specs table below for exact measurements.

Utility and functionality

The Explorer is dimensionally larger than the Highlander. Likewise, its 87.8 cubic feet of cargo capacity overshadows the Highlander’s 84.3 cubic feet by more than a slim margin. Welcome design touches for the rear cargo area enable loading objects as wide as four feet an easy task and can lay flat in the bed.  

While the 2020 Highlander has a small disadvantage to the Explorer when comparing cargo space numbers, Toyota designers have always emphasized practical use of the available area. Hence, the second and third-row seats will lay completely flat for optimal cargo loading. There’s a wide opening at the rear and numerous tie-down points to help secure objects.

When design decisions were on the table, the intention was to keep the dimensions manageable for parking and maneuvering. Toyota could easily have gone bigger, but tight dimensions are what their customers have come to expect. By maintaining a smaller than average size, the Highlander creates a differentiation point with its class competitors. For Toyota, and in particular, for the Highlander, bigger isn’t always better.

And the winner is…

In this challenge, there is no clear winner as to which is the better 3-row hybrid crossover. Comfort, safety, fuel efficiency and its faithful service as a family taxi signify the 2020 Highlander Hybrid’s lifestyle qualities. For those who need a 5,000-pound towing capacity, genuine off-road capability and more space to transport cargo, the 2020 Explorer Hybrid holds the advantage.

Specs comparison: 2020 Ford Explorer Hybrid vs. Toyota Highlander Hybrid

 Ford Explorer Limited Hybrid RWDToyota Highlander Platinum Hybrid AWD
Base MSRP:$52,280$48,365
As tested:$55,880$50,200
Engine:3.3L V6 hybrid engine2.5L 4-cylinder hybrid
Power (combined output):318 hp243 hp
Torque:322 lb-ft175 lb-ft
Transmission:10-speed hybrid automaticelectronically controlled CVT
EPA Combined MPG:28 mpg35 mpg
Drivetrain Layout:RWDAWD
Max Towing Capacity:5,000 lbs.3,500 lbs.
Curb Weight:4,969 lbs.4,595 lbs.
Wheelbase:119.1 in.112.2 in.
Length x Width x Height:198.8 x 89.3 x 69.9 in.194.9 x 76.0 x 68.1
Ground Clearance:7.9 in.8.0 in.
Approach Angle:20.1 degrees18.1 degrees
Departure Angle: 22.0 degrees 22.7 degrees

Interior dimensions:

Total passenger volume:152.7 cu. ft.136.1 cu. ft. (w/panoramic)
2nd Row Legroom:39.0 in.41.0 in.
2nd Row Head Room:40.5 in.37.1 in. (w/panoramic)
2nd Row Shoulder Room:61.9 in.58.4 in. (with shade)
3rd Row Legroom:32.2 in.27.7 in.
3rd Row Head Room:38.9 in.36.1 in.
3rd Row Shoulder Room:54.6 in.55.0 (with shade)
Cargo Volume behind 1st Row:87.8 cu. ft.84.3 cu. ft.
Cargo Volume behind 2nd Row:47.9 cu. ft.48.4 cu. ft.
Cargo Volume behind 3rd Row:18.2 cu. ft.16.0 cu. ft.