Mid-size three-row crossovers are big business these days. The de facto replacement for the last generation’s minivans, these vehicles provide space for seven or eight people plus their stuff, with the added security of (usually optional) all-wheel drive.
Toyota was one of the first on the scene with the Highlander debuting in 2001. Between 2012 and 2019 the Highlander doubled its yearly sales figures to over 244,000 units, making it the sales king of the segment. Those are big shoes to fill, but the new fourth-gen model, debuting for 2020, looks up to the task. Bigger but also lighter than the previous model, it comes with a powerful standard V6 engine or fuel-sipping optional hybrid, and a range of trims give it an interior ranging from workhorse to luxury. A more expressive exterior design rounds out the new package.
The Hyundai Palisade is a new player on the scene. This brand new three-row crossover debuted in 2020 too, allowing the smaller Santa Fe to revert back to a five-seat setup. Sharing its platform with the Kia Telluride, the Palisade sticks to Hyundai’s value proposition while pouring on luxury looks inside and out. Both of the Korean twins have racked up awards in just over a year of being on sale.
Which of these three-row SUVs is better for you and your family? Read on to find out.
Highlander: The Highlander offers two propulsion options for 2020. Standard is the Toyota family 3.5-liter V6, which appears in everything from the Camry to the Sienna. Here it’s a powerhouse, pushing out 295 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque. Toyota dropped the unloved four-cylinder base engine for this generation, but a four-pot still lives under the hood of the available hybrid model. Thanks to electric augmentation the Highlander Hybrid posts a healthy 243 hp. Down on the V6, sure, but still ample for most day-to-day duties that don’t involve towing. Plus it boosts the fuel economy figures by a full 50 percent over the V6.
Both front- and all-wheel drive are available for either engine option.
Palisade: Hyundai keeps the Palisade lineup simple. There’s a lone engine option—a 291-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 with 262 lb-ft of torque. Front-wheel drive is standard, with all-wheel drive optional. Like the V6 Highlander, the Palisade employs an eight-speed automatic.
Bottom Line: On the merit of the purely gasoline options, these two competitors are about as equal as they can get. There’s just four ponies and a single digit of torque between them. The win goes to Toyota in this first round though, as the optional hybrid setup sacrifices little straight-line speed nor comfort. It’s our preferred flavor of Highlander so long as there’s not a boat that needs hauling.
Technology and Features
Highlander: Standard-fit items on every fourth-gen Highlander, from the base L ($35,720) up, include an 8.0-inch touchscreen (with Apple, Android, and Alexa integration), three-zone climate control, a powered driver’s seat, stop-start, and keyless entry. Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 suite of active driver aids is also on every single Highlander, including emergency braking with pedestrian sensing, lane departure alert, lane tracing, dynamic cruise control, road sign assist and cyclist detection. Blind spot monitoring joins the pack with the LE trim and up, which also adds leather to the wheel and shifter.
Graduating to the XLE ($40,720) includes a wireless front mobile charger, 20-inch wheels, Toyota’s SofTex leatherette seating, and second row captain’s chairs. An interior intercom system, which makes talking clearly to the way-back so much easier, is optional. Moving to the Limited bags the intercom system as standard, plus a full leather interior, heated steering wheel, updated rear camera, and an 11-speaker JBL audio system.
At the top of the trim list sits the Platinum ($47,970). This adds a heated second row, head-up display, bird’s eye rearview camera, 12.3-inch touchscreen, adaptive headlights and a luxurious brown leather interior option called Glazed Caramel.
Palisade: The Hyundai lineup is simpler at just three trims, and starts at a more affordable $32,895 for a front-drive Palisade SE. Standard goodies include five USB ports, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, second-row bench seats, heated exterior mirrors, auto headlights, and an audio system Quiet Mode, which turns off the rear-most speakers.
On the safety front the Palisade largely matches the Highlander as standard, with dynamic cruise control, emergency braking with pedestrian sensing, lane following and keeping, and a rear parking distance alert. It also adds a driver attention warning and rear occupant alert. Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert join the suite on the middle trim, the $34,845 SEL. The SEL also adds Safe Exit Assist, which alerts rear passengers of upcoming dangers before they open their doors. SEL buyers also benefit from roof rails, eight-way power driver seat, heated front seats, and second-row captain’s chairs (the bench remains an option).
SEE ALSO: 2020 Hyundai Palisade Review
A trio of options packages are available for the SEL. The Convenience Pack adds 20-inch alloys, a self-levelling rear suspension, hands-free liftgate, rear seat sunshades, wireless charging, third-row USB outlets and other goodies. The Premium Package adds a dose of luxury to the interior with leather, heated steering wheel and second row, plus powered third-row adjustments. Finally the Driver Guidance Pack bumps the infotainment to 10.25 inches, allowing for multiple device connections, plus Hyundai’s BlueLink mobile app and an in-car intercom system.
The top-shelf Limited ($46,045) adds all the above plus unique exterior touches, rain-sensing wipers, a dual-panel sunroof, Nappa leather interior, ventilated seats, head-up display and 12-speaker Harman Kardon sound system. It also swaps out the analog dials for a 12.3-inch digital cluster, which includes a camera view of your blind spot in the cluster when activating a turn signal.
Bottom Line: Both rides offer a lot of standard kit, especially on the safety front, but the Palisade pulls ahead with more available and lower prices. The Highlander has the bigger infotainment, but it’s only available on the top Platinum trim. At that level, the Hyundai counters with a fully digital dashboard. The available blind spot camera that comes with that, plus Safe Exit Assist, tips the balance in the Hyundai’s favor. Both interiors feel mega lux in top trim, easily comparable to their respective Lexus and Genesis siblings.
Highlander: In front-wheel drive V6 trims, the Highlander achieves 21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, for a combined rating of 24 mpg. Those numbers drop a bit for the AWD version, which sits at 20/27/23 mpg, respectively.
If you want supermini-rivalling fuel economy in your three-row SUV, you’ll need to step up to the hybrid models. Front-wheel drive Highlander Hybrids post 36/35/36 mpg across the board. AWD LE and XLEs stick to 35 mpg for all three ratings, while the Limited and Platinum drop their highway figure to 34 mpg.
SEE ALSO: 2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Review
Palisade: The Hyundai posts a 22 mpg average in front-wheel drive form, split between 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. Opt for all-paw grip and the numbers are 19/24/21 mpg respectively.
Bottom Line: The Palisade’s bigger engine makes it the thirstier of the two V6s. That’s before we even consider the Highlander’s hybrid option, which trounces most compact cars. It’s a win for Toyota, then.
Highlander: The Highlander is the safer choice, stylistically. Some could take that to mean boring, but we’d argue it’s a much more handsome vehicle than the previous generation. The slim head- and taillights give it a more streamlined appearance, and the Supra-like side body crease adds interest. It’ll still get lost in the mall parking lot, because Toyota sells a ton of ’em every year, but at least it’s easier on the eyes now.
Palisade: The Palisade is a fridge of a car compared to the Highlander. It’s big and bluff, with enough detail work to make it interesting. Its profile emphasizes the C-pillar instead of the D-pillar as on the Highlander which, combined with the wraparound look of the rear glass, gives the impression it’s even longer than it is. In reality, the Palisade stretches just two inches past the Highlander. The squinty headlamps give it a familial bond with the rest of the lineup, and we like the funky shape of the rear lights.
Bottom Line: As ever in this category, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Both can look quite luxurious in their top trims. If it’s the base spec, the imposing Hyundai gets closer to looking like the top of the line, but that’s simply our opinion.
SEE ALSO: 2020 Kia Telluride Review
Highlander: The first and second rows of the Highlander are plenty spacious enough for adults. Headroom is 41.2 inches up front and 39.4 inches in the middle, or about 2–3 inches less on models with the sunroof equipped. Shoulder room for first-row passengers is 59.0 and 58.7 inches for the folks directly behind them. Both rows can stretch out with 42 and 41 inches of legroom, respectively.
The third row is best suited to little ones. Head room is pretty decent at 36.1 inches, but the 27.7 inches of legroom is the limiting factor.
We rate the Glazed Caramel leather interior highly, though it’s only available on the Platinum. Your other interior color options are black, gray and beige.
Palisade: Since it’s bigger in every direction than the Highlander, it shouldn’t be surprising the Palisade has a roomier interior. Front passengers have 40.7 inches to bob their heads without a sunroof, and 39.2 if they don’t. Middle-row passengers lose less than an inch off either measurement. Shoulder room is 61.2, 60.8, and 55.2 inches from front to back. Leg room measures 41.4 inches in front and 42.4 inches in the second row.
Third row passengers have 37.7 inches of headroom and 31.4 inches of legroom. It’s still not ideal for adults but kids should be able to get comfortable back there.
If only there were more interior colors than black and beige.
Bottom Line: In just about every measure the Palisade outperforms its Japanese competitor. The Highlander holds a slight advantage in front- and second-row headroom as well as front legroom. That’s it though, and it loses out on the head space race once there’s a sunroof.
As wonderful as the fit, finish and general design of the Palisade’s interior is, we’d love to see Hyundai get more adventurous with its color selection. We can even point to the great work its Genesis luxury arm is doing.
Highlander: With all the seats in place the Highlander has 16 cubic feet of space for the Costco run. Drop the third row bench and that grows to 48.4 cubic feet, or 84.3 with all but the front seats folded.
Palisade: The Palisade will carry 18 cubic feet of stuff behind the third row seats—drop ’em for an increase to 45.8 cubic feet. Fold the second row down too and you’ve got 86.4 cubes to work with.
Bottom Line: The Hyundai has more space with all seats up or down, but loses out when you just fold down the third row. Why? Its wheel arches eat into more storage space. It still wins on sheer numbers, but the Toyota’s load space is more box-like.
Both vehicles are also rated to an identical 5000 lb in V6 forms.
Highlander: The fourth-generation Highlander range begins with the $35,720 L trim. This is the only one (of five) not available with the hybrid engine drivetrain, though all-wheel drive is an option. Next up the ladder is the $37,920 Highlander SE, followed by the $40,720 XLE. Upgrading to the Limited requires $44,770, and the top dog Platinum’s price of admission is $47,970.
Adding AWD is a $1,600 bump for the sticker price (or $1,950 for the Platinum); selecting the hybrid instead of the V6 is $1,400. That puts a Limited Hybrid AWD at $51,320.
Palisade: Prices begin at $32,895 for the Palisade SE, which is one serious deal for a vehicle this big. The SEL rings up for a little bit more ($34,845), with a trio of option packages priced from $1,250 to $2,400. The current top spec is the Limited, and it’s a big jump up from the SEL at $46,045.
Adding AWD is a $1,700 surcharge for the Palisade.
Bottom Line: Toyota has shifted the entry point of the Highlander north by a few thousand since discontinuing the four-cylinder. Despite this the Palisade undercuts its starting price, with the usual dollop of Hyundai value. Even at the top end, a fully-loaded Palisade rings up roughly $2,200 cheaper than a comparable V6-equipped Highlander.
At the end of the day, both of these vehicles are well-suited to the various activities of the modern family. They can haul groceries, kids and their friends, and a trailer—just probably not all at once. These are two mainstream brands, but both the Toyota Highlander and Hyundai Palisade offer near-premium interiors without the price tag.
For our money, the Palisade is the easy choice with but one caveat: fuel economy. It’s a real quality item, coming out of the gate immediately class competitive. It undercuts the Highlander without feeling cheaper. That being said, think long and hard about how you plan on using your three-row crossover: if you’ll never really be towing but do spend a lot of time in urban traffic, the hybrid powertrain of the Highlander is hard to ignore.