If you have a family there is a strong likelihood that a midsize SUV is on your radar. Maybe you own one and are seeking a replacement or maybe you are stepping up from another vehicle type. Whatever your situation, a midsize SUV is a terrific all-around family vehicle. With three rows of seats, it makes short work of carpools; it has plenty of interior space to accommodate up to eight passengers plus a reasonable amount of gear, and in four-wheel-drive form, it is an excellent choice in inclement weather.
The Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander are well-regarded midsize SUV crossovers that are perennial bestsellers in the segment, while the Hyundai Palisade is an all-new vehicle set to challenge their dominance. For the 2020 model year, Ford has completely revamped its Explorer, replacing the previous front-drive-oriented chassis with a new rear-drive platform. As this is being written Toyota has already announced an all-new 2020 Highlander, but the current 2019 Highlander is still among the sales leaders and shows no signs of faltering, so this face-off pits the two all-new midsize SUVs from Ford and Hyundai against the venerable but still formidable 2019 Highlander. (When the 2020 Highlander becomes available we will follow up and revise this comparison.)
The Highlander has collected positive owner response gathered by well-regarded research organizations. Previous model-year Highlanders scored above-average in the most recent Vehicle Dependability Study from J.D. Power, while the previous edition Explorer was toward the tail end of the list. Consumer Reports gave the Highlander a “recommended” rating but didn’t give that rating to the Explorer. As an all-new vehicle, the Palisade has yet to gather enough consumer response to draw conclusions, but its predecessor, the Hyundai Santa Fe, scored well with both J.D. Power and Consumer Reports.
On the Outside
The Ford Explorer has always been known for its exterior style, and the new version does not disappoint. Its 2020 redesign makes it one of the best-looking midsize crossovers available. The new rear-drive architecture has enabled a sleeker, slimmer vehicle that appears lighter on its wheels. Certainly, it is the sportiest of the three vehicles considered here without even considering its ST version.
Hyundai has taken the Palisade in a different direction. Its exterior is more squared-off and formal, and it is one of those rare SUVs that looks much bigger than it actually is. Hyundai execs told us the Palisade’s stately exterior design is in keeping with the fact the vehicle is the brand’s top-of-the-line flagship.
The Toyota Highlander is an attractive vehicle, but it is the least distinctive of the three in this comparison and is beginning to show its age.
In the Inside
It is obvious that the Hyundai designers picture the Palisade as the place to show off their best work. The interior is sumptuously luxurious, while at the same time the controls are intuitive and easy to use. The Palisade will seat up to eight, and it offers two distinct leather choices, including a quilted Nappa leather that seems straight out of a luxury sedan. The One-Touch second-row seat easily slides out of the way for easy access to the third-row. And the third row offers power-folding and reclining seats.
The all-new Explorer matches up well with the Palisade in these features. It, too, offers PowerFold third-row seats and E-Z entry second-row seats. Its standard second-row configuration is two captain’s chairs with a pass-through between them. Redesigned ISOFIX anchor points allow child seat installation anywhere in the second and third rows.
The Highlander’s interior is a bit plainer than its newer competitors, but it also offers a one-step second-row sliding-seat function on both driver and passenger sides to make entering the third-row easier. Passengers in the third row can recline the backrest, but the Highlander lacks power-folding seats.
The fact the Highlander is due for a makeover is demonstrated most clearly in its infotainment, an area in which advances come seemingly every day. Its Entune Audio features a 6.1-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth phone and music streaming, and an integrated backup camera, but it lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality. Highlander XLEs and above feature standard Driver Easy Speak, which amplifies and broadcasts the driver’s voice through the rear speakers.
The Palisade offers a similar system, and it benefits from the fact that it is all-new. One example of its newness is the audio and navigation display, a generous 10.25-inch wide touchscreen accompanied by a 12.3-inch fully-digital TFT instrument cluster. The Palisade also offers Hyundai’s latest navigation system, plus standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Its Harman Kardon audio system features Clari-Fi and QuantumLogic Surround Sound technology, and a Qi wireless charging pad is available for compatible Android devices as well as recent Apple iPhones.
The Ford Explorer also takes advantage of its complete re-do to offer state-of-the-art infotainment. Its advanced technology offerings include an available wireless charging pad, wi-fi service for up to 10 devices, and the latest SYNC 3 system with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Waze navigation compatibility. The largest touchscreen is 10.1 inches mounted in portrait mode, and the screen space can be split to view multiple info sources. The screen uses capacitive glass like a smartphone to provide quicker, more responsive interaction.
Under the Hoods
The Hyundai Palisade makes powertrain choice simple — it offers only a normally aspirated 3.8-liter V-6 that produces 291 horsepower and 262 lb.-ft. of peak torque. Interestingly to gear heads, it runs on both an Atkinson and an Otto cycle, depending upon conditions. Its power goes to the wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. The Palisade is offered in both front-drive and HTRAC all-wheel-drive.
The 2019 Highlander offers two powertrain choices. The standard Highlander is powered by a 295-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 engine mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Front-drive is standard with all-wheel-drive optional. The Highlander Hybrid is fitted with Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system that uses the 3.5-liter V-6 gasoline engine combined with a high-torque electric drive motor-generator to produce 306 horsepower. All Highlander Hybrids are equipped with an Electronic On-Demand All-Wheel-Drive System.
The Ford Explorer has the broadest choice of powertrains. Included are a pair of turbocharged EcoBoost entries: a 2.3-liter in-line four-cylinder that is standard on base, XLT, and Limited models and a 3.0-liter V-6 that powers the Explorer Platinum. The 2.3-liter engine is projected to produce 300 horsepower, while the EcoBoost V-6 produces 365 horsepower in standard form. The ST version of the engine offers 400 horsepower, while the completely re-engineered Ford Explorer Hybrid offers 318 combined horsepower. The various engines are backed up by 10-speed automatic transmissions. Rear-drive is standard, while intelligent all-wheel-drive is available. The 2020 Explorer’s improved off-road capability comes courtesy of intelligent four-wheel drive and an available Terrain Management System that features seven drive modes.
Cargo Carrying Compared
Of the three vehicles in this comparison, the 2019 Toyota Highlander (again soon to be replaced) offers the smallest amount of interior and cargo space, but it will still fulfill the needs of most families. Aided by its rear-drive platform, the new Ford Explorer is the largest and most accommodating of the three. It’s more than six inches longer than the Highlander and 2.5 inches longer than the Palisade. As such the Explorer is one of the biggest midsize crossovers. With both rear rows folded it offers 87.8 cubic feet of cargo volume versus 86.4 cubic feet for the Palisade and 83.7 cubic feet for the Highlander. With all three rows occupied the Explorer has a very impressive 18.2 cubic feet of luggage space. The Palisade is nearly as big with 18.0 cubic feet, while the Highlander offers 13.8 cubic feet behind the third row. Power lift gates make accessing the rear cargo area much easier.
When it comes to electronic driver aids and safety equipment all three vehicles in this comparison cover themselves with glory. Despite the fact it is an “outgoing model,” the Toyota Highlander has standard Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P) driver-assist technology. It includes the Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and Automatic High Beams. Depending upon grade additional safety equipment includes Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert.
The Ford Explorer and Hyundai Palisade offer equally impressive arrays of safety equipment. Standard on the Explorer is the Ford Co-Pilot360, a suite of driver-assist technologies including Pre-Collision Assist with Automatic Emergency Braking, Blind Spot Information System with Cross-Traffic Alert, Lane-Keeping System, Rearview camera with built-in lens cleaner, and Auto headlamps with automatic high-beams. Available safety technologies include Evasive Steering Assist and Post-Impact Braking.
The Palisade’s Hyundai SmartSense offers a robust array of standard advanced safety technologies, including Forward Collision-Avoidance Assist with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Keeping Assist, Lane Following Assist, High Beam Assist, Driver Attention Warning and Smart Cruise Control with Stop and Go. Its optional Ultrasonic Rear Occupant Alert monitors the rear seats using an ultrasonic sensor to detect the movements of children and pets with the goal of helping drivers to remember to remove their kids and pets from parked vehicles.
Driving Impressions x 3
First, a disclaimer: the 400-horsepower Ford Explorer ST with its specially tuned suspension is by far the most fun to drive of the wide variety of sub-models offered in these three product ranges. In fact, it might be the most fun-to-drive SUV we’ve ever piloted. That said, most crossover SUV buyers are not looking for driving performance nearly as much as for versatility, cargo-carrying ability, and comfort. By these measures, all three vehicles in their most popular configurations will do an excellent job.
As mentioned above, the 2019 Highlander is somewhat smaller than the Explorer and Palisade but it is still a very useful, comfortable vehicle. Even in base form, the 2020 Explorer offers more horsepower and torque than its two competitors, so it is slightly more satisfying to drive. But we don’t think drivers of the Palisade or the Highlander will find much to complain about.
For those interested in hybrid power, the Ford Explorer’s newly engineered hybrid system gives the vehicle all-around capabilities that closely mimic the conventional version. The Highlander Hybrid is not quite the seamless copy of the conventional version in all-around driving, but its higher fuel economy figures help make up for that.
Each of the compared vehicles is well-suited for the kind of driving they will typically be used for — trundling kids to Little League practice, picking up groceries at the big-box store and the treasured family vacations. All three have ample power and offer a smooth, comfortable ride.
Pricing & Value
Viewing the three vehicles through the lens of Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP), the Hyundai Palisade is the bargain of the bunch. To keep this in perspective, though, the Ford Explorer, like most domestics, is typically sold at a bigger discount than the Asian brand cars. And in this scenario, the 2019 Highlander is the last of its current body style, which implies that some serious discounting could take place before you buy. Viewed in comparable trim levels the Palisade’s MSRP is $3,000-5,000 lower than the Explorer and a bit less than $2,000 lower than the Highlander. Pricing starts at the $30,000 level and can range far higher. Top-end for the Hyundai arrives at about $45K, but by adding bells, whistles and performance goods, one can specify a $60,000 Explorer. When it comes to warranty protection, the Hyundai Palisade is the winner with a 5-year/60,000-mile limited warranty and a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
It is difficult to pick an overall champion because the three models offer so many variations and the buyer requirements may differ markedly. The Ford Explorer offers the most fun-to-drive of the bunch and a number of vehicles, including a hybrid model, that are exceptionally well-suited for family-vehicle use. The Toyota Highlander, despite the advanced age of the current model, acquitted itself very well. Bargain shoppers might be on the lookout for a deal on a 2019 as Toyota dealers bring in the 2020s. It’s a vehicle that could serve a family well for a decade or more. Finally, the Hyundai Palisade is a very credible entry in a hotly competitive class. With its distinctive styling, luxurious interior, value pricing, and lengthy warranty, there are plenty of good reasons to consider it for your next family vehicle.