Cars like this make me miss toddlerhood.
I look at the 2020 Toyota Highlander and my eyes get misty. Yes, I see the beautiful leather seats, panoramic sun roof and head up display and think, how luxurious. But my heart sees the center row captain’s chairs, the easy-to-reach third row, the 3-zone climate system, wifi and an 11-speaker JBL sound system. How fun and easy this would make life with little ones.
I think about all the days I lifted and buckled them into their car seats, drove while singing show tunes and playing Disney DVDs. Ferried them to and from sports, the playground, a playdate, Fourth of July fireworks, Christmas Eve dinner at Aunt Susie’s. It all would have been so much more fun in this car.
And then, there were the days when they clambered into their car seats from soccer practice and, just seconds after everyone was safely buckled, the painful pleas started: “My bodeeeee is sweadddding!!!” In bumper-to-bumper traffic I’d crank up the A/C, but never fast enough. A rear climate system that you can control, and so can they, is amazing.
And then there are the most precious moments: singing Christmas carols—even in July because my kids would sing Christmas songs all year long— with the ability to fade the speakers so the music is louder in the rear. Then, I can hear them belting out the words to “All I Want For Christmas.” This is priceless.
SUVs Should Be Designed For How We Live in Them, Right?
If I were dreaming of a white three-row SUV I’d also add a cargo area behind the third row that can handle backpacks and hockey bags, an electric lift gate (yes, the kick-activated style is good!) that the kids can operate themselves, a place to store the cargo cover inside the car, lots of USB ports, rubber floor mats that make cleaning up an easy thing, a panoramic sun roof so everyone has light (and are less likely to feel car sick) WiFi and a household plug so there’s no excuse for iPads not working (Disney is a true road trip savior).
Hopping into the redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander, which goes on sale this month (though the hybrid model won’t be available until February 2020), felt as if Toyota had lived my life. Maybe they had.
35 MPG Is Just the Start: What’s New and Improved in the 2020 Toyota Highlander
And, great fuel economy. That one thing is why there’s probably not a single story I’ll write this year that I love more than this one. 35 MPG in a 3-row SUV.
A little backstory: 15 years ago I read in Newsweek that Toyota was going to offer a hybrid engine in its 7 passenger Highlander SUV and it would get 27 MPG.
I immediately went to my Toyota dealer and put down a deposit. My soul soared at the opportunity to vote with my wallet, to tell auto makers that fuel economy + utility is important to me.
Six months later a Highlander Hybrid was in my driveway. Then, the price of gas spiked to $4 a gallon but I felt safe, protected from roller-coaster gas prices, comfortable in having a near-zero emissions car and confident that I could join any carpool because I had seats for everyone.
I will admit that as a mid-sized SUV, the Highlander, both then and now, is not huge; it’s smaller than the Sequoia or Land Cruiser, and the third row is tight, even for kids. But it did the job I needed it to and that was precious.
The Highlander Grows Up, But It’s Still All About the Kiddos
Over the next three redesigns the Highlander continued to improve with more innovations: It was among the first to add center row captains chairs to an SUV, semi-autonomous safety features as they were introduced and best of all, interior space — including cargo space. The last generation Highlander gas model offered about 20 MPG and the hybrid got about 30 MPG in city driving.
But the 2020 model takes everything up a notch—or a few notches. It’s been completely redesigned for a more modern look and feel, both inside and out. The front of the Highlander is much more modern, with a broad grille that is crowned by the Toyota emblem and flanked by streamlined headlights and air vents. The changes give the Highlander a resemblance to its siblings, from the Camry to the RAV4 to even the Supra. You can tell they all share the same DNA.
Inside, everything is nicely designed and smartly placed. The touch screen is easy to use from the front seat, there are 5 USB ports (though none in the third row) and the center row seats are on rails so they move forward and back. This is great for accommodating third row passengers or positioning a baby in a car seat closer to the front.
The overall effect is still an easy-to-drive, not-too-big SUV with a lot of good standard features and for not a lot of extra cash, a lot of luxuries.
Related: Technology that Looks Out for You on the Road? Toyota Safety Sense Driver Assistance and Safety Technology, At Your Service
What the 2020 Toyota Highlander Costs—Be Ready for a Shocker
When I bought my first generation Highlander Hybrid I went all in on the 2005 model, fully loaded with leather seats, a V6 engine and all wheel drive. The price? About $48,000. The 2020 edition, fully loaded with literally every luxury (keep reading for what this includes), including a V6 engine and all wheel drive, is about $50,000. And for that you get about 10x more great features. That is shocking.
However, buyers of the 2020 model have some choices. You can go for the basics—cloth seats, Toyota Safety Sense (pre-collision braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert, lane keep assist, road sign reading and automatic high beam headlights), 8 passenger seating, V6 engine and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and a starting price of $34,600.
Or, go for fully loaded with a leather seats, panoramic sun roof, head up display, wireless phone charger, leather seating, heated center row captains chairs, live-view rear view mirror, the larger 12.3” touch screen, navigation and premium JBL sound system for a starting price if $46,850. Most models can add all wheel drive for $1,600 and starting in February 2020, the hybrid drive system for $1,400. Hello 35 MPG!
Taking a Test Drive— Even Though I’m Already Sold (Just to Confirm My Opinion, Right?)
We had the chance to drive the full 2020 Highlander lineup. Some things I noticed:
- The Platinum edition (the top of the line) offers some great features, including a head up display and a live-view mirror; this video rear view mirror is great to have when the car is fully packed or you have third-row passengers who make it difficult to see out the back window.
- The center arm rest console, which was designed to be able to hold a handbag in the last model, is still large but not as large. I couldn’t get my handbag in it like I could before.
- The center arm rest console is where the wireless charger is stored. The top of the console retracts so you can leave your phone there; I liked it in this space because my phone was at hand, yet out of sight and charging.
- The center row captains chairs are on rails; pull a tab on the lower corner of the seat and you can slide it forward or back.
- The shelves on the front dashboard that were added to the last model are still a feature (yay!) and they’ve been upgraded to look more elegant (leather covered in the Platinum edition!). Toyota’s designers have integrated this feature so it’s functional but not so noticeable.
- The third row seats three! But it does not have lower anchor LATCHes for child passenger seats.
- The second row captains chairs have a heated seat option 😀
- There are 3 USB ports under the center dash and two on the back of the center console; there is also a household plug.
- Toyota introduced some new colors; Moon Dust, a light slivery blue is my favorite, though I liked the Blueprint Blue; I would pair it with the cream interior for a very elegant and sublime feel.
- Oh, and the drive experience? It’s great. Buyers of the gas model will get a V6 295 horsepower engine and can tow up to 5,000 lbs; those buying the hybrid will get a 4-cylinder 243 horsepower engine; if all wheel drive is added, it’s electric on demand rather than all time AWD, adding the the fuel savings. Both versions were comfortable to drive, accelerated easily onto the highway and I would guess that even fully loaded it’ll be completely capable (it always has been).
Simply sitting in the front seat of the Highlander Platinum edition, relaxing on a long drive or a jaunt across town, is a lovely experience. To turn and look at the faces of smiling babies in the back seat, knowing that they are entertained and comfortable, is an even happier experience. Having the capability to add a few more passengers with the third row and not having to commit to a gas-guzzling SUV is enough to make you misty-eyed.
What We Listened to in the 2020 Toyota Highlander
Maybe I’m sentimental, or maybe I’m realistic, either way these songs will get the whole crew singing and swaying on your drive.
Disclosure: I was Toyota’s guest for this test drive. Accommodations were provided but opinions expressed here are all my own.