Family-friendly Highlander doesn’t forsake style to accommodate kids

CASEY WILLIAMS | Auto Reviewer

Before my husband and I adopted our daughter six years ago, our automotive fantasies ran towards Minis, Corvettes, Mustangs and Miatas — anything fun to drive and sexy to the eyes. But since Miss Amelia arrived with her ever-present collection of accoutrements (stroller, stuffed animals, blankets, extra shoes and every stitch of kid clothing ever stitched), our dreams have focused more towards large crossovers, including the redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander. It’s proof a couple of queens needn’t give up style when baby comes along.

It’s not easy to make what is a very large box stylish, but Toyota’s designers performed admirably by giving the Highlander a wide stance, beefy hoodlines, deftly chiseled bodysides and wedgy taillamps cut into its thic rump. Rear fenders could be mistaken for those of classic Mercedes, which feel upscale drawn onto a three-row crossover. Our Platinum trim is further distinguished by a black grille with chrome trim, chrome-plated lower rear facia, projector headlamps and unique 20-in. wheels.

A longer body allows Amelia all the space she needs while her Papa and Daddy ride in luxury limo accommodations. Embossed and perforated leather seats look more Maybach than Toyota, especially when heated/ventilated up front and heated in the middle row. A heated steering wheel, panoramic sunroof, three-zone climate control and 1,200 watts of JBL audio bring carnal delights.

Life in the front row is dominated by a flashy 12.3-in. touchscreen that comes standard on Platinum editions. It intuitively controls the audio and navigation systems, employing actual tuning/volume knobs, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Alexa In-Car compatibility. Devices further connect with onboard Wi-Fi and wireless charging. From behind the wheel, I especially appreciated the wide heads-up display, rain-sensing wipers and camera image rearview mirror.

Behind the chrome winged Toyota badge is a 3.5-liter V6 delivering 295 horsepower and 263 lb.-ft. of torque, all routed to the optional all-wheel-drive system through an 8-speed automatic transmission. That’s the right amount of power for a vehicle this size — enough to stomp onto freeways and pass on two-lane highways while balancing fuel economy, which rates 20/27-MPG city/highway. Properly equipped, the Highlander can tow up to 5,000 lbs. of RV, boat or classic car.

If there’s a downside to large boxes on car chassis it’s that they sometimes feel hollow and bouncy. There’s some of that with the Highlander, but engineers tuned the suspension to provide a controlled and comfortable ride. Dynamic torque vectoring AWD over-rotates wheels to help sharpen corners and give the big wagon a nimble feel. There’s also a drive mode selector that configures torque transfer between front/rear wheels and side-to-side. It’s all quite sophisticated.

Given the Highlander’s key mission of transporting families, safety was a priority. Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 comes standard on all 2020 Highlanders and includes pre-collision alert with pedestrian detection, crash mitigation auto braking, full-range adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist and lane tracing assist. You can also add a blind spot monitor, rear cross traffic alert, rear auto braking and parking sensors. The Multi-Terrain Select control system configures the powertrain for Mud & Sand or Rock & Dirt.
Having a kid definitely changes the vehicles you drive. Sure, we still have an old Corvette that my daughter loves riding in with the top out, but that’s not a practical way to visit the grandparents. For that, we’d be far better off with the still stylish, but substantially more practical, Toyota Highlander. Base models start at $34,600, but rose to $49,225 for our Platinum edition with all-wheel-drive. Key competitors include the Subaru Ascent, Honda Pilot, Kia Telluride, Buick Enclave and Ford Explorer.


. 3.5-liter V6. 295 horsepower. 20/27 mpg city/hwy. Base/As-tested price: $34,600/$49,225.


Follow Casey Williams on YouTube @AutoCasey.