It may look like an odd Ford Explorer, but the 2020 Toyota Highlander is a compelling choice for a family with children or loads of pets.

Once again, this review was conducted during the Coronavirus/Covid-19 global pandemic. While the lockdown was lifted by the time I reviewed this vehicle, I still took necessary precautions.

I always feel a little awkward reviewing a large family vehicle as it’s just me and my wife, two dogs, and two cats (all of our babies are rescues), and I don’t really see us having children any time soon. Still, though, I know a thing or two about large vehicles, simply because I’m the last of four kids, and my parents could never afford something large enough for all of us growing up. By the time they could, everyone was out of the house and it was just me (I’m the youngest by 8, 11, and 12 years), and it’s at that moment my parents decided to always buy the largest SUVs they could find… except for the Excursion. That’s the only large SUV they never had. 

Having a seven-seat SUV during a global pandemic is a bit odd, because I usually try and pile in my family, friends, nieces, and nephews, I can’t really do that right now. However, I did envision myself as a teenager again and tried all the seats to see if I would like them. 

The Toyota Highlander is all-new for 2020, and the model I had was the Platinum All-Wheel Drive (AWD). It comes standard with a 3.5-liter V6 making 295 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 263 lb-ft of torque at 4,700. It’s all going through an 8-speed automatic with the optional all-wheel drive system. The curb weight is a rather svelte 4,450 lbs (the FWD Platinum weighs 4,260). The payload for the trim I tested is 1,485 lbs with a max towing capacity of 5,000 pounds. So you have the capacity for all you need, unlike my parents, and will still be able to tow a Jet Ski or small boat.

The 2020 Highlander has ample cargo space: 16 cu. ft. behind the third row, 48.4 cu. ft. behind the second row, and 84.3 behind the front passengers. The other latest full refresh, the 2020 Ford Explorer, has 18.2, 47.9, and 87.8 cubic feet. So a little more behind the third row, but a little less everywhere else.

When driving, the Toyota will get 20 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, respectively, with 23 combined. That’s exactly what I was getting the week I had the Highlander, so expect similar results.

The 2020 Toyota Highlander is also an IIHS Top Safety Pick, with the Platinum trim scoring a top Good for headlight quality. However, the Limited scored an Average, with the L, LE, and XLE scoring a Poor for their headlights.

The base MSRP is $48,800, but my tester had an as-tested price of $51,112, which seems high, given the only options equipped were $425 for the Moon Dust exterior color, $318 for carpeted floor mats and cargo mat, as well as cargo cross bars for $350, and a universal tablet holder for one rear seat passenger than costs $99. Throw in a delivery and handling fee of $1,120, and you have yourself a fully loaded Highlander Platinum AWD.

When you look closely, though, the standard equipment is plentiful. As on, I think, every Toyota vehicle currently on sale, you get a plethora of safety features, such as their Safety Sense 2.0 pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, radar-guided cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, lane tracing assist (tracks the lines on the road), auto high beams, road sign assist, 8 airbags, blind spot monitoring with rear-cross traffic alert, front and rear parking assist with auto-braking, and Bird’s Eye View camera (you can see a demonstration video of it on a Camry I tested here).

When you step inside the Highlander it is a pleasant and comfortable place to be. Almost family room-like comfort. The interior color of my car was leathered in Harvest Beige with black and brown trim throughout. While it’s a little busy, I do appreciate the many places to put stuff. You can essentially carry your entire life in the front storage areas. The massive panoramic roof, which extends almost to the third row, is something my wife and I appreciated. It allows a massive amount of natural light inside the cabin, while also making sure you never feel cramped. It made me want to be a kid again and sit in the back seat and just look up the whole time I’m riding to my destination. Sometimes I found myself setting the cruise control and looking up for a split second. And then I did that three million more times.

I loved the idea that if you don’t want to keep your phone in the cubby fore of the shifter, there is a cut-out allowing you to snake your charge cable through, and your phone would be on a ledge under the air controls. I don’t like the look of the extra amount of wire, but it is very convenient. I think the wireless charger needs to be in that part rather than the center console. I did not like that you have to either leave your phone in the center console charging with the lid closed, or awkwardly have the lid open while your phone is charging. If you have a car with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto via cable connection only, I feel there is no reason to have a wireless charger, except for your passenger, who will probably never use it. All cars should have wireless CarPlay and Auto with a wireless charger.

Driving the Highlander you feel at ease. It is large, but doesn’t drive it. It will be rare that you feel like you can’t make a tight turn or corner in a parking area because of its size. So, basically, it drives like a car. Which isn’t abnormal for crossovers and SUVs these days. The Highlander just does it in a way that you’re surprised it’s as big as it is while driving like a Camry. Like I mentioned in my 2020 Lexus LS 500 Hybrid review, the active-lane assist and other safety systems are advanced, but do not intrude. Everything is a subtle assistance rather than an overall coup on your driving. While the brakes are damn good, the pedal does feel spongy. It’s not the end of the world, but will take some getting used to.

There are plenty of buttons and dials if you need to drive off-road, or have to get through something not so great. All are located aft of the shifter and give you a clear understanding of what they do. In fact, that’s the name of the game in the Highlander – a button for pretty much everything, instead of leaving it all up to you to find embedded in the infotainment system. The main things you’ll need the massive 12.3″ touchscreen for is setting where you’d like the air to go (feet, face, etc.), rear air settings, and of course the audio settings. The screen is so big that you can manually choose to have your HVAC settings on the screen, and then you can move it from the left side to the right without hindering the information that’s displayed from the radio. But other than that, you can do most of it all from the steering wheel or well-labeled and located buttons on the center stack.

When you’re driving cars these days the auto-start/stop systems can be annoying for many people, and I constantly hear complaints that you have to manually disengage the system each time you start the car. Toyota did one of the most genius things with the Highlander, and that’s when you come to a complete stop there is an icon that comes up on the gauge cluster screen that informs you to press firmly on the brake pedal to engage the system. Brilliant, I say. Thank you for thinking outside the box on this one.

On the highway the Highlander is almost whisper quiet up to 80 mph. There is a small amount of wind noise around the A-pillar, but nothing that’ll be a turn off. Overall the car is very comfortable, and front and second row passengers have plenty of room to stretch and extend their legs. The third row, however, is definitely for kids, which is to be expected.

The only real negatives I have for the 2020 Toyota Highlander as follows: The leather on the seats feels stiff and hard, but it does not seem to impact the overall comfort. For the life of me I could not figure out how to fold the second row seats flat, which led me to realize that they don’t… and that’s something I find very odd for a vehicle of this size and ability. You’d think Toyota would have allowed them to fold so you could slide big and long stuff inside the cabin, look plywood, etc. The headrests for the front sit too far forward for my taste, and I would like to be able to adjust them like Ford allows in their Explorer, F-150, and so on. For the life of me I cannot figure out why at $51,112, the 2020 Toyota Highlander’s passenger seat has no height adjustment. This is such a Japanese and Korean car thing, and it’s annoying as hell. And last but not least: STILL WITH THE DAMN FUEL DOOR BUTTON?!

Overall I think the 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum AWD is one hell of a vehicle. While $50-grand may seem like a hell of a lot of money to shell out for a loaded crossover/SUV, I can tell you that I think this juice is definitely worth the squeeze. Even though the styling is a little boring, it’s hard for me to imagine a world where the Highlander doesn’t last a dozen years without many hiccups. In North Carolina the two crossovers/SUVs I see the most of: old Lexus RX300s and Toyota Highlanders. And from what I can tell, the Highlander’s appear to hold up better just from the looks of ’em. Take that as you please.