SAN DIEGO — There is something incredibly satisfying about having the perfect spot to put something. A place for everything and everything in its place, as the saying goes.
I’ve spent the last two days moving and at first I adhered to this and carefully considered where each item should go, which box it should be in and how that box should be labeled. But after a while, you give up and just start chucking things into boxes to be sorted out later (like the next time you move when you say to yourself “what was I thinking?” and chuck it in the garbage).
Getting back to cars, a year ago I spent most of a review complaining about a Lexus SUV that didn’t have a good place to put my phone — an unforgivable sin in 2020 — and now I’m about to do the opposite, albeit this time with a Toyota product: the 2020 Highlander.
The Highlander is Toyota’s three-row mid-sized crossover SUV and it faces tough competition like the (excellent) Ford Explorer and the (excellent) Hyundai Palisade and a bunch of other excellent vehicles too.
Not coincidentally, the Toyota Highlander is excellent, and not just because of the terrific hybrid option that delivers a rather astounding 35 mpg. It also has Toyota’s full safety suite (standard) with adaptive cruise control, lane departure steering assist, automatic parallel parking, and a bunch more.
The Highlander was redesigned for the 2019 model year and, unsurprisingly for Toyota, there’s nothing radical going on but the overall look is sharp and pleasing. With the 20-inch wheels and the gorgeous Ruby Flare Pearl paint job on the Platinum edition, the Highlander could almost pass for luxurious. That’s not a bad thing considering the fully-loaded sticker price of $52,512.
That’s a lot of cheese, but it’s on par with the top tier trims from the competition. And then you go inside and that’s where the magic happens — at least when it comes to phone storage.
Sliding behind the wheel is like slipping into a cockpit (kind of, it’s still a family SUV after all). There’s the well-sorted steering wheel in front of you and a traditional PRND-shifter, an enormous 12-inch touchscreen, a pair of cupholders, reasonable buttons and switches for everything, and, crucially, a ton of bins.
There’s a large center console under the armrest, and another large bin directly in front of the gear selector — and that’s where I originally aimed to put my phone. There are USB ports and a 12-volt power adapter there, so that’s the logical place, right? But wait — directly above that, below the vents, is another bin and it’s like Toyota’s engineers heard my complaints about not having a good place for my phone and created one just for me.
It has thoughtful touches like a slight tilt towards the back so your phone doesn’t fly out, though it remains easily accessible, and it’s huge so you can put even the largest iPhone 2020 ProPods SuperMax in there with whatever gigantic case you have on it. The best part is a small hole in the bottom where you can feed a USB cable through to plug in your phone (remember the USB ports are in the bin just below), which means the cable stays neat and tidy and you get to use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto with your phone safely tucked away but still accessible.
This is a small thing but I honestly feel that good storage design makes such a difference to the day-to-day ownership experience of a car. Hacks like cupholder-based phone holders just take away from how many cups you can hold, but spacious bins (or, as we can call them these days, mask-holders) in the passenger area are brilliant. Even better, there’s another largeish bin on the passenger side as well, albeit without easy access to a USB port.
I’m seeing this trend of clever storage more and more with new vehicles, including the Volvo XC40 and the new Ford Bronco Sport I reviewed last week — thanks to advancements in materials design and safety, there are more little nooks and crannies for vehicle designers to optimize for. The XC40 even has a little trash can built into the center console, which is brilliant and everyone should copy them.
Other than that, the Highlander Hybrid is exactly what you’d expect: a large, reliable, comfortable, luxurious Toyota SUV, with astounding fuel economy and well-considered design. The competition is fierce, but the new Highlander is up to the challenge.