Driven: 2021 Toyota Highlander Review
  • Car Review

Driven: 2021 Toyota Highlander Review

By Chris Teague | May 12, 2021

Quick Facts:

Pros:

  • Frugal hybrid powertrain.
  • Clean, modern styling.
  • Plenty of standard kit.

Cons:

  • Hard-to-access third row.
  • Busy interior and dash.
  • The soft ride allows too much body roll.

Vehicle Type: The Toyota Highlander is a midsize three-row SUV with seating for up to eight people.

Price Range: The 2021 Toyota Highlander ranges in price from $36,085 to $48,240, including destination, but before options or taxes.

Powertrain: The Toyota Highlander is available with two powertrain options for the 2021 model year.

The gas engine is a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque.

The Highlander Hybrid gets a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine combined with an electric motor to produce 243 system horsepower.

Gas models come with an eight-speed automatic transmission and hybrids get a continuously variable transmission.

Front-wheel-drive is standard for gas models and all-wheel-drive can be added, though hybrid models get standard all-wheel-drive from the electric motor, which powers the rear wheels.

More Photos

See more 2021 Toyota Highlander Photos.


Overview:

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The respected Toyota Highlander just keeps getting better, and the 2021 model year is proof. Toyota updated its stalwart family hauler with updated styling, new 20-inch wheels, new suspension tuning, standard LED headlights, and more. All models also get a full suite of advanced driver assistance features.

Toyota offers the Highlander in a wide variety of trim levels: L, LE, XLE, XSE, Limited, and Platinum. The SUV is targeted at new-car buyers that want the space and usability of a minivan without the stigma of driving a minivan. The Highlander competes with the Honda Pilot, Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas, Dodge Durango, Mazda CX-9, Kia Telluride, and Hyundai Palisade.

The Highlander is unique in its class, as it is one of just a couple of models that offer a hybrid powertrain. The standard mill is a 3.5-liter V6, which produces 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque. The fuel-sipping hybrid model gets 243 system horsepower from its 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor. Gas-powered models come with an eight-speed automatic transmission, while hybrid models get a CVT. Front-wheel-drive is standard for gas models and all-wheel-drive is optional. Hybrid models use an electric motor to power the rear wheels when all-wheel-drive is equipped.

Overall Score: 8.1/10


Safety Features: 9/10

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The 2021 Highlander comes standard with a pre-collision system, low-light pedestrian detection, radar adaptive cruise control, lane departure alerts with steering assist, lane tracing assist, road sign assist, and automatic high beams.

The Highlander earned a 2021 Top Safety Pick+ award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) awarded it five stars overall.

Toyota’s inclusion of advanced safety gear on every Highlander model not only helped it earn a Top Safety Pick+ award but makes it an even more compelling choice in its segment, where family-hauling vehicles need to provide supreme peace of mind.


Value: 8/10

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The Highlander can be quite expensive in its higher trim levels, but there’s plenty to like, even at the low end of the trim ladder. Standard advanced driver aids, a capable V6 powertrain, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto for all models are a big plus.

Standard eight-passenger seating and better passenger space than some of its competition make the Highlander a solid value pick in its segment.

The Highlander’s cabin, materials, and build quality put it almost in line with Lexus, from a premium-feel standpoint, but its pricing stays in Toyota's ballpark. Even lower trims feel upscale, and higher trims’ interior accents are tastefully done.


Tech Features: 8/10

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The Highlander comes standard with an eight-inch infotainment touchscreen, SiriusXM satellite radio, a 4G LTE hotspot, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Amazon Alexa capabilities, and a full suite of advanced driver assistance features.

Toyota offers a larger 12.3-inch screen in the top two trims, as well as a JBL audio system, navigation, tri-zone climate controls, a Qi-compatible wireless smartphone charger, heated second-row seats, a heated steering wheel, a 10-inch color head-up display, and a seven-inch driver information display.

Toyota’s current infotainment system, while still a bit clunky, is vastly better than the versions that preceded it. There are still too many taps or touch inputs required to achieve simple tasks, but the system overall is more responsive and more intuitive.


Practicality: 9/10

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There’s not much to complain about with the Highlander’s practicality. The first two rows of seating offer generous head and legroom, while higher trims’ addition of heated seats in the second row will be a welcome upgrade for people living in colder climates.

The main gripe with space inside the Highlander is with the third-row, where the space is difficult to access and is shaped in a way that makes it only comfortable for kids. The seat bottom is too low to the floor, which requires adults to hunch lower than is comfortable for longer trips.

While the Subaru Ascent offers standard all-wheel drive, the Highlander’s optional system is affordable and is more than capable of getting the job done. Hybrid models use their electric motor to power the rear wheels, allowing for all-wheel-drive without a major fuel economy penalty.


Styling & Design: 8/10

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Toyota sharpened the Highlander’s styling, taking it deeper into utility vehicle territory and away from friendlier minivan lines. Inside, the cabin is beautifully designed, though the center stack and steering wheel feel overly busy with buttons.

Outward visibility is great in the Highlander, even to the rear and sides. The large windows not only help with vision but also give the cabin a light, airy feel that highlights the considerable passenger space.

The new XSE trim level adds 20-inch wheels, a more aggressive style, and a unique suspension setup.

Higher trim levels feature an interior that would make a Lexus blush. Premium materials combine with solid build quality to create a space that is gorgeous, quiet, and welcoming. The cabin also features interesting lines and styling that keep the space visually interesting in nearly all directions.


Driving Experience: 7/10

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The Highlander is mostly confident and predictable, which is to say that it’s a vehicle that is tuned much more for comfort than for anything remotely approaching sporty driving. The suspension system, even for the more aggressive XSE trim, soaks up bumps and bangs with ease, making the Highlander ideal for long-haul family road trips.

The standard V6 engine faces no difficulty pushing the Highlander quickly around town, and moves the SUV to highway speeds without problem. It pairs nicely with the eight-speed automatic transmission, which offers snappy, smooth shifts and never skips a beat.

The Highlander Hybrid trades driving excitement for fuel economy, but it’s not let down by its CVT. Toyota’s focus on fuel economy paid off, though, as the Highlander’s fuel economy beats that of the Ford Explorer Hybrid.


Fuel Efficiency: 8/10

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When equipped with the gas V6 engine, the Highlander is EPA-rated at up to 21/29/24 mpg city/hwy/combined. All-wheel-drive shifts those numbers down slightly, to 20/27/23 mpg.

Highlander Hybrid models are rated at 36/35/36 mpg with front-wheel-drive and 35 mpg across the board with AWD.

The Highlander Hybrid’s fuel economy is among the best in any vehicle from its segment. Only the Ford Explorer Hybrid comes close, but even it tops out at 28 mpg highway.


What’s it Going to Cost Me?

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The base 2021 Toyota Highlander L has a starting price of $36,085, which includes a $1,175 destination charge. It comes standard with front-wheel-drive, a smart key system, 18-inch wheels, power windows and door locks, tri-zone climate controls, fabric upholstery, power driver’s seat adjustments, five USB ports, an eight-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure warnings, automatic high beams, lane tracing assist, and road sign assist.

The Toyota Highlander LE's MSRP starts at $38,285 after destination and comes standard with LED fog lights, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob, and upgraded connectivity and connected services features.

The Highlander XLE starts at $41,085 and adds a power moonroof, roof rails, a Qi-compatible wireless smartphone charging tray, Softex upholstery, and seven-passenger seating.

The Highlander XSE has a starting price of $42,680 and gets LED projector headlights, 20-inch wheels, an aggressive sport bumper with a lower spoiler, a twin-tip exhaust, and ambient interior lighting.

The Highlander Limited starts at $45,040 and comes standard with high-output LED fog lights, 20-inch chrome wheels, leather upholstery, a heated steering wheel, faux wood interior accents, a driver microphone and speaker system, navigation, and an 11-speaker JBL audio system.

The Highlander Platinum trim starts at $48,240 and comes with an adaptive LED headlight system, rain-sensing wipers, 20-inch alloy wheels, a panoramic moonroof, a digital rearview mirror, heated second-row seats, a ten-inch color head-up display, a bird’s eye view camera system, and a 12.3-inch touchscreen.

If we were shopping for a new Highlander, we would opt for the mid-range XLE trim. It brings many of the best features, such as wireless smartphone charging and a power moonroof, while keeping the price at a reasonable level.


More Photos

See more 2021 Toyota Highlander Photos.