The 2021 Toyota Highlander is a mid-size three-row crossover SUV that entered its fourth generation of production in 2020. First introduced in 2001, the vehicle has undergone major transformations since its debut. Today, it has become a viable minivan replacement that is outselling the company’s own Sienna minivan. The Highlander comes in six trim levels, front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, gasoline-only or hybrid gasoline-electric-powered. Pricing for the 2021 Toyota Highlander starts around $35,000.
Highlander started out as a cute-ute, a crossover little brother to the body-on-frame 4Runner. Over the years, Highlander grew and morphed. The latest Highlander takes a step toward muscularity in this iteration, with chiseled fenders, a raked windshield, and an assertive stance. A quick glance at the front end may fool you into seeing the offspring of a Subaru Outback and a Chrysler Pacifica, but closer examination reveals the Toyota logo in the center of a pair of chromed wings over a trapezoidal grille opening. In typical Toyota fashion, Highlander’s paint is rich and deep, chrome is lustrous, and badging on the Hybrid models is subtle and tasteful.
Wheels range from 18-inch alloys on L, LE, and XLE, to 20-inch on Limited and Platinum. All models get LED headlights and taillights, upgraded to LED Projector on Limited and LED Projector with adaptive front lighting and auto-leveling on Platinum.
Far from rugged, Highlander’s interior borders on lux. It has a layered dash, clean design and interesting geometry. The center stack is the most complex construction — it literally looks like the 12.3-inch infotainment screen and HVAC controls are on a palette at the end of a handle that crosses the front passenger’s dash. Thankfully, there’s a reasonable amount of restraint, with a controlled amount of buttons on the center stack, center console and steering wheel.
Short of going full-minivan, it’s hard to match Highlander Hybrid’s utility and passenger-friendly features. The dash is a warren of cubbyholes, with some genuinely clever and useful open storage areas in the spaces between the layers. There’s a great tray in the middle of the center stack. Eight cupholders and four bottle holders can be found in the cabin.
The overhead console houses map lights for the driver and front-seat passenger, sunglass storage, and a fold-down conversation mirror. The center console is chock full of storage, including a covered bin under the center armrest. There are so many places to stash things the challenge will be remembering where you’ve put them.
The second row is a pair of comfortable captain’s chairs (a bench is available as a no-charge option on XLE and Limited) that folds down to make room for cargo. The third row has three seating positions with sliding headrests and a recline function. Arrange the front and second rows to the right positions, and you’ve got three rows of seating with adequate legroom for full-size passengers. Headroom is a challenge in the third row for those over six feet tall – so don’t send them back there.
Fold the 60/40-split third row flat, and you’ve opened up 48.4 cubic feet. Flop down the second row, and a warehouse space of 84.3 cubic feet becomes available.
Gasoline-only models of Highlander get a 3.5-liter V6 engine (295 hp/263 lb-ft of torque) with direct-injection connected to an 8-speed automatic transmission with front-wheel drive. All trim levels can be upgraded to all-wheel drive. Fuel economy is estimated at 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway/24 mpg combined for FWD; 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway/23 mpg combined for AWD.
Hybrid models use a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder gasoline injection engine (186 hp/175 lb-ft of torque). In addition, there are two electric motors (MG1 and MG2). MG2 works with the gas engine to power the wheels, while MG1 (with some help from MG2) charges the hybrid system’s Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery, which lives under the rear seats. Combined system output is rated at 243 hp. An electronically controlled continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) with standard front-wheel drive or available all-wheel drive gets things in motion. The EPA estimates that Highlander Hybrid will achieve 36 mpg city/35 mpg highway/36 mpg combined with front-wheel drive; 35 mpg city/34 mpg highway/35 mpg combined with all-wheel drive.
Highlander gets four-wheel independent suspension (MacPherson struts in front, multi-link rear with stabilizer bars at both ends), electric power assisted rack-and-pinion steering, and power assisted disc brakes with an electronic parking brake. Handling is good for an SUV of this size, with only moderate body roll on extreme corners.
The gasoline-only models deliver better pure performance, especially for drivers who are more comfortable with a traditional stepped-gear automatic transmission.
The CVT in the Hybrid models is fine, but even when you select Sport mode over the default Eco or Normal, there’s a little bit of rubberbanding or lag in acceleration, as if the Highlander is reluctant to sacrifice efficiency for sprightliness. Passengers will praise a smooth, comfortable ride in both gas and Hybrid models, but Hybrid drivers will be longing for a whip to bring out a little more giddyap.
When it comes time to park, all Highlander models get a backup camera, and Platinum models get a Bird’s Eye View Camera with Dynamic Grid Lines (optional on Limited). This feature includes Perimeter Scan, overhead 360-degree view in low-speed drive and reverse, and curb view, leaving no excuses for scraped wheels or scarred bumpers. Platinum models also get a digital rearview mirror, a handy feature for a three-row SUV, because a full load of passenger heads can often block outward visibility. HomeLink is standard on all models, an easy system to pair with your garage door opener. A power liftgate is also standard, making unloading when you get into the garage a little easier.
Standard Smart Key System is included on all models, and also includes push-button start. A Qi-compatible wireless smartphone charger is standard on XLE and above trim levels.
Highlander prices range from around $35,000 to over $50,000, depending on configuration.
Gasoline-only Highlander trim levels:
- L (starts around $35,000 FWD/$36,500 AWD) — The base model, still gets a power driver’s seat, Smart Key system, LED headlights, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
- LE (starts around $37,000 FWD/$38,500 AWD) — Adds a power liftgate, blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert.
- XLE (starts around $40,000 FWD/$41,500 AWD) — Carve in a moonroof, heated front seats, and Qi wireless charging.
- XSE (starts around $41,500 FWD/$43,500 AWD) — Bolt on some 20-inch wheels, a mesh front grille, sporty front bumper and lower spoiler, and a twin-tip exhaust.
- Limited (starts around $44,000 FWD/$45,500 AWD). — Add ventilated front seats, premium audio, and navigation.
- Platinum (starts around $47,000 FWD/$49,000 AWD) — Second-row seats get heat, LED adaptive front lighting, and more.
Hybrid Highlander trim levels take the same path, skipping L and XSE levels:
- LE Hybrid (starts around $38,500 FWD/$40,000 AWD)
- XLE Hybrid (starts around $41,000 FWD/$43,000 AWD)
- Limited Hybrid (starts around $45,000 FWD/$47,000 AWD)
- Platinum Hybrid (starts around $48,500 FWD/$50,500 AWD)
If you are a looking for a more accurate idea of pricing, you can build and price a Highlander on Toyota’s official web site.
Highlander has a very effective all-wheel drive system that is available on all trim levels in both gasoline and hybrid models. In addition to multi-terrain select settings that allow you to match your throttle, steering, transmission, and traction-control actions to the conditions on the road, it also features dynamic torque vectoring, which can sharpen handling by directing torque to the outside wheels during cornering.
Even though the Hybrid is the fuel-economy winner and only adds about $1,500 to the price tag per trim level, we still like the gasoline-only Highlander LE AWD for its traditional automatic transmission, power liftgate, and blind-spot monitor — systems we consider essential on any family SUV.
We are pleased that all Highlander models include standard Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ (TSS 2.5+), a suite of active safety and driver-assist systems with advanced capability. So, even if you order a base L model, you’ll still get Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection. (Why should the best safety systems be confined to the upper trim levels?)
If you regularly transport your family by vehicle but can’t stomach the idea of driving a minivan, the Highlander is a great choice. The third row is actually usable for kids and smaller adults, so it is a winner for carpoolers. Be wary of feature creep – it’s very easy to max out a Highlander with cool extras to hit that $50,000 mark. (Do you really need a heated second row, or ventilated front seats?)
The field is thick with three-row crossover vehicles, many of them very good. There’s a reason Highlander has been growing for 20 years, both in size and in sales. It has now reached the point where it is a legitimate three-row, seven or eight passenger vehicle. If that’s what you’re looking for, the 2021 Toyota Highlander fits the bill with style, Toyota reliability and quality, and plenty of utility built in. Drive as many of the competitors as you can before making a decision. If you choose a Highlander or Highlander Hybrid, we’re confident you’ll get years of satisfaction.
Add the 2021 Toyota Highlander to the CarExpert recommended list.
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