Three-row SUVs are the modern-day equivalent of the old-school family station wagon, and the 2021 Toyota Highlander dutifully gets the job done—and then some. Buyers can choose from the standard V-6 engine or go with the fuel-sipping hybrid option; both powertrains are available with all-wheel drive. Inside, there are three rows of seats—although the rearmost perches are sized for kids or young adults. The nicely-equipped cabin is packed with infotainment features and thoughtful storage cubbies. Toyota also equips every Highlander with an extensive suite of standard driver-assistance features to provide an additional layer of safety. The Highlander’s ride is placid and its acceleration performance is adequate, but an apathetic driving demeanor places it just behind top contenders—such as the Kia Telluride and the Hyundai Palisade—in the mid-size SUV class.
What’s New for 2021?
The sporty-looking XSE trim level joins the Highlander lineup for 2021. It punches up the looks with more aggressive exterior styling, unique 20-inch wheels, black exterior accents, and a sportier calibration for the suspension. Elsewhere, LED projection headlamps are now a standard feature and all models receive additional driver-assistance features, including semi-automated emergency steering technology that’s designed to help a driver avoid collisions.
Pricing and Which One to Buy
In our view, the mid-range XLE is the pick of the litter. It has heated front seats, a wireless smartphone-charging pad, and a power sunroof, among other niceties. We’d also spring for the Premium Audio with Dynamic Navigation package, which brings in-dash navigation and an upgraded stereo system. All-wheel drive will add $1600 to the bottom line. And opting for the hybrid powertrain over the standard V-6 will cost an extra $1400.
Engine, Transmission, and Performance
The Highlander comes with a 295-hp 3.5-liter V-6, which pairs with an eight-speed automatic transmission and either front- or all-wheel drive. During a brief test drive, we found the V-6 could tackle short on-ramps without straining; at our test track, our all-wheel drive test vehicle made it to 60 mph in reasonably-quick 6.7 seconds. Handling is unexciting but stable, and the ride is perfectly suitable for family-chauffer duty. More driving enjoyment can be found in the Mazda CX-9.
A 2.5-liter four-cylinder and two electric motors team up for a combined 243 horsepower in the Highlander Hybrid. This model comes with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and a choice between front- and all-wheel drive. Leveraging Toyota’s hybrid expertise, this powertrain provides buyers with something more fuel efficient than the standard model. The tradeoff comes in acceleration performance, both due to the hybrid’s lower horsepower rating and the fact that this model uses a CVT instead of the nonhybrid’s eight-speed automatic. At our test track, the hybrid model made it to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds. Potential buyers in this segment will perhaps know that the Ford Explorer comes in hybrid form, too. But pitting these utes against each other, the Toyota comes out on top in terms of fuel economy, and the Highlander Hybrid’s starting price of $39,585 is a whopping $11,810 less than the Explorer Hybrid’s.
Fuel Economy and Real-World MPG
The EPA estimates that the 2020 Highlander V-6 will deliver up to 29 mpg on the highway when equipped with front-wheel drive; all-wheel drive cuts that by 2 mpg. Hybrid models carry higher ratings, with front-wheel-drive variants earning 36 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. We’ve tested the standard Highlander on our 200-mile highway fuel-economy route, where it delivered the 28 mpg. When the hybrid visits our office, we’ll be putting its fuel efficiency to the test on the same route.
Interior, Comfort, and Cargo
Base L and mid-range LE models can seat eight passengers using bench seats in the second and third rows, but a seven-seat arrangement with second-row captain’s chairs is available on higher trims. Passenger space is more generous here than in the CX-9, but not as spacious as in the Chevrolet Traverse, especially in the third row. Materials throughout the cabin are much improved over those in the last-generation Highlander. Upscale Limited and Platinum models provide the most creature comforts but compared with the features proffered by the Palisade or Telluride, they fall short. The cargo area behind the third row fit a mere four carry-on suitcases; the Traverse fit six.
Infotainment and Connectivity
An 8.0-inch infotainment system comes standard on most trims, but the Highlander Limited and Platinum get a 12.3-inch display. An 11-speaker JBL audio system is available. Toyota provides SiriusXM satellite radio, a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, and Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa integration for all models.
Safety and Driver-Assistance Features
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has given the Highlander a five-star safety rating; the Highlander was also named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). As is the Toyota way, the 2021 Highlander offers a standard suite of driver-assistance features. The package includes adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection, and automatic high-beam headlamps. Key safety features include:
- Standard automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection
- Standard blind-spot monitoring with rear-cross-traffic alert
- Standard lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist
Warranty and Maintenance Coverage
Toyota’s warranty coverage adheres to the norm of the segment; however, buyers get two years of complimentary scheduled maintenance, which is a nice perk that most rivals don’t offer. The electrified Highlander comes with a separate hybrid-component warranty that provides eight years or 100,000 miles of coverage.
- Limited warranty covers three years or 36,000 miles
- Powertrain warranty covers five years or 60,000 miles
- Hybrid-component warranty covers eight years or 100,000 miles
- Complimentary maintenance is covered for two years or 25,000 miles
More Features and Specs