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2021 Toyota Highlander Review

LIKES
  • Better style
  • New sporty XSE look
  • Still practical…
  • ...and fuel efficient
  • Great standard safety
DISLIKES
  • Infotainment is still a headache
  • Exterior is a little busy
  • Pricey top models
  • Small-ish third row
BUYING TIP
  • For the money and efficiency, the Highlander Hybrid LE or XLE are our picks for ease, space, and style.
The 2021 Toyota Highlander learned new tricks to keep us entertained on the road, when we’re not asleep in the back anyway.

There’s a new 2021 Toyota Highlander three-row crossover out there. Perhaps you’ve seen it on the roads, intersections, driveways, parking lots, strip malls, actual malls, or anywhere else with a paved surface and people?

The family hauler may as well be standard issue in the suburbs and subdivisions around the country along with an Instant Pot and Nextdoor subscription card. Welcome to the neighborhood, here’s your Costco card. 

This year the Highlander adds an edgier XSE version that adds a little aggro to its curb appeal—new bumpers, blacked out badges, big 20-inch wheels, and stiffer suspension can do that. 

The 2021 Highlander gets a 6.8 for now, before safety is factored in. Once it is, we expect that number to rise.

In addition to the new Highlander XSE, Toyota offers the three-row crossover in L, LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum configurations. The Highlander Hybrid, which we recommend, is offered in every trim except L and XSE. Front-wheel drive is standard on most models, and all-wheel drive is available on every trim except Limited and Platinum, where it’s standard. 

The new Highlander breaks some of the older versions’ mild awkwardness. The big crossover doesn’t hide its size very well, but it cuts a more attractive hole in the wind thanks to a shaplier snout and rising body line. 

Under the hoods of most Highlanders is a 295-horsepower V-6 that drives an 8-speed automatic and the front or all four wheels. It’s more entertaining than it has any right to be, and the XSE tightens the crossover up more than the rest of the bunch. 

Our pick is the Highlander Hybrid, which uses an inline-4 and electric motor to deliver 35 mpg combined, according to the EPA. That’s remarkable for a seven- or eight-passenger vehicle, and it’s still as entertaining to drive.

Driveability isn’t the first reason to buy a Highlander, of course—space is. Up to eight can snuggle up inside the Highlander relatively comfortably, and the first two rows have more than 40 inches of leg room. The third row is best for small children or occasionally, small adults, and the second row can slide forward a few inches depending on mood. 

Behind the third row, the Highlander hauls up to 16 cubic feet of cargo, which expands to more than 84 cubes with the second and third rows folded. 

Every Highlander gets automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, active lane control and blind-spot monitors. 

In addition to that, even base Highlanders get 18-inch wheels, cloth upholstery, an 8.0-inch touchscreen with smartphone compatibility, and seats for up to eight for about $35,000. Top Highlander Platinums crest more than $50,000 but offer 20-inch wheels, premium audio, a 12.3-inch touchscreen, leather upholstery, and more. They’re practically executive limos for 12-year olds.

Styling
The 2021 Highlander’s exterior is an adventure, but the sharp interior is worth the trek.

The 2021 Highlander doesn’t change the way we look at family crossovers, but it does wrap a better looking body around them.

Our score of 6 applies to every 2021 Highlander not called the XSE—if rated separately, that may do better. Instead, we give one point above average for a clean and functional interior in the Highlander. 

The exterior was revised last year and carries forward this year without any changes. The outside is more athletic than the dowdier Highlanders of yesteryear, and a tall tail helps the crossover look cocked and ready to spring from the blocks. 

Toyota subbed in a smaller, trapezoidal grille into the Highlander’s nose in most editions. The XSE gets a “Predator”-like lower front bumper that reaches down toward the ground, which is unique to that trim level. 

Along the body sides, the Highlander’s swollen arches are a little at odds with the plainer doors and top, but an on-trend roofline smooths away any inconsistencies.

Inside, the Highlander is better with a tiered dash that makes for good small item storage, and a sharp interior that cants controls toward the driver. An 8.0- or 12.3-inch touchscreen takes center stage in the middle of the dash, flanked by solid plastics in lower trims or soft materials on top trims. 

Performance
The 2021 Highlander is more entertaining to drive than it has any right to be. We like that.

Not every car needs to be a sports car. The 2021 Toyota Highlander certainly doesn’t need to be, but that doesn’t stop it from being sporty. 

The newest addition to the lineup this year is a Highlander XSE that swaps in a stiffer suspension, meatier roll bars, and tighter steering. Not enough to race on Sunday, but enough to be entertained on the way to the soccer fields. 

The 2021 Highlander gets a 7 for performance, one each for a confident V-6 and good road manners.
Most Highlanders will be equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 295 hp and 263 pound-feet of torque. It’s paired to an 8-speed automatic transmission and front- or all-wheel drive. The combo is enough to power the two-ton crossover confidently and, when properly equipped, tug up to 5,000 pounds of trailer. 

Toyota offers two all-wheel-drive systems on the Highlander, both suitable for wet or dry pavement and the occasional dusty trail. Highlander L, LE, and XLE get a simple all-wheel-drive system that can shuttle up to 50 percent of the available power rearward if the front wheels slip. Highlander Limited, Platinum, and new XSE get a more sophisticated system that sends up to 50 percent of its power toward the rear and can shuttle that power from side to side via a mechanical torque vectoring system that’s not only slick, but also very confident. 

There’s yet another all-wheel-drive system available on the Highlander, but it’s attached to the Highlander Hybrid that we prefer. Regardless of driven wheels, the hybrid uses a 2.5-liter inline-4 and electric motor fed by a nickel-metal-hydride hybrid battery. The combo makes 243 hp and more importantly, up to 35 mpg combined, according to the EPA. 

Highlander Hybrids are available in front- or all-wheel-drive configurations, with the latter using an electric motor to power the rear wheels only—there’s no mechanical connection between the front and the rear wheels. 

Regardless of how the Highlander propels itself, it rides and steers very well thanks to a four-wheel independent suspension. Even on tall 20-inch tires, which are standard on XSE, Limited, and Platinum models, the Highlander absorbs bumps and road seams well, although the 18-inchers on L, LE, and XLE are more forgiving. Hybrid versions are even more forgiving thanks to their added heft between the wheels. 

Any Highlander can chirp its tires, which is something we haven’t said about the Toyota family hauler for a long time. 

Comfort & Quality
The 2021 Highlander is a champ among family crossovers for space and practicality.

The 2021 Toyota Highlander hits the yoga mat and stretches out for better room for families and gear. Every crossover seats at least seven, some will offer space for up to eight. 

Based on that roomy interior, space for a family, good front and rear seats, and cargo capacity, it gets a 9 for comfort. 

The Highlander stretches nearly 10 feet between its wheels, which affords more than 40 inches of leg room for the front two rows. The front seats are comfortable for a wide range of body types, although the seat bottoms could be a little too sculpted for wary knees. Every Highlander gets a power-adjustable driver’s seat, although the bottom cushion doesn’t tilt up or down for long or short femurs—we’re as surprised as you are that we recalled third-grade anatomy. 

Base Highlanders are shod in durable grippy cloth, although synthetic leather swaps in early and often for most trims. The real deals are available on top trims, which may not appeal to some families with younger children. 

The second row gets good leg room, along with a sliding seat that can make entry/life easier in the third row. Maxed out, the second row gets more than 40 inches of leg room, which is generous for tall riders. Top trims offer heated second row seats that, combined with captain’s chairs, means there is no road trip too long for us. Highlander L and LE models get a second row bench that seats three, XLE and Limited models get a bench or separate chairs, Platinum models do the thinking for you and offer just captain’s thrones. 

Row three is best for children or riders smaller than 5 feet. There’s scant leg room with the second row pushed all the way back—just 28 inches or so. With the second row placed in the forgiving position, there’s more room, although we’d stop short of asking adults to live back there for long—unless we didn’t like them. Three across is a stretch unless they can compare results on today’s spelling test. 

With the seats up, the Highlander hauls 16.0 cubic feet of gear, which grows to more than 48 cubes with the third row folded. With the second and third row stowed, the Highlander holds more than 84 cubic feet, which is more than many similarly sized crossovers but less than a gymnasium. Probably. 

Safety
Good standard safety features complement a good safety scorecard for the 2021 Highlander.

Federal testers haven’t chimed in yet, but the 2021 Highlander has mostly good safety scores so far. 

The IIHS said the Highlander earned top “Good” scores on all its crash tests, and rated the standard automatic emergency braking system as “Superior” at avoiding crashes with cars and pedestrians at 12 and 25 mph. 

The performance of its headlights varies by trim, according to the IIHS. The LED headlights equipped on Platinum trims rated “Good” by the IIHS, the LEDs on Highlander Limited notched one rating lower at “Acceptable.” Every other trim receives headlights that rate as “Poor” by the IIHS—choose carefully. 

In addition to automatic emergency braking on every model, the Highlander gets adaptive cruise control, active lane control, lane-departure warnings. Highlander LE and higher adds blind-spot monitors, which help with the big crossover although outward vision is just fine. 

Add-ons like a surround-view camera system and parking sensors are available.

Features
No 2021 Highlander is poorly equipped, but top trims rival luxury cars.

This year, the Highlander finally adds some ‘tude but its family manners are still firmly intact. 

It gets an 8 on our features scale thanks to its value, good standard gear, and touchscreen. 

A sportier Highlander XSE wedges into the lineup like a mohawk in a church pew. It’s equipped like the bunch but adds edgier bumpers that we cover above. Like last year, the Highlander is available in L, LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum trims. Hybrid Highlanders are available in LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum trims. 

Base Highlander L crossovers cost just over $35,000 and get power features, three rows of seats, cloth upholstery, 18-inch wheels, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, four USB ports, active safety features (covered above) and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. All-wheel drive is available for $1,600 more on Highlander L, LE, and XLE versions. Limited and Platinum Highlanders get their own, trick all-wheel-drive systems as standard equipment. 

Throwing more money at a Highlander nets creature comforts we consider to be great, but perhaps not entirely vital. The Highlander Platinum flirts with luxury-car equipment—and luxury car prices. For more than $50,000, the Platinum includes 20-inch wheels, premium audio, leather upholstery, heated and cooled front seats, heated second-row seats, a head-up display, a 12.3-inch touchscreen, a heated steering wheel, a surround-view camera system, and ambient lighting. 

We’d come back down to earth with a Highlander XLE (with or without hybrid) that includes a power liftgate, fog lights, heated front seats, a power moonroof, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and 18-inch wheels. For about $41,000, we think it’s the best value. 

The new XSE is equipped similarly to the XLE, but offers 20-inch wheels, a sportier suspension and steering system, and unique bumpers.

Fuel Economy
The 2021 Highlander Hybrid is among the most fuel-efficient family crossovers on the road.

Numbers won’t tell the whole story of the 2021 Highlander’s fuel-economy tale. 

The EPA isn’t yet done tallying up scores for 2021, but based on its similarities with last year’s version, we can make a few guesses. 

Most versions of the Highlander equipped with a V-6 and all-wheel drive manage 20 mpg city, 27 highway, 23 combined, according to the EPA. That’s a 4 on our fuel-economy scale. 

Front-drive versions rate 20/28/23 mpg. 

It’s not hard to do much better, and we recommend you do. Opting for the Highlander Hybrid improves fuel efficiency by magnitudes. The EPA rates the Highlander Hybrid with all-wheel drive at 35 mpg city, 35 highway, 35 combined. That’s as impressive as it is easy to remember. 

For a mainstream three-row crossover, that’s better than good—it’s great. 

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