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2021 Toyota Highlander Test Drive Review

One of the best-selling family cars gets even safer for 2021.

7.5 /10
Overall Score

Toyota hardly needs any help selling three-row Highlanders. It already sits close to the top of the sales charts for its segment, and few vehicles carry the name recognition as the Highlander, which enters into its 20th year of production.

But the three-row marketplace is a competitive one, and even after a 2020 redesign, Toyota would be foolish to rest on its laurels. As such, the Highlander enters this year with additional safety-feature technology listed as standard equipment.

Look and Feel

8/ 10

Few shoppers will look at the 2021 Toyota Highlander and accuse it of being boring. This is not an amorphous blog, devoid of creativity and impossible to differentiate from the hoard of midsize SUVs and crossovers waiting out front of America’s schools, waiting to shuttle children to soccer practice. For better or worse, the Highlander stands out in a crowd.

While its front end is less dramatic than the bullet-train-inspired styling of the 2021 Sienna minivan, the Highlander still makes a statement with wide headlights, a long hood, and an assertive, trapezoidal grille. Along the side, Toyota has bestowed the three-row crossover with a character line not dissimilar from what accents the Supra sports car’s profile. At the back, the taillights look like they’ve come off a Lexus model, although they’re missing the vertical element. All told, the 2021 Toyota Highlander manages to look longer and lower than the previous-generation car, but it doesn’t sacrifice any of its size in doing so.

For 2021, Toyota adds the XSE trim level to the Highlander lineup. With a more aggressive, restyled front end, the XSE is designed to trick shoppers into thinking it’s some sort of Highlander Sport. In reality, the XSE adds a little bit of suspension tuning and an appearance package. The 20-inch wheels with black accents look sharp, the unique front fascia and lower spoiler look mean, and the larger lower air intake is designed to better feed the engine… but this crossover won’t go toe to toe with a Ford Explorer ST.

Our test vehicle was decked out in Limited trim—which sits just below the Platinum trim level in the hierarchy. With chrome roof rails and accents, the Highlander Limited looks terrifically upscale from the outside, but it really shines on the inside.

Although the existence of the Highlander XSE implies that Toyota wants this to straddle the line between practical and sporty, this car thrives when it leans toward luxury. Our Limited-trim Highlander’s interior features near-flawless fit and finish. The steering wheel feels good to hold. There are no squeaks, no rattles, and no unsightly gaps between panels and trim pieces. We enjoyed tan leather seats and accented by dark brown trim. The wood details look fabulous—even if they’re not real wood.

When you’re shopping for a family car, sportiness and performance are “nice-to-haves.” Comfort and convenience, however, are “must-haves.” The 2021 Toyota Highlander has the “must-haves” section covered.

Performance

6/ 10

All of this is to say that, if you want your family car to breathe fire, the 2021 Highlander likely isn’t for you. If smooth, predictable operation and a reputation for reliability are on your shopping list, however, keep reading.

The 3.5-liter V6 engine under every Highlander’s hood is a known commodity. It produces 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque. Toyota has it mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, powering either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Toyota also offers the Highlander Hybrid as a separate model, which we have covered with a separate test drive review.

All told, the powertrain is fine. Driver’s behind the wheel of a Highlander shouldn’t expect to win drag races from the stoplight, but they won’t feel nervous merging onto a 65-mph highway, either. When compared with the meat of the competition, the Highlander measures up well. It offers roughly the same level of horsepower and torque as the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride. The Honda Pilot offers a bit more, the Chevy Traverse a bit less. The 2021 Mazda CX-9 falls short of the Highlander in regard to horsepower, but it bests it with an impressive 310 pound-feet of torque (on premium fuel). Yes, the Ford Explorer ST will make minced meat of a Highlander, but at a significant price premium. Non-ST Explorers sit right around the Highlander’s mark.

Being a three-row crossover, the Highlander tends to lumber a bit, particularly through corners. That sort of behavior is to be expected, and it is due in part to the vehicle’s soft and comfortable suspension.

The XSE trim does tighten up that suspension, adding higher-rated springs, retuned shock absorbers and power steering, and a rear stabilizer bar. While these additions aren’t going to turn the Highlander into a track beast, they’re attractive options for family-focused shoppers looking to retain some driving excitement.

Form and Function

7/ 10

Three-row crossovers are made and broken by their ability to keep driver and passengers comfy, haul luggage, and keep all the little things easily at hand.

In the 2021 Highlander, a set of shelves ahead of the front seats take center stage. They’re large enough to house even the biggest cell phones, and a small pass-through allows a charging cord to snake down toward one of the Highlander’s USB ports. A wireless charging pad comes standard on trims above the LE, but it lives within the center console.

Second-row passengers are treated to plenty of legroom. The seats move forward and backward to either maximize space for the middle row or grant a little extra legroom to those stuck in the third row. With the second row forward, the rear seats will accommodate adults—but just barely, and only if the folks in the middle agree to be a little uncomfortable, too.

Arguably the most idiosyncratic critique we can level is Toyota’s placement of the rear-seat climate control air vents. There are none at leg level, just two positioned on the ceiling, blowing pretty much straight down on the tops of the middle-row passengers’ heads.

Behind the third row, you’re going to find only 16 cubic feet of cargo space. It’s enough for a small trip to the store, but you’ll need more if you’re carrying the kids’ sports equipment. Fold down the third row to access 48.4 cubic feet. That’s a more respectable number, and it’s slightly more than what Honda offers behind the second row of the Pilot. Fold down both the second- and third-row seats, and the Highlander will swallow 84.3 cubic feet. That’s plenty for almost any occasion, even if it’s dwarfed by every minivan on the market.

Tech Level

7/ 10

Trim levels south of the Limited trim are equipped with an 8-inch touchscreen. Pay for a Limited trim, and Toyota offers a 12.3-inch touchscreen as an option. The big screen comes standard on only the top-tier Platinum trim level. Both systems are easy to use.

Navigation is another item you’ll have to pay for, but whether or not it’s worth it may depend on how you use it. Ask for directions to a specific address, and you’re golden. Try as we might, however, the system repeatedly struggled to locate points of interest that Google Maps had no problem handling. Luckily, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard across the Highlander lineup.

The 12.3-inch unit in our test car looks terrific. It’s bright and crisp and fast. The JBL audio system sounds good, if not overly impressive. You get a volume knob and a tuning knob. But it only shows certain apps on the full width. Things like navigation are limited to an 8-inch rectangle or real estate, making us wonder if the added expense of the big, beautiful screen is worth it.

Safety

10/ 10

Even prior to 2021, there were plenty of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) onboard the Highlander. For this model year, however, Toyota upgrades the Highlander’s suite of safety features to Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ (TSS 2.5+).

This suite includes automatic emergence braking with pedestrian detection and intersection support. The latter technology allows the Highlander to recognize when an oncoming vehicle at an intersection is about to make a left-hand turn, cutting in front of it. When necessary, intersection support can signal to engage the automatic emergency braking system. This, as they say, is some fancy stuff.

It’s not the only feature on board, either. Shoppers considering any grade of Highlander can expect road-sign assist, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, lane-tracing assist, and automatic high beams.

Although it likely doesn’t come as a surprise at this point, we’ll take the time to write it, anyway:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) awarded the 2021 Toyota Highlander five out of five stars, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named it a Top Safety Pick+.

Cost-Effectiveness

7/ 10

Head to your local Toyota dealership, and you'll discover the Highlander starts at an MSRP of $34,810 before an additional destination charge of $1,175. For comparison, that’s well north of the Honda Pilot’s starting MSRP of $32,550 ($1,175 destination). And, of course, the prices rise rapidly from there.

Moving to the LE puts the starting price at $37,010. XLE rings in at $39,810, XSE at $41,405, Limited $43,765, and the Highlander Platinum starts at $46,965. All-wheel drive will add a little more than a grand to each.

The V6 powertrain drives the Highlander to an EPA-estimated fuel economy rating of 21 mpg city, 29 highway, 24 combined. Pairing that powertrain with AWD drops those numbers to 20/27/23. Toyota sells a Highland Hybrid capable of much better figures—36/35/36 with FWD and 35/35/35 with AWD—but that model is covered separately. Across nearly 200 miles of driving, we observed a combined fuel economy rating of 20.5 mpg in our 2021 Highlander Limited AWD.

Pricing the Highlander close to $50,000 makes it a seriously expensive Toyota—anyone can see that. But the Highlander offers significant value, particularly for shoppers who prioritize safety and comfort.

Updated by Matt Smith

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