If you're interested in a new crossover with a lot of family-friendly features, we wouldn't be surprised to see the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX on your shopping list. A lot of publications say these two cars are "mechanical twins" -- so what exactly does that mean? What are the similarities? And does the RX offer any differences besides a Lexus badge and a different price tag? We have the answers.

 

Exterior

Although the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX have looked fairly similar in the past, the two crossovers are very different for the 2014 model year. The Highlander has been completely redesigned, while the RX is keeping its old styling for another few years.

The result is that the Highlander has a more modern design than the RX, even if it's only because the Highlander's styling is fresh and unfamiliar while we've grown very much accustomed to the RX's look. The Lexus is a little more angular than the Highlander and slightly sleeker, especially when you consider its sloping roofline. By comparison, the Toyota is more boxy and traditional, largely because it needs extra headroom for third-row seating that the RX doesn't have.

Interior

Interestingly, the traits are switched when you compare the interiors. Even though the Toyota is all new, it's the RX's cabin that looks more cutting-edge. Blame the Highlander's especially utilitarian look and feel, which includes an upright dashboard and a more practical design.

By comparison, the RX looks positively futuristic with its stylish center stack and its high-mounted gear lever. Of course, the RX also uses Lexus' unique Remote Touch controller, rather than a more simple touchscreen infotainment system like the Highlander uses. Finally, the Lexus' cabin gives more of a cockpit-like feel because of the flowing shape of the center stack, as opposed to the Highlander's tiered look.

But the biggest interior difference between the Highlander and the RX doesn't come up front: It's in back. That's where the Highlander is hiding its third-row seat, which isn't available in the RX. That alone is a deal breaker for many families who occasionally need to haul around more than five other people.

Mechanicals

When you hear that the RX and the Highlander are mechanical twins, it means they're different on the outside and inside, but they share the same mechanical components under the skin.

That's certainly true in this case. The RX 350 and Highlander both use a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 270 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. Both models use a standard 6-speed automatic, and both offer front- or all-wheel drive.

Choose a hybrid model and it's the same story: The Highlander and RX are largely the same. The Highlander Hybrid uses a 280-hp 3.5-liter hybrid V6, while the Lexus RX 450h offers the same engine for slightly more power. Interestingly, the Lexus gets better gas mileage, likely because it's not hauling around the Highlander's larger size and the added weight of its third-row seating.

The only major mechanical difference between the Highlander and the RX is that budget-minded drivers interested in the Highlander can choose a base-level 4-cylinder, an engine that isn't available in the Lexus. It makes 185 hp and returns 22 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving.

Features

Interestingly, the RX and Highlander are closer in terms of features -- both standard and optional -- than their $10,000 base price difference would suggest. For instance, both crossovers come with standard 18-inch wheels, automatic headlights, Bluetooth and keyless entry. The Highlander has a standard backup camera, while the RX does not. Meanwhile, the RX has standard dual-zone automatic climate control and a power rear lift gate. Neither crossover comes standard with leather.

If you're looking to get the most features you can possibly buy, you'll want to choose the Lexus, as it has a few items not offered in the Highlander, including some high-end trim pieces that give the cabin a luxurious air. But if value is your game, the Toyota has a leg up on the Lexus, especially considering its 3-row seating capabilities.

Technology

You probably won't be surprised to learn that the Lexus RX has more gadgets than the more mainstream Toyota Highlander. You might also be surprised, however, to learn that it doesn't have as many more gadgets as you might think.

The reason for this is that Toyota has recently taken steps to broaden the Highlander's appeal, even to shoppers who may otherwise be interested in the RX. As a result, the Highlander offers high-tech safety features such as an automatic braking system, automatic high-beam control and even adaptive cruise control -- all features once unique to the RX. Admittedly, the RX still has a few extra touches, ranging from a high-end Mark Levinson sound system to a unique Siri Eyes Free system. Siri Eyes Free gives iPhone users easier and safer access to their phones while driving.

Safety

If you're especially focused on safety, you won't find major differences between the Highlander and the RX. Both models come standard with everything you'll need, including anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control, front-side airbags and side-curtain airbags. The Highlander also has a standard backup camera, a feature that's on the RX's options list.

When it comes to options, both models are also fairly similar. Thanks to the Highlander's recent redesign, it includes nearly all high-tech safety gadgets offered by the RX, including a forward-collision alert system, automatic braking, parking sensors, a blind spot monitor and adaptive cruise control.

Conclusions

Compared to the Lexus RX, the 2014 Toyota Highlander looks fresher and is more practical, thanks to its standard 3-row seating. It also offers roughly the same standard features and includes many of the same high-tech gadgets. So why would you choose the Lexus?

The main reason shoppers would opt for the RX over the Highlander is its premium badge and upscale ownership experience, not to mention a higher-quality cabin that constantly reminds you that you're in a luxury car. If those things are important to you, the RX certainly holds them over the Highlander.

But if you're looking for a new SUV with an emphasis on family and value over luxury, we think you'll find that the Highlander is better suited for your shopping list -- and your budget.

Find a Toyota Highlander or a Lexus RX for sale 

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Doug DeMuro has a wide range of automotive industry experience, from work at a Ferrari dealership to a manager for Porsche North America. A lifelong car enthusiast, Doug's eclectic vehicle purchases include a Porsche 911 Turbo, an E63 AMG wagon, an old Range Rover and a Mercedes Benz G-wagen.

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