Car Comparison

2015 Toyota Highlander vs. 2015 Toyota 4Runner: What's the Difference?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro July 2015

If you're looking for a family-friendly SUV, you've probably noticed that Toyota offers quite a few including two midsize models, the 2015 Toyota Highlander and the 2015 Toyota 4Runner, that offer similar pricing and sizing. So, why exactly are these two similar models available from the same automaker? What makes them different? And which one should you get? Our latest article is a close comparison of the Highlander and the 4Runner that should help you answer each of those questions.

Exterior

The primary difference between the 4Runner and the Highlander is immediately obvious from the first time you see the two SUVs: the 4Runner offers more of an off-road-ready, go-anywhere appearance, while the Highlander touts more of a traditional family-crossover look. Although these are both Toyota SUVs, and they're both about the same size, the 4Runner is a truck-based model designed for off-road terrain-tackling, while the Highlander is a car-based crossover designed for shuttling your family and all their gear.

Interior

Inside, the Highlander and the 4Runner offer totally different cabins that also clearly demonstrate their major differences. Specifically, the Highlander's interior offers more of a comfortable, family-friendly demeanor, with simple controls and soft-touch surfaces. Meanwhile, the 4Runner's interior almost looks like the inside of a pickup truck, with right angles, hard surfaces and a robust, muscular look. But the main difference most family car shoppers will care about is the seating capacity: the Highlander offers three-row seating, while 4Runner buyers must make do with just two rows.

Mechanics

The Highlander and 4Runner also offer few similarities under the hood. The Highlander comes standard with a 4-cylinder, while the 4Runner jumps right to a standard V6. But even when comparing V6 powertrains, these two SUVs aren't very similar. The Highlander's 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is tuned for refinement, comfort and smoothness, while the 4Runner's 270-hp 4.0-liter V6 is designed to eke out torque, pulling power and muscle.

The Highlander is unique in offering a hybrid powerplant, which returns up to 27 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, which is a huge increase over the 4Runner's maximum gas mileage ratings of 17 mpg city/22 mpg hwy.

Features & Technology

When it comes to standard and optional equipment, the 4Runner feels like a dinosaur compared to the recently redesigned Highlander.

Here's what we mean: the Highlander offers a wide array of today's latest safety features, like lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning with automatic braking, a standard backup camera, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. Aside from sharing that standard backup camera, the 4Runner's best safety feature is its available front and rear parking sensors.

And it's not just safety equipment that the 4Runner is missing. You can't get the Highlander's panoramic sunroof in the 4Runner. You also can't get heated seats or a heated steering wheel. While the 4Runner offers an available 6.1-inch touchscreen, the Highlander touts an 8-in screen. Simply put, these two vehicles don't really compete when it comes to technology: the 4Runner is an off-road brute that favors analog over digital, while the Highlander boasts just about all of today's most modern bells and whistles.

Driving Experience

Differences between the Highlander and the 4Runner become even more obvious when you climb behind the wheel. That's because the 4Runner's king-of-the-road driving position only reinforces its more truck-like demeanor in comparison to the Highlander, which offers more of a car-like feel.

It's the same story as you cruise along. While the Highlander's compliant suspension soaks up most bumps, the 4Runner crashes over them with brute force. While the Highlander feels like a car around corners, 4Runner drivers will feel like they're steering a larger vehicle. And while the Highlander offers a hushed engine note and plush seating, the 4Runner was clearly engineered for drivers who don't have those items high on their priority list.

Safety

In tests carried out by the federal government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Highlander earned a perfect 5-star score to the 4Runner's more mediocre 4-star rating. In tests carried out by the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the 4Runner's average marks pale in comparison to the Highlander's excellent "Top Safety Pick+" designation.

And then there's safety equipment. As we've already mentioned, the Highlander has a lot of it, and the 4Runner doesn't. Specifically, the Highlander offers forward-collision warning with automatic braking, lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert and adaptive cruise control. The 4Runner doesn't come with any of those items, offering only a standard backup camera and available parking sensors.

Conclusions

Both the 2015 Toyota Highlander and the 2015 Toyota 4Runner are excellent vehicles, but they're excellent for different people. Family car shoppers will almost exclusively want the Highlander, which offers a more comfortable ride, better gas mileage, more features, stronger safety scores and the all-important third-row seat. Drivers who would prefer a go-anywhere, terrain-tackling, off-road SUV will find few vehicles more capable than the 4Runner. These two SUVs have the same Toyota emblem on the front, and they're roughly the same size, but that's where the similarities end.

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Used 2015 Toyota Highlander AWD Limited V6
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Certified 2015 Toyota Highlander AWD XLE V6
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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2015 Toyota Highlander vs. 2015 Toyota 4Runner: What's the Difference? - Autotrader