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2016 Toyota RAV4 vs. 2016 Toyota Highlander: What's the Difference?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro February 2016

If you're interested in a new SUV, you've probably realized that Toyota makes one for just about every buyer: the compact RAV4, the midsize Highlander, the off-roader 4Runner, the full-size Sequoia and the luxurious Land Cruiser. The two most popular models are the 2016 Toyota RAV4 and the 2016 Toyota Highlander, which are surprisingly close in size and, depending on which model you choose, can even overlap in price. So what exactly separates the RAV4 from the Highlander, and which one should you get? We've created a close comparison that shows all the differences between Toyota's two most popular SUVs.

Exterior

On the outside, the RAV4 and the Highlander offer clear and obvious differences. While some automakers try to ensure their vehicles offer different sizes of the same overall design, that isn't the case here. The RAV4 and Highlander tout different front and rear ends, different overall profiles, different grilles, different taillights and more. Overall, we find the Highlander to be a lot more aggressive than the RAV4, especially in its latest iteration in which the Highlander looks bold and exciting in contrast to the RAV4's simpler, more traditional appearance.

Interior

When it comes to style, the RAV4 and the Highlander are a lot more similar on the inside than they are on the outside. Although the Highlander offers generally better materials than the RAV4, the two SUVs share a basic dashboard design, along with a lot of switches and buttons. With that said, Highlander models offer more room in virtually every direction -- for your head, legs and hips. And only the Highlander offers 3-row seating, as the RAV4 did away with the feature when it was last redesigned for the 2013 model year.

Mechanicals

The RAV4 offers two powertrains, while the Highlander offers three. Standard in the RAV4 is a 176-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, which is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission and front- or all-wheel drive. Optional is a new hybrid version of that same engine, which comes with 194 hp and a fuel-saving continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

Base-level Highlander models also use a 4-cylinder engine, though it's a 185-hp 2.7-liter unit that's only offered with a 6-speed automatic and front-wheel drive. Most shoppers will step up to either the gas-powered V6, which touts 270 hp, a 6-speed automatic and front- or all-wheel drive, or the hybrid V6, which boasts 280 horses and a fuel-saving CVT.

As for fuel economy, both RAV4 models outshine any version of the Highlander, though we are impressed with the Highlander Hybrid's excellent 27 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, which is class-leading among midsize SUVs.

Features & Technology

Although the Highlander used to be leagues ahead of the RAV4 in terms of equipment and technology, that's no longer the case following a major RAV4 update for the 2016 model year. Now the two models are largely neck and neck, especially when it comes to safety. Both boast available adaptive cruise control, forward-collision alert with automatic braking, rear cross-traffic alert, a blind spot monitoring system and more.

With that said, the Highlander does offer a few features you can't get in the RAV4. Only the Highlander boasts a rear-seat Blu-ray player with a 9-inch display, for instance, and only the Highlander touts available ventilated front seats and heated rear seats. The Highlander is also alone in offering a heated steering wheel and a panoramic sunroof.

In essence, both models offer all the basics, and both share a long list of desirable amenities. But the Highlander beats out the RAV4 by offering a few extra features that some SUV shoppers might want.

Driving Experience

On the road, the Highlander and RAV4 are surprisingly similar in some areas and surprisingly different in others. Acceleration is one area where they differ. If you get a Highlander with the V6, as most shoppers do, you'll find brisk 0-to-60 acceleration and muscular passing power. The RAV4, meanwhile, feels strained with its standard 4-cylinder. We also think the Highlander offers a more solid, stable feel, owing to its wider, longer body.

There are, however, some similarities. Most notably, both SUVs offer predictable handling with a relatively numb, easy-to-turn steering wheel. The RAV4 and Highlander also lean moderately in turns, though not more than rivals, and they tout excellent visibility with a commanding view of the road. In short, both are easy, simple SUVs to drive, but the Highlander offers more stability and a stronger performance than its smaller RAV4 stablemate.

Safety

In government crash tests carried out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, both the RAV4 and Highlander earned a perfect 5-star overall score. It's the same story with the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which awarded both the RAV4 and the Highlander a coveted Top Safety Pick+ rating.

Safety features, too, are largely shared between both vehicles. Both the RAV4 and the Highlander tout all the basics you'd expect as standard features (such as side-curtain airbags, a backup camera, anti-lock brakes and traction control with stability control), while both SUVs also offer just about every modern gadget as an option -- from forward-collision alert with automatic braking to rear cross-traffic alert, a blind spot monitoring system and more. In essence, we think these two SUVs are virtually identical when it comes to safety, and both are among the safest models in their segment.

Conclusions

If you think of the 2016 Toyota Highlander as an older-brother version of the 2016 Toyota RAV4, you'd be exactly right. It's bigger and stronger, but it shares the same general DNA in that both SUVs offer gas and hybrid powerplants, similar equipment and the same legendary Toyota reliability.

If we were choosing between the Highlander and the RAV4, we'd go with the Highlander only if we needed the extra space or wanted the extra power and equipment. Otherwise, we'd save our money, as the Highlander is around $5,000 more expensive than the equivalent RAV4 -- a difference that grows as you progress through the two SUVs' trim levels.

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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.
2016 Toyota RAV4 vs. 2016 Toyota Highlander: What's the Difference? - Autotrader