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2021 Toyota Highlander Review

The 2021 Toyota Highlander midsize 3-row SUV/crossover is capable of seating seven or eight, depending on whether there’s a bench in the second row or a pair of captain’s chairs. It also offers a hybrid drivetrain (reviewed separately), which now comes as a more affordable front-wheel-drive variant. The Highlander is now in the second year of its fourth generation.

Naturally, this new Highlander is bigger than its predecessor, which brings benefits in cabin space. But accommodations in the third row still don’t compare well to several main rivals. For example, the Buick Enclave and Volkswagen Atlas enjoy more than 33 inches of third-row legroom. The Highlander has 27.7 inches.

Cargo space now measures 16 cu ft. behind the third row, expanding to 84.3 cu ft. with the second and third rows folded. That’s about the same as the Honda Pilot, which is a good thing.

The exterior design is suitably edgy for contemporary tastes, with an assertive front end enlivened by LED headlights, plus well-defined side panels. Inside, a stylized dashboard puts a neatly integrated touchscreen and supporting controls at its center. Not so visually arresting but still useful are the recessed cargo trays along the dashboard’s base.

Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, Amazon Alexa, and satellite radio are all standard across the range. So is Driver Easy Speak, a feature that broadcasts the driver’s voice through the rear speakers.

Also standard throughout and perhaps one of the strongest arguments in the 2021 Highlander’s favor (along with solid reliability and robust resale values) is the set of driver aids known as Toyota Safety Sense 2.5. This includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane tracing assistance, lane departure warning with steering assistance, automatic high beams, and road sign recognition.

What’s New for 2021?

The standard-issue Toyota Safety Sense array of driver aids upgrades to version 2.5. Improvements include left-turn intersection support and mistaken pedal application, partially autonomous emergency steering, plus enhancements to the adaptive cruise control, lane departure, and lane tracing functions.

LED projector headlights are now standard in every 2021 Highlander. And a new XSE trim level is introduced, coming with trim-specific 20-inch alloy wheels, black roof rails/side mirror housings/window trim, ambient cabin lighting, optional torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, and a sport-tuned suspension. See the 2021 Toyota Highlander models for sale near you

What We Like

  • Upscale interior
  • Full array of standard safety features
  • Driving dynamics
  • 12.3-inch touchscreen

What We Don’t

  • Substantial price
  • Cramped third-row legroom
  • Daytime glare obscures the touchscreen

How Much?

$35,985-$48,140

Fuel Economy

A 3.5-liter V6 engine propels the Highlander with 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. It has a stop/restart function to help save some gasoline while idling. The next link is an 8-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel-drive (FWD) is standard; all-wheel drive (AWD) is optional.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), fuel consumption estimates are 20 miles per gallon in the city, 28 mpg on the highway, and 23 mpg in combined driving (FWD) or 20 mpg city/27 mpg hwy/23 mpg combined (AWD).

The EPA puts fuel consumption at 36 mpg city/35 mpg highway/36 mpg combined (FWD) or 35 mpg city/35 mpg hwy/35 mpg combined (AWD). The exception here is the all-wheel-drive Limited Platinum trims, which are thirstier on the highway by one mile per gallon.

Maximum towing for the V6-powered Highlander is 5,000 pounds.

Standard Features and Options

The 2021 Toyota Highlander with the V6 comes in L, LE, XLE, XSE, Limited, and Platinum trim levels.

Prices quoted here are for front-drive versions and include the $1,175 destination charge. All Highlanders can be optioned with all-wheel drive, costing between $1,600 and $1,950, depending on the trim.

L ($35,985) has 18-in alloy wheels, eight airbags, keyless entry/ignition, heated side mirrors with integrated turn signals, LED projector headlights, LED taillights, washer for the reversing camera, selectable driving modes, tri-zone automatic climate control, eight cupholders, four bottle holders, 8-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, 4-way manually adjustable front passenger seat, cloth upholstery, 8-occupant seating with 60/40 split/folding second-row and third-row bench seats, 4.2-in color LCD driver information screen, four USB ports, two 12-volt outlets, Driver Easy Speak, Toyota Safety Sense 2.5, hill-start assist, Bluetooth connectivity with voice recognition, 8-in infotainment touchscreen, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration, Amazon Alexa compatibility, satellite radio, and a 6-speaker audio system. All-wheel-drive versions also have hill descent control and mud guards.

LE ($38,815) adds a powered liftgate, LED fog lights, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

XLE ($40,985) brings a powered moonroof, roof rails, self-dimming rearview mirror, wireless charging, simulated leather upholstery for the first two seating rows, heated front seats, 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat with lumbar support, 4-way power-adjustable front passenger seat, second-row captain’s chairs (reducing the occupant count to seven), second-row sunshades, and a 7-in color gauge cluster.

Options include 8-occupant seating and navigation.

XSE ($42,580) has a sport-tuned suspension and steering system, trim-specific 20-in alloy wheels, twin exhaust tips, torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, ambient cabin lighting, black simulated leather upholstery, several cosmetic additions, and black accents on the LED headlights with a light-strip design for the daytime running lights.

This trim is eligible for red/black 2-tone leather upholstery.

Limited ($44,940) has 20-in wheels, puddle lights, LED daytime running lights, high-output LED fog lights, hands-free liftgate operation, real leather for the first two seating rows, ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, ambient interior lighting, 120-volt outlet, front/rear parking assistance with automatic braking, navigation, and a JBL 11-speaker premium audio system.

Options include 8-occupant seating, 360-degree camera system, and a 12.3-in touchscreen.

The 7-seater-only Platinum ($48,140) adds adaptive self-leveling LED projector headlights, rain-sensing wipers, panoramic moonroof, digital rearview mirror, 10-inch color head-up display, 12.3-inch touchscreen, and illuminated door sills up front.

Safety

Every Highlander comes with eight airbags and Toyota’s Star Safety System, including stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes and brake assist.

Also standard throughout is Toyota Safety Sense 2.5 that includes forward collision mitigation with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, left turn intersection support, partially autonomous emergency steering, adaptive cruise control with stop/go, lane tracing assistance, lane departure warning with steering assistance, automatic high beams, and road sign recognition. Lane tracing helps the Highlander keep in the center of its lane while using adaptive cruise control.

This generation of Toyota Highlander has yet to be crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) made it a Top Safety Pick after it took top scores in most major categories. The IIHS said this accolade only applied to versions with upgraded LED projector headlights, but since the 2021 Highlander gains those as standard, its safety credentials are top-notch.

Behind the Wheel

The Highlander’s cabin is a comfortable place to spend many hours. The large glass area provides great views all around and occupants in the first two rows have plenty of room to spread out. The third row remains a kids-only space.

The instrument panel is arranged sensibly; it’s tidy and easy to navigate. The only issue is the occasional glare from sunlight obscuring the touchscreen.

The V6 Highlander has plenty of thrust, easily enough to move this midsize 3-row crossover when it’s full, and certainly more than most rivals. This V6 engine/8-speed automatic transmission is a tried-and-trusted drivetrain.

Handling is consistent and stable. It feels big from behind the wheel, but that will appeal to SUV buyers who feel a larger vehicle provides an extra degree of safety.

The all-wheel-drive system in the V6-powered L, LE, and XLE can transfer up to 50 percent of available torque to the rear wheels if wheel slip is detected.

A more sophisticated all-wheel-drive setup is in the XSE, Limited, and Platinum versions, featuring Toyota’s Dynamic Torque Vectoring with Driveline Disconnect. It enables the redistribution of torque not only from front to rear but also side to side at the rear axle. This system also provides multi-terrain driving modes, including Mud & Sand and Rock & Dirt.

Other Cars to Consider

2021 Buick Enclave — The Enclave provides plenty of space in all three rows. A bit pricey, but at least it has lots of standard equipment, user-friendly controls, and a library-quiet cabin.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas — Another super-roomy 3-row crossover, the Atlas has plenty of standard content and sliding second-row seats that also tilt even with a child seat attached.

2021 Chevrolet Traverse — Mechanically similar to the Enclave, the spacious Traverse is more affordable, but its interior is lower quality.

2021 Mazda CX-9 — Not as roomy as the rest of the class, but balances a sporty drive with upscale comfort, 3-row seating, and excellent fuel economy. Although not considered a luxury crossover, the top Mazda CX-9 trim level does a convincing impression.

2021 Hyundai Palisade — The Palisade is stylish, loaded with content, and offers lots of passenger/cargo space. Great value.

2021 Kia Telluride — Close relation to the Hyundai Palisade with the same formula of generous equipment at keen prices.

Used Acura MDX — A recent MDX should be within reach of anyone looking at upper trims of a new Highlander. Acura vehicles are always well built and provide plenty of features for the money. Check out Acura’s certified pre-owned (CPO) program.

Questions You May Ask

Is the 2021 Toyota Highlander a good car?

The Highlander is a great crossover. It’s among the most recommendable 3-row midsize SUVs, with superb practicality, strong resale values, and an impeccable reputation for reliability.

What’s new in this Toyota Highlander compared with the previous one?

This larger fourth-generation Highlander has greater interior space, extra tech, and new features — especially in the safety department.

Where is the 2021 Toyota Highlander made?

At Toyota’s factory in Indiana.

Autotrader’s Advice

Anyone thinking about the base L trim should really think about stretching to the LE to gain blind-spot monitoring. The XLE version hits a fine balance of equipment to make life easy and pleasant while still keeping expenditure at mere-mortal levels. The Highlander traditionally enjoys strong resale values, and there’s every reason to believe this latest generation will do the same. Find a Toyota Highlander for sale

Colin Ryan
Colin Ryan specializes in writing about new cars. But he has also covered trucks, vans, 3-wheelers, even the occasional motorbike. That’s the kind of thing that happens while contributing to the Los Angeles Times, Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book, Popular Mechanics, Variety, Mazda and Lexus customer magazines, as well as many enthusiast sites and publications. He was also a staff writer at BBC Top... Read More

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