Over the last two decades, Toyota has largely abandoned the idea of sporty performance and driving engagement. More recently, the automaker's shown growing interest in these principles by collaborating with Subaru and BMW on the 86 and Supra, respectively. There have also been sportier versions of the sedate Camry and Avalon sedans. The latest to get the treatment is the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE, which debuted at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show.
2021 Toyota Highlander
2021 Toyota Highlander Review
- Comfortable, quiet ride
- Easy to see out of
- Good power and fuel economy from V6 engine
- Third row is kids-only
- Below-average cargo space behind the third-row seat
- New sporty XSE trim debuts
- Part of the fourth Highlander generation introduced for 2020
Coming off a full redesign last year, the 2021 Toyota Highlander broadens its lineup with a new and sporty XSE model with a sport-tuned suspension. Most shoppers seeking a three-row family SUV probably aren't looking for handling performance, though, and the Highlander is already skilled in that area. Otherwise, this three-row midsize SUV returns unchanged, with the same perks and drawbacks as last year.
We enjoy the Highlander's comfortable seats and ride quality, as well as its potent V6 engine that comes standard. But this Toyota is held back by its cramped third-row seating and smaller cargo space behind those seats. If cargo space is a priority, it's worth checking out the impressive Kia Telluride (and related Hyundai Palisade) as well as the Honda Pilot or Volkswagen Atlas. Still interested? Check out our Expert Rating to get our in-depth take on the ups and downs of the 2021 Highlander.
The Highlander gets high marks for its superb comfort and above-average fuel economy. It feels confident on a winding road, and its responsive acceleration is useful for driving around town. It's also comfortable on long-distance drives. But the Highlander suffers from a third-row seat that is confining and falls below the mark set by the top players in this segment.
How does the Highlander drive?
Unlike some SUVs that can be slow to respond when you first step on the accelerator, the Toyota Highlander delivers near immediate response. At our Edmunds test track we measured 0-60 mph at 7.5 seconds, which is slightly better than average and a dead heat with the top-rated Kia Telluride — though the Highlander feels a little quicker from the driver's seat.
The Highlander's ability to negotiate a twisty road has improved. Body roll is controlled as you go around turns, and the available torque-vectoring AWD system can also help by applying engine power to individual rear wheels to subtly enhance the SUV's handling balance (in addition to the usual benefit of extra traction in wet weather).
Despite all this advanced technology, the Highlander still feels like a bigger SUV. A number of competitors move with more purpose and lightness, and many are able to stop quicker in an emergency braking scenario. Ultimate performance aside, the Highlander makes daily driving a low-effort activity, which is most important.
How comfortable is the Highlander?
The Highlander's ride quality is pleasantly plush. Large and small road imperfections are smoothed over thanks to the compliant suspension, yet it avoids feeling floaty or disconnected at higher speeds. The front seats are quite comfortable even on long drives, and the available second-row captain's chairs deliver nearly the same amount of comfort. Alas, the third-row seats are one of the Highlander's greatest liabilities. Thin padding, a very low seat cushion and narrow space make them ill-suited for adults.
Wind noise is well silenced on the highway, and road noise is minimal. Our test Highlander did have a minor creak developing at the top of the driver's door.
How’s the interior?
The first and second seating rows provide ample space, but the third row is one of the most confining in the midsize three-row SUV class. If you're planning on regularly using the full passenger capacity, you will be better served by rivals such as the Kia Telluride or Volkswagen Atlas. Once you're seated, it's easy to find your preferred driving position, but taller drivers may wish for a bit more extension range from the telescoping steering wheel. It can be a bit of a reach.
We give the Highlander high marks for outward visibility. The front roof pillars are thin, which help you see around turns. Some of the Highlander's available technology features help too, such as the camera-based rearview mirror that allows you to see out the back even if you've fully loaded up the rear cargo area. The available surround-view camera system is sharp and can be rotated to "look around" the vehicle.
How’s the tech?
In recent years, Toyota has trailed other manufacturers when it comes to tech. This latest-generation Highlander makes big strides in the right direction, but it still has some drawbacks. The optional 12.3-inch touchscreen is huge (an 8-inch screen is standard) and it responds quickly to inputs, but the reflections on the surface make using it more difficult than it should be. Our Highlander Platinum test vehicle had five USB charge ports for the first and second rows but none for the third row.
Toyota provides a comprehensive suite of advanced driver aids as standard on all Highlanders. Among other things, we like the adaptive cruise control, but we found the lane departure warning slightly too sensitive in the normal mode and not sensitive enough in the low mode.
How’s the storage?
Cargo space is a bit of a mixed bag with the Highlander. Behind the third row, there's only 16 cubic feet of space, which is small for the class. Behind the second row, it expands to a better-than-average 48.4 cubic feet. The liftover height is about average for a midsize SUV.
As for cabin storage, there are good-size pockets and cupholders, as well as two shelves built into the dash (one has a clever phone cable keeper too). Because the wireless phone charger is in the center armrest bin, you have to flip it up to access the space underneath, which some might find inconvenient.
Got kids? A large rear-facing car seat will easily be accommodated in the second row thanks to the generous amount of fore/aft movement of the available captain's chairs. The car seat anchors are also easy to locate and access for all types of child safety seats, though there are no anchors in the third row.
How economical is the Highlander?
The EPA estimates the all-wheel-drive Highlander returns 23 mpg (20 city/27 highway) and a slightly better 24 mpg (21 city/29 highway) for front-wheel-drive models. This may not seem like a huge advantage over the competition with a difference of just 1 or 2 mpg, but it's significant for this class of vehicle.
On our 115-mile highway-heavy evaluation route, we achieved 24.7 mpg, which indicates to us the EPA's estimates should be achievable. Of note, the Highlander Hybrid is estimated to return 36 mpg combined.
Is the Highlander a good value?
In general, the Highlander is a little more expensive than its closest rivals, and you don't quite get as many standard features. When it comes to quality, the interior materials are only about average when compared to what's used in the top-rated SUVs in this class.
Toyota's warranty coverage is pretty common for the class with three years/36,000 miles of bumper-to-bumper coverage and five years/60,000 miles for the powertrain. Toyota provides the first two years of scheduled maintenance for free.
The new styling up front gives the Highlander more of an industrial, truck-like appearance, which is pleasing. The same can't be said of the Supra-inspired character line that goes from the bottom of the front door and over the rear wheels.
One thing that helps boost this score is the Highlander's composure on a twisting road. We might even say it's fun to drive for a midsize three-row SUV.
Which Highlander does Edmunds recommend?
Toyota Highlander models
The 2021 Toyota Highlander is a midsize three-row SUV with seating for eight passengers. Midgrade trims and above swap the second-row bench for captain's chairs, reducing capacity to seven passengers. All models are powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine (295 horsepower, 263 lb-ft of torque) that is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission that drives the front wheels. All-wheel-drive is available on all trims as an option. There's also a Highlander Hybrid variant that is reviewed separately.
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2021 Toyota Highlander videos
2020 Toyota Highlander Review — Release Date, Price, Interior and More
NOTE: This video is about the 2020 Toyota Highlander, but since the 2021 Toyota Highlander is part of the same generation, our earlier analysis still applies.
Our experts’ favorite Highlander safety features:
- Pre-Collision with Pedestrian Detection
- Warns of an approaching vehicle or pedestrian, providing additional braking force or applying the brakes automatically if necessary.
- Full-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control
- Follows the vehicle ahead at a preset distance, with the ability to operate at low speeds or all the way up to 110 mph.
- Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist
- Alerts the driver of possible unintended lane departures and can apply small corrective steering inputs to keep the vehicle in its lane.
Toyota Highlander vs. the competition
2021 Toyota Highlander
2021 Kia Telluride
Toyota Highlander vs. Kia Telluride
Both the Highlander and the Telluride benefit from potent and efficient V6 engines that come standard. They're also praiseworthy for their lush comfort over long distances. The Telluride has the Highlander beat when it comes to third-row space and comes with more features for the money. The Kia's been our top pick in the class since it was introduced.
Toyota Highlander vs. Hyundai Palisade
The Hyundai Palisade is closely related to the Kia Telluride and holds many of the same benefits over the Highlander. The Palisade isn't as generous as the Kia with features, but it still represents a better value than the Toyota. On top of that, both Hyundai and Kia offer an unbeatable 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Toyota Highlander vs. Honda Pilot
As the Honda Pilot was last redesigned in 2016, it's the elder statesman compared to the newer Highlander. Despite its age, the Pilot is one of our favorites in the class thanks to its roomy and versatile interior and clever storage solutions. The third-row seats are a bit more accommodating than the Highlander's, but access to them is tight. We're also no fans of Honda's overly sensitive warning chimes.
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Is the Toyota Highlander a good car?
What's new in the 2021 Toyota Highlander?
According to Edmunds’ car experts, here’s what’s new for the 2021 Toyota Highlander:
- New sporty XSE trim debuts
- Part of the fourth Highlander generation introduced for 2020
Is the Toyota Highlander reliable?
Is the 2021 Toyota Highlander a good car?
How much should I pay for a 2021 Toyota Highlander?
The least-expensive 2021 Toyota Highlander is the 2021 Toyota Highlander L 4dr SUV (3.5L 6cyl 8A). Including destination charge, it arrives with a Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of about $35,085.
Other versions include:
- XLE 4dr SUV AWD (3.5L 6cyl 8A) which starts at $41,685
- XLE 4dr SUV (3.5L 6cyl 8A) which starts at $40,085
- XSE 4dr SUV AWD (3.5L 6cyl 8A) which starts at $43,630
- XSE 4dr SUV (3.5L 6cyl 8A) which starts at $41,680
- Platinum 4dr SUV AWD (3.5L 6cyl 8A) which starts at $49,190
- L 4dr SUV (3.5L 6cyl 8A) which starts at $35,085
- Limited 4dr SUV AWD (3.5L 6cyl 8A) which starts at $45,990
- LE 4dr SUV (3.5L 6cyl 8A) which starts at $37,285
- Limited 4dr SUV (3.5L 6cyl 8A) which starts at $44,040
- Platinum 4dr SUV (3.5L 6cyl 8A) which starts at $47,240
- LE 4dr SUV AWD (3.5L 6cyl 8A) which starts at $38,885
- L 4dr SUV AWD (3.5L 6cyl 8A) which starts at $36,685