2021 Toyota Highlander

By January 18, 2021

The 2021 Toyota Highlander offers huge space, generous tech and safety equipment, and excellent efficiency, at least in hybrid form.

For 2021, Toyota has redesigned the Highlander but brought back all the virtue. As it was last year, the Highlander is offered in both conventional and Hybrid form. The conventional gas-engine model is a familiar 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 295 horsepower. It gets paired with an 8-speed automatic that sends power to just the front wheels or all four. Fuel economy is estimated by the EPA at 21 miles per gallon city, 29 mpg highway, 24 combined with front-wheel drive, or 20/27/23 mpg with all-wheel drive.

The hybrid trades off the V-6 for an 2.5-liter inline-4 that works in tandem with an electric motor fed by a nickel-metal-hydride battery. The combo only makes 243 hp but delivers 35 mpg in all three drive cycles, according to the EPA.

Standard safety equipment is generous. The list includes automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and active lane control. Most trims also get blind-spot monitors. A surround-view camera system and parking sensors are available.

The IIHS noted the Highlander earned its top score of “Good” across all their crash-testing scenarios. Most models had their headlights rated as “Poor,” though the LEDs found on the Limited and Platinum trims fared better. The NHTSA hasn’t had a chance to crash-test the Highlander yet.

Model Lineup

Like years past, the Highlander lineup begins with the $35,985 L. Standard features on the base model include cloth upholstery, tri-zone climate control, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The LE begins at $38,185 and adds blind-spot monitors, a power liftgate, and a leather-wrapped shift knob.

The $40,985 XLE incorporates a panoramic sunroof, synthetic leather upholstery, second-row captain’ chairs, a digital gauge cluster, power front seats, and wireless smartphone charging.

Newly introduced for this generation of Highlander is the $42,580 XSE. As the sportiest choice of the bunch, the XSE gets a firmer suspension and tighter steering to go with its 20-inch wheels and bold grille design. Heated front seats and a twin-tip exhaust round out the package.

The $44,940 Limited treads into luxury territory with leather upholstery, heated and cooled front seats, and an upgraded audio system.

The Limited is equipped like a full-boat luxury SUV and, at $48,140, is also priced like one. For that sum buyers get 20-inch wheels, a hands-free tailgate, heated second-row seats, a head-up display, 12.3-inch touchscreen, heated steering wheel, a surround-view camera system, and ambient lighting.

Exterior

Toyota, once the king of staid design, has gotten bolder and bolder with every new product or major restyling. The Highlander is no exception; what was once a family conservative three-row crossover now wears a far more muscular look.

The major eye-catcher here is the front end, which is more furrowed, flowing, and expressive than its predecessor. It comes off as more interesting, lending the Highlander some visual excitement.

Further back, Toyota differentiated this model with a markedly raked roofline and a clearly defined character line that begins at the lower leading edge of the front door and traces over the rear fender. It’s not subtle, but it works.

Interior

The new Highlander also brings with it a revised interior. The design has been updated to better incorporate technology and better align with the latest trends; that means the upright center stack of the old model has been eliminated in favor of a horizontally-oriented design that is dominated by the 8.0-inch touchscreen. Everything feels close at hand and designed with regards to the driver. As always, build quality is excellent and materials, while not fancy, feel durable.

The touchscreen is governed by Toyota’s latest infotainment system, which includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A quartet of USB ports accompany the setup. For more screen, a 12.3-inch touchscreen comes standard with the Platinum trim and is offered on the Limited.

The front seats in the Highlander are plush thrones ready for a road trip. All models get power adjustment, but the heated and cooled seats are saved for the upper trims. Our advice: splurge for them. They make driving in all climates a bit more comfortable and offer more adjustment and support besides.

The back seat is a cavernous space, offering passengers more than 40 inches of leg room when the fore/aft sliding bench is adjusted fully rearward. Big windows keep it airy and spacious back there. Captain’s chairs are offered in lieu of the standard bench seat and we highly recommend them.

The third row isn’t so hot, having only 28 inches of leg room. It can seat three across, but expect that middle seat to go unused unless all three passengers are in grade school.

With all seats up, the Highlander has 16.0 cubic feet of cargo space, which grows to more than 48 cubes with the third row folded. With the second and third row stowed, the Highlander has a generous 84 cubic feet of available space.

Driving Impressions

This generation of Highlander is the sportiest yet by a fairly wide margin. We’re not kidding when we say the XSE model isn’t just an exercise in sporty design. Its upgraded suspension and steering results in a crossover that can corner with surprising gusto.

The XSE isn’t the only Highlander with better manners. The other models also benefit from a more buttoned-down suspension, and though they aren’t so overt about their intentions as the XSE, they do have more satisfying handling than they did prior. Compared to last year, everything is nicely tightened up.

The 3.5-liter V-6 is carryover, but it builds power in a linear, predictable way. It’s also strong enough to pull 5,000 pounds of trailer.

The V-6 is normally mated to front-wheel drive, but two different types of all-wheel drive are available. The simpler, more conventional system uses a mechanical driveshaft to send power to the rear wheels. The rear differential can get up to 50 percent of engine power, which then gets allocated equally to both rear wheels. The more advanced system found on the Limited and Platinum models mix in torque vectoring, which allows an uneven split of power between the rear wheels for enhanced grip and performance.

The hybrid is also available with front- or all-wheel drive but doesn’t share any AWD hardware with its gas-powered sibling. Its 243 hp doesn’t sound like much for a vehicle of this size, but it is more than adequate for shuttling around the Highlander. Most impressive—outside its 35 mpg city/highway/combined rating—is how seamless it transitions between power modes. It is almost impossible to tell when the electric motor begins to accompany the gas engine or when it decouples itself.

Final Word

The 2021 Highlander might be redesigned but it still feels familiar in all the right ways. Toyota knew what to fix and what to keep the same; the result is a crossover that is now more than ever a segment leader. Our favorite iteration is the XLE, which is a nice blend of features and price.

 

—by Anthony Sophinos, with driving impressions from The Car Connection

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