CarsDirect Review

2021 Toyota Highlander Review

, Automotive Editor -

Safer than ever. The 2021 Toyota Highlander receives improved safety features, which is something it really didn’t need. Toyota already packed the Highlander with all sorts of standard safety features, but the midsize crossover SUV now comes with the automaker’s Safety Sense 2.5 Plus suite. This adds a few new features over last year's safety bundle.

Toyota Safety Sense 2.5 Plus has a forward collision warning system that can detect pedestrians and cyclists in the daytime and pedestrians at night. It also brings a new feature called intersection support. When the driver is turning left, the feature detects oncoming traffic to prevent a possible head-on collision. Emergency steering assist is also new, which helps stabilize the vehicle during evasive maneuvers. Lastly, the adaptive cruise control system now makes passing a little easier by increasing its speed when the turn signal is activated.

All of these features are new over the lengthy list of standard equipment that one would expect to find on the Highlander. While the IIHS hasn’t tested the 2021 model year, we’re certain it'll retain its Top Safety Pick award from last year. The NHTSA gave the 2021 Highlander a five-star overall safety rating.

Two spacious rows. With seating for up to eight, though the majority of trims offer seven total seats, the Highlander has plenty of room for the entire family.

Passengers in the first two rows get approximately 40 inches of leg room, which is excellent for the class and more than enough space for even the tallest of riders to stretch out. The second row slides, too, allowing passengers to find a comfortable amount of space. The third row, though, offers just 27.7 inches of leg room, making it better suited for kids.

You’ll also find a large amount of cargo space behind the seats. With the third row in place, the Highlander can hold 16 cubic feet of cargo. Fold both of the rear seats down, and total cargo capacity increases to 84.3 cubic feet. That’s a competitive amount for the class.

While the Highlander can be equipped with some high-end features, the interior’s design really stands out. The exterior may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the cabin is something that the majority of people will like.

While there are several plastics throughout the cabin, the majority of them feel soft and are designed well. Some crossovers and SUVs, most notably the Mazda CX-9, feel more premium, but from previous years, the current Highlander feels the most plush.

Toyota Highlander

Well equipped at both ends. With things like remote keyless entry, push button start, heated exterior mirrors, 18-inch alloy wheels, tri-zone automatic climate control, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, and an 8-inch touchscreen, the base Highlander L hardly feels like an entry-level model. With a starting price of $35,985, it certainly isn’t the most affordable crossover in the segment, but it comes well equipped for the price.

Move up to one of the Highlander’s higher trims, and you’re getting something that feels like a luxury vehicle. Chrome exterior trim, 20-inch wheels, leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, a 10-inch head-up display, a 12.3-inch touchscreen, and an 11-speaker JBL audio system are included on the Platinum. At $48,140, it's not that affordable, but it justifies its cost with near luxury-car features.

With six trims to choose from, there’s a happy medium out there for everyone. For us, that happens to be the mid-level XLE that splits the difference in pricing and standard equipment.

Old, but capable, engine. Unlike other competitors that have gone down the route of turbocharged four-cylinder engines, the Highlander stands its ground with a standard 3.5-liter V6 engine. Power is rated at 295 horsepower, which is a stout figure for the class, while towing capacity tops out at 5,000 pounds. These aren’t segment-leading figures by any means, but they’re more than enough for the majority of consumers.

Fuel economy is average for the segment, as the Highlander is rated at up to 24 miles per gallon combined, according to the EPA. If you’re really looking for good fuel efficiency, the Highlander Hybrid is the way to go, or buyers can choose another vehicle with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

Final thoughts. The 2021 Toyota Highlander may not lead the midsize crossover segment in any particular area, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad option. In fact, it gets quite a lot right.

It offers passengers with two rows of spacious seating, a perfectly adequate V6 engine, loads of safety features, and some premium touches at higher trim levels.

What the Highlander is missing is that intangible quality that makes others great. The third row could be more spacious, the exterior styling could be more appealing, and the V6 engine could be more powerful. These, though, aren’t exactly negatives, but areas where other options are simply better.

When it comes to midsize SUVs, the Kia Telluride is our favorite option. It feels more upscale than the Highlander, has a more high-end design, has an infotainment system that’s easier to use, and offers more third-row leg room.

The Mazda CX-9 is the driver’s choice. It may be a three-row vehicle, but it feels like a large sedan with an enjoyable chassis that’s almost hard to believe. The CX-9’s standard turbocharged engine may not have the same output, but it feels gutsy. The Mazda doesn’t have the same interior space or tech features as the Highlander, though.

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