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Is 2021 your year to upgrade to a third-row SUV? If so, then you might want to add the 2021 Toyota Highlander and the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee to your list of vehicles to test drive. While both are capable family haulers with a lot of technology equipped on them, there is one that outshines the other - and that is the 2021 Toyota Highlander. We'll make no bones about that, and you will see why after reading through this comparison review.
Let us start off with the Highlander. This model year, the only significant change is the addition of the sport-oriented XSE trim level. Since the Highlander was just revamped for its new generation in 2020, you will not find anything else to be dramatically different. And, really, that is okay with us.
For a third-row SUV, the Highlander is considerably fuel efficient. In fact, its V6 engine is able to get up to 23 miles per gallon combined on the all-wheel drive (AWD) variant while the front-wheel drive (FWD) drivetrain clocks in at 24 mpg combined. This is about 1-2 mpg combined better than what the Highlander's top rivals get, which, in this segment, is a pretty good achievement. It is also worth noting that the Highlander Hybrid variant is able to get up to 36 mpg combined and is not at all wanting for power.
The Highlander is quiet, comfortable, and easy to see out of. Of course, there is standard and available technology that helps you get an extremely clear view of everything that surrounds the Highlander, but it is safe to say that you will not need to rely on it.
What we do not like about the Highlander is a qualm that is typical for this segment. The third row of seats is definitely kids-only. The accessway is narrow, the seat cushions are somewhat flat, and the seats are situated relatively low. Also, the cargo area is not as generously sized as one might expect. With all three rows left in place, there is just 16 cubic feet of cargo space. Folding the third row down maxes it out at 48.4 cubes, which is fairly average. But that 16 cubes feels tight when you are trying to cram something like a stroller into the cargo area.
So, how exactly does the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee stack up? The only real change for the model year is the 80th Anniversary Edition package for the Limited trim level. Otherwise, expect to find the Grand Cherokee's same plushly padded interior, abundance of tech features, superb towing ratings, and strong optional V8 engine.
On the downside, the Grand Cherokee has a disappointing ride quality from its suspension. Even the adaptive air suspension does not do a very good job of providing ride comfort. On top of that, the base V6 engine has some seriously underwhelming power output.
Let's start things off by talking about powertrains. A good powertrain can really enhance the overall enjoyability of the ride. A bad one, well, you get the picture. The 2021 Toyota Highlander is powered by a standard 3.6-L V6 engine that comes with an 8-speed automatic transmission. FWD is standard, but AWD is available on any trim level you want. Of course, if you are interested in a hybrid model, you can get the Highlander Hybrid, which yields up to 36 mpg combined.
The 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee starts you off with a standard 3.6-liter V6 that puts out a total of 295 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. The Trailhawk, Overland, and Summit trim levels come with an optional 5.7-liter V8 that generates 360 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque. The SRT's standard 6.4-liter V8 puts forth 470 hp and 475 lb-ft of torque, and the Trackhawk's supercharged 6.2-liter V8 gives you an impressive 707 hp and 645 lb-ft of torque. The Trailhawk and SRT both have AWD, but FWD is standard on everything else. An 8-speed automatic transmission helps send power to the wheels.
What makes a vehicle a pain or pleasure to drive? When we talk about drivability, we aren't just referring to how strong the engine is. Rather, we broaden our focus to include factors like acceleration, braking, steering, handling, how well a vehicle provides ride comfort and quality, and how functional its included tech gadgetry happens to be.
That being said, the 2021 Toyota Highlander is a strong performer. The standard V6 engine provides 295 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque, which is enough to get this large SUV from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 7.5 seconds - a quick time for the segment. In fact, this is right on par with the snappy Kia Telluride, but the Highlander actually feels like it has a quicker initial burst of power. The Highlander is also now better able to navigate winding roadways and non-paved pathways. The body roll is kept to a minimum as the Highlander rounds through turns, and the optional torque-vectoring AWD system enhances the stability and traction, thereby making it better able to go across slick road surfaces.
Still, the Highlander tends to feel like the large vehicle that it is. Some of its competitors are a bit more spry, and quite a few are able to come to panic stops in shorter distances than the Highlander.
The Highlander's ride quality is cozy. The suspension is well-tuned for comfort, although the XSE's sport-tuned suspension is appropriately firmer. The regular suspension does not have any tendencies to feel floaty or disengaged from the road when you take it up to speed on the highway. Comfort is packed into the well-padded front seats, and even the second row is comfy enough. The third row lacks some padding, so the firmer seat cushions are best left for kids. The cabin itself is well insulated from road and tire noise, so you can cruise along at higher speeds without needing to crank the stereo's volume.
Space itself is pretty generous in the first two rows. The third, however, is one of the narrowest in this segment. Only kids can fit back there. Even smaller adults might have some issues making their way back to that row. Sitting behind the steering wheel is cozy since you can find a good position fairly quickly. The only issue is for taller drivers, as the telescoping steering wheel could use a slightly wider range. Outward visibility is superb, although the available 360-degree surround view camera gives you a clear view of what is around the Highlander. Just rotate the view to see.
Speaking of the Highlander's technology, it is certainly well equipped with all the latest. Toyota no longer trails behind its competitors when it comes to infotainment systems. The Highlander has a great 8-inch touchscreen display, but the optional 12.3-inch screen casts a lot more glare than what you might like. The upper trim levels give you five USB ports in the first and second rows, but none are available for the third row occupants.
The 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee is a formidable opponent for the Highlander, but it falls short in a few key areas. It does, however, offer a little more diversity in terms of configurations. You can choose between four different engines, FWD or AWD, and a standard or air suspension. The V6 takes a full 8 seconds to get the vehicle from 0 to 60 mph, but the optional V8 is a bit snappier. The vehicle can make a solid stopping distance in 124 feet. The Grand Cherokee's weight does drag down its acceleration performance as well as its handling. Also, the disengaged steering system makes exerting control feel all the more rigorous. The available AWD makes off-roading feel enjoyable enough though.
The Grand Cherokee's cabin remains well muted, and the seats are packed with support. The heated and ventilated front seats are a cool idea, but they are not terribly effective. Midcorner bumps will cause the Grand Cherokee to shudder as the suspension struggles to absorb them. The air suspension especially has this problem, and the standard suspension seems to do somewhat better.
You will have to deal with high seating positions, but there is plenty of head and leg room inside of the cabin. Every control you need will be right there within your reach. There are also some thick roof pillars that hinder your outward view. While the Uconnect touchscreen is slightly outdated, the physical knobs are user-friendly. The optional 19-speaker Harman Kardon sound system is a bit too heavy on the bass but is otherwise functional.
The 36.3 cubic feet of cargo space that you get behind the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee is fairly average for its segment, but it is not an industry-leading number. There is a full-size spare tire underneath the rear floor, which takes away from the overall cargo area available. The fact that there is a full-size spare tire is a nice touch though.
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Safety features come in abundance on the 2021 Toyota Highlander. Included in its list is the Toyota Safety Sense bundle of advanced driver aids. The frontal collision mitigation system will alert you if it detects an impending crash and will apply the brakes if it senses that you will be unable to do so in a safe time frame. Adaptive cruise controls sets and adjusts to maintain a safe following distance between the Highlander and the vehicle in front of it. Lane tracing assist will gently steer the Highlander back into its intended lane if it detects any straying. Automatic high beams and a traffic sign reader come equipped as part of this system. You can upgrade for a blind spot monitor on the LE, front and rear parking sensors on the Limited, or the Platinum's adaptive headlights and automatic windshield wipers.
The 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee offers a similar array of safety features. Rear parking sensors and blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert come standard. You can upgrade for adaptive cruise control, forward collision mitigation, lane departure warning, and parallel parking assist, but you have to go up to the Summit trim level.
Which Has the Best Value?
The 2021 Toyota Highlander has more features for the cost, a better V6 engine, and a better fuel economy. This all contributes to it having the better value than the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The biggest asset on the Highlander is the standard availability of the Toyota Safety Sense bundle of advanced driver aids. The Grand Cherokee's lack of standard driver aids on all trim levels genuinely detracts from its overall value.
Which is Better?
The 2021 Toyota Highlander is the better of these two vehicles. Its V6 is stronger and more fuel efficient, even though it is the only engine option available. If you are looking for something higher powered, the Grand Cherokee has those options for you. However, the Highlander is the more family-oriented vehicle with plenty of space to spare.