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Spacious, comfortable, powerful, and fuel efficient - those are probably four "must-have" items on your checklist while shopping for a new SUV. And one of the vehicles we will examine in this comparison review will check all of those boxes. The other will come close but not quite hit the mark. We will make no bones about it, the one that checks all the boxes is the 2021 Toyota Highlander.
The Highlander is hot off of an overhaul in 2020, so do not expect to see too many changes for the 2021 line-up. The one addition that is generating a lot of buzz is the inclusion of the all-new XSE trim level, which slides right smack-dab into the middle of the line-up. The XSE offers a more sport-oriented design with a sport-tuned suspension, special styling elements, a built-in navigation system, and ambient interior lighting.
While most buyers looking for a family-friendly third-row SUV are not thinking about a sporty handling performance, the Highlander delivers on that front. The Highlander is a large vehicle and occasionally feels its size, but this SUV can easily make its way around corners and along twisting mountain roads - especially when equipped with the sport-tuned suspension.
Handling is not the Highlander's only highlight. Far from it. The Highlander's cabin is quiet and comfortable, spaciously crafted and boasting some seriously plush seats. From behind the steering wheel, you get a clear view around the vehicle. Of course, if you need it, the standard back-up camera is handy. Blind spot monitoring and the available 360-degree surround view camera system are helpful as well. But you won't rely too heavily on any of them.
Then, there is the V6 engine. This engine is quite powerful, but its fuel economy is better than average, besting even the popular Honda Passport. Some third-row SUVs struggle to get much over 20 miles per gallon combined, but the Highlander snags a top number of 24 mpg combined. This is about 1-2 mpg better than the Highlander's top rivals.
The Highlander is not all sunshine and rainbows though. It has its downsides. The main downside is its cramped third row of seats. This is a problem that many third-row SUVs have, so it is nothing mindboggling. Accessing it is difficult, and the small seats and lack of leg room make this row suitable only for children. A few third-row SUVs do it better.
You also need to consider how much cargo space you need. The Highlander offers just 16 cubic feet of cargo space with all three rows left in place. This is less than average, and you do not get much versatility from it. You can max this space out to 48.4 cubes when you fold the third row down.
So, how does the 2021 Kia Sorento stack up? This vehicle has been fully redesigned for the model year, offering a total of four powertrain choices, among them a plug-in hybrid and regular hybrid. Now, you get even more interior space than ever before, and there is still plenty of cargo space available.
The new Sorento offers a long list of standard and optional features, which makes it easy to customize the vehicle to your liking. However, the list can feel a bit overwhelming at times. You do also get a lot of leg room in both the second and third rows, which is not something you get in a lot of third-row SUVs. On top of that, you get a new infotainment system that is easy to use and has crisp, clear graphics.
On the downside, the Sorento is no longer that compact. Also, the price has gone up quite a bit from the 2020 model. Otherwise, the Sorento is a likable vehicle that puts up some stiff competition for the Highlander. But is it really able to oust the Highlander? Let's find out.
A good powertrain can make for a positive driving experience and vice-versa. The 2021 Toyota Highlander offers a powertrain that does a thorough job of blending power and fuel economy. Its 3.5-liter V6 engine is able to generate a power output of 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. This is the only engine available, and it gets matched up with a standard 8-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive (FWD) is the standard drivetrain, but all-wheel drive (AWD) is available on every trim level. You can also choose to get the Highlander Hybrid variant if you would prefer to have a hybrid powertrain instead.
The 2021 Kia Sorento receives its power from a standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder that puts forth 191 horsepower and 181 lb-ft. Its 8-speed automatic transmission routes power to the front wheels. There is a turbo 2.5-liter 4-cylinder that creates 281 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque that comes starting on the EX trim level. The SX Prestige is strictly FWD while the SX Prestige X-Line comes solely as an AWD model.
Just what is it that makes a vehicle a pain or a pleasure to drive? When we speak of drivability, we are talking about more than just how strong an engine is and how smoothly it all runs. Instead, we also include factors like how well the vehicle accelerates, brakes, handles, steers, provides ride comfort and quality, and even how well the technology included with it works.
That being said, the 2021 Toyota Highlander is a pretty well-rounded vehicle that should offer most drivers a positive experience. It is definitely geared toward families but is by no means a snooze-fest. The V6 engine does a thorough job of generating power without compromising on fuel efficiency, and the 8-speed transmission that comes with it provides smooth shifts between gears. There is no hesitation to be felt here. Acceleration is quick, as the Highlander can make it from 0 to 60 miles per hour in just 7.5 seconds. Many vehicles in this class are a bit slower. The top-rated Kia Telluride is dead-even with this time, but the Highlander feels like it has a stronger initial burst of power.
As we already mentioned, the Highlander is a capable vehicle when it comes to handling. Steep mountain climbs or back country roads are no match for the Highlander. The optional torque-vectoring AWD system does a superb job at providing extra traction and stability control while the vehicle is going across slick road surfaces. It also makes the handling balance that much better.
On the downside, the Highlander does still feel like the bulky SUV that it is. Applying the brakes in a panic can lead to, well, more panic since they take a while to bring the vehicle to a halt. Nimbleness is also not the Highlander's forte.
Comfort, however, is one of its fortes. The first two rows have plushly padded seats that are sculpted for optimum support. The compliant suspension manages to avoid feeling light and dispatches bumps of all sizes with relative ease. The thin padding on the third row of seats is the only sore spot, which emphasizes the fact that these seats are best suited for children. Outside noise from the wind and road is kept to a minimum thanks to some excellent insultation designs.
Again, the third row is quite cramped and is only meant for kids. Otherwise, the cabin is pretty spacious. The driver gets a commanding outward view, and the seat is easy to adjust. Taller folks might just wish they had a little more of an extended range from the telescoping steering wheel.
Technology is a highlight for the Highlander, save for its optional 12.3-inch touchscreen display. It looks cool at first, but it produces too much glare for it to really be enjoyable to use while driving. The smaller 8-inch design is much easier to see. The system does respond quickly to your inputs and has a logically laid-out interface. You can get up to five USB ports in the first two rows, but none are available for third-row occupants.
The 2021 Kia Sorento is a breath of fresh air, that is for certain. The optional turbo engine gets this vehicle up to speed in just 6.7 seconds, which is a snappy time indeed. This is enhanced by the new 8-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, which provides seamless shifts between gears. The brakes make it easy to slow the vehicle down and modulate in virtually any scenario. The 121 mile braking distance is better than average for this segment. While the steering system is not quite as accurate as it should be, the handling is on point.
Each of its three rows is packed with comfortable seating. The second-row captain's chairs come off as being slightly stiff if you do opt for those. Even though the third row's seats are low to the floor and relatively small, they are cozy enough for children and small adults. The ride comfort is not exactly as enjoyable, mostly if you get the vehicle equipped with the 20-inch wheels. The ride does come across as being stable and controlled while cruising along at highway speeds.
The spacious cabin lends plenty of space for taller adults, and the interior has a slew of easy to use controls that will help drivers feel right at home. While visibility is good, the available surround-view camera system helps give you a good idea of what is going on around the vehicle. The 10.25-inch touchscreen display looks sharp, and the built-in navigation system is easy to use. However, the voice command system is just average, not as high-tech as it could be.
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Safety is, of course, a big deal for both Toyota and Kia. Toyota equips the Highlander with a slew of standard safety features, including a bundle of advanced driver aids known as Toyota Safety Sense. Forward collision mitigation will warn you of a potential frontal crash and will apply the brakes if it senses you cannot do so in time to avoid it. Adaptive cruise control will set a safe following distance from the vehicle in front of the Highlander and will make adjustments as needed to maintain it. Lane tracing assist will detect when the Highlander has veered over the line and will gently correct the steering to get the Highlander back into its intended lane. Automatic high beams and a traffic sign recognition feature are also included with this bundle.
Kia offers a similar set-up on the Sorento. It has forward collision mitigation, a driver attention warning, low-speed adaptive cruise control, and lane departure mitigation. None of them seem to issue false alarms and work about as expected.
Which Has the Best Value?
With its jump in price, the 2021 Kia Sorento becomes a rather expensive purchase. It includes a lot of great features, but the 2021 Toyota Highlander still offers a lot of features for a reasonable price. It has more cargo space than the Sorento and manages to get a similar fuel economy, giving it a high overall value.
Which is Better?
The 2021 Kia Sorento is a huge improvement over the previous generation. However, the 2021 Toyota Highlander is still a top-notch third-row SUV that more than hauls its own weight. It gives you a superb standard V6 and generous amount of interior space for the price.