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If you are in the market for a new SUV this year, you might have set your sights on a few top options. Just make sure you add the 2021 Toyota Highlander and the 2021 Lexus RX 350L to your list of SUVs to cross-compare. The former might best fit your budget, but the RX 350L has a lot to offer for the extra cost. It is probably going to all boil down to what you can afford.
We are here to help you get more familiar with each of these models so that the final decision might be a bit easier. After we go over their powertrain options, drivability factors, and safety features, we will let you know whether the Highlander or RX 350L has the most value and is the overall better purchase. But, first, we want to walk you through some of the finer details.
The 2021 Toyota Highlander has a quiet and comfortable ride quality that many buyers tend to enjoy. After undergoing a full redesign for the model year, the Highlander now offers a spunky XSE trim level with its sport-tuned suspension. While handling performance is not something most buyers will look for going into a test drive, they sure will get a pleasant surprise. The standard V6 engine lends to the powerful performance while still giving this third-row SUV a respectable fuel economy for its segment. You also get a commanding view from behind the driver's seat.
What people might not like about the Highlander is its cramped third-row. It is definitely meant only for kids. Even average sized adults will have a lot of trouble fitting back there. The Highlander also has below-average cargo space behind the third row of seats. Many of its competitors do much better, although the Lexus RX 350L is not one of them.
Speaking of the RX 350L, this third-row SUV is supposed to be luxury-oriented. In order to make it worth the price tag, Lexus has given it standard blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert for 2021. Wireless smartphone charging is also available now. This vehicle provides you with an excellent ride quality, comfy seats, high quality materials throughout the cabin, and a number of standard safety features. It is also quite adept at handling - much more so than many top rivals.
The problem with the RX 350L is that despite its elongated wheelbase, it makes little use of the space. The third row is extremely cramped, and you do not get much cargo space behind those seats. You might also feel like some of the features are subpar. You will need to opt for the Navigation package in order to get away from the tiny central display that does not even have touchscreen capability.
So, which vehicle is more worth your money? We have one in mind. Hang on with us until the end to see which one that is.
First up, we need to talk powertrains. A powertrain can make or break your driving experience. That's why it is important to know exactly what you are buying before you sign those final ownership or lease documents. You need something that is going to meet your desire for a balance of power and fuel efficiency.
Take, for example, the 2021 Toyota Highlander. It only offers you one powertrain option with a gas-powered engine, but it is a great one. The engine is a 3.5-liter V6 that generates a solid 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. An 8-speed automatic delivers this power to the front wheels. Want all-wheel drive? It is available as an option on any of the Highlander's trim levels. You can also opt for the Hybrid powertrain if you are looking to spend even less at the fuel pump.
Since Lexus is owned by Toyota, you get a strikingly similar powertrain option on the 2021 Lexus RX 350L. This SUV comes with a 3.5-liter V6 engine that delivers 290 horsepower and 263 lb-ft, routed via an 8-speed automatic transmission to the front wheels. As is the case with the Highlander, you can get all-wheel drive on any trim level of your choosing.
In other words, you are essentially getting the same powertrain on either SUV. The real differences lie elsewhere.
As you can imagine, these two SUVs drive very similarly to one another since the RX 350L is essentially the luxury version of the Highlander. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but there are a few differences that warrant explanations.
Let us start off with the Highlander. The Highlander serves up an immediate amount of power when you press down on the accelerator, which sets it apart from a lot of other third-row SUVs. It can get from 0 to 60 miles per hour in roughly 7.5 seconds, which is quicker than many of its rivals. This puts it right up there with the Kia Telluride, which is known for its responsive speed. However, the Highlander has a quicker feel to it, which makes it really stand out.
The overhaul done this year shows a vast improvement in how well the Highlander handles winding roadways. The body roll remains controlled as you round through those turns, and the tires remain planted. The optional torque-vectoring AWD system enhances this by sending power to the rear wheels when handling needs some improvement. Of course, it also gives you additional traction that helps keep you safe on slick road surfaces.
The Highlander does let its size show, though. It does not move quite as nimbly as some of its competitors, and it is not the quickest at coming to a panic stop. There is not a lot of effort required to make this SUV a capable daily driver, which is what a lot of buyers with growing families are looking for.
Comfort is something that the Highlander provides in spades. The suspension is quite compliant and dispatches road imperfections with ease. The optional second-row captain's chairs serve up about as much comfort as the standard bench row, and the first row is definitely plush with comfort. The third row is the problem as it is rather cramped. Wind and road noise remain well muted on the highway, and outward visibility is vast thanks to the slender roof pillars and wide glass. The available 360-degree surround-view camera can be helpful at letting you see objects around the vehicle.
While an 8-inch touchscreen display is standard, the optional 12.3-inch touchscreen display provides quicker responses and cleaner graphics. You will get some glare on the screen from incoming light sources though. There are USB ports available for the first two rows, but none are available in the third. Onboard Wi-Fi hot-spot connectivity does come standard, which is a nice touch.
The 2021 Lexus RX 350L is a lot like the Highlander, of course. The steering is relatively agile and light, the handling strikingly confident, and a decent amount of throttle. However, handling grip is subpar, as is the vehicle's braking capabilities. You will also notice a delay between your request for power and its delivery. This can make acceleration feel sluggish and dull. It might not always happen, but if you drive the RX 350L enough, it could be quite the annoyance.
Like the Highlander, the Lexus RX 350L offers ample comfort in its first two rows. However, also like the Highlander, its third row is incredibly cramped. It is also plagued by frumpy, uncomfortably padded seats back there. At least the well-tuned suspension does a sufficient job of dispelling bumps that the tires incur along the roadway. There is one awkwardly placed rear seating climate control panel that you will find on one side of the third row of seats.
Room in the second row can be infringed upon if you decide to use the third row of seats. You will likely need to move the second row up just to make room for third row passengers. That means those in the second row will have even less leg room. It is a huge design flaw and shows just how poor of a job the manufacturer did of utilizing available space on the long wheelbase. Visibility is often an issue for the driver, so you will need to rely on the surround-view camera system in a lot of situations.
The standard infotainment system is definitely outdated. This means that you will likely want to upgrade to the optional 12.3-inch system on the Navigation package. The Enform app at least hosts a lot of handy features, and you can wirelessly charge your smartphones this model year. At least the Mark Levinson stereo system is a total win for any Lexus buyer.
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Safety is something that Lexus and its parent company Toyota take very seriously. This means you will see a huge list of standard safety features on both the Highlander and the RX 350L. Emergency communications are standard on every trim level, and you also get a bundle of driver aids on each vehicle.
On the 2021 Toyota Highlander, you get Toyota Safety Sense. This bundle of driver aids includes frontal collision mitigation, which will apply the brakes for you when it detects an oncoming frontal crash. Adaptive cruise control sets a safe following distance between the Highlander and the vehicle in front of it. Lane tracing assist will make small steering adjustments to keep the Highlander centered in its lane. You also get a function that recognizes traffic signs. Automatic high beams come standard. Upgrading one trim level to the LE adds a blind spot monitoring system. The Limited adds front and rear parking sensors, and the line-topping Platinum gives you adaptive headlights and the surround-view camera system.
The 2021 Lexus RX 350L comes with similar features. The Lexus Safety System+ 2.0 gives you forward collision mitigation, lane departure mitigation, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, and lane keep assist. You can choose to add on auto-leveling headlights for better visibility. You can also add an automated parking system and a 360-degree surround-view camera system.
Which Has the Best Value?
The Highlander and RX 350L might be a bit too similar. In fact, the differences between them are minimal when it comes to features, and the cost is therefore hard to justify for the latter. That is why we think that the Highlander has the best value of the two. It functions essentially the same while keeping things affordable.
Which is Better?
These third-row SUVs are both good choices. However, when it comes down to it, you can save money by getting the Highlander and not miss out on too many features. The Highlander has a capable handling performance that you might find enjoyable. Unlike the single-trim-level RX 350L, the Highlander offers you multiple choices, including that hybrid powertrain option.