2021 Toyota Highlander vs Nissan Pathfinder
Looking for a new 2021 mid-size SUV to cram the entire family into? While you will not find a 2021 Nissan Pathfinder (it is on hiatus in preparation for its 2022 overhaul - we will get to that in a minute), you can find a 2021 Toyota Highlander. Quiet, comfortable, and easy to see out of, the Highlander sets the bar high for this segment.
That is not to mention the solid fuel economy that you get from the powerful V6 engine. This year marks the debut of the sporty new XSE trim level, which comes with a sport-tuned suspension and a handful of unique styling elements. This and every other trim level offers all-wheel drive as an option, so you can get more stability and traction control if you want it.
The downside to owning the Highlander is that there is not as much space in the back as you might hope for. The third row is definitely meant only for children, and access to it is quite narrow. The cargo area is also quite cramped for a third-row SUV, offering just 16 cubic feet with all the seats left upright. You can, however, max it out to a more respectable 48.4 cubic feet when you take the third row down.
If you go for the 2020 Nissan Pathfinder, you get a strong V6 engine that provides a respectable return on fuel. Its third row of seats is much easier to access, although it is also pretty much exclusively designed for kids. The Pathfinder's max towing capacity is better than average at 6,000 pounds. Also, you get standard features like rear parking sensors and automatic emergency braking - things that not every new vehicle in this segment equips.
However, you might be tempted to wait for the 2022 Pathfinder to emerge onto the market. It will still utilize the same 3.5-L V6 engine, but the Pathfinder's on-the-road feel should be enhanced by the choice to swap in one of ZF's 9-speed automatic transmissions. The 2020's CVT was nothing to scoff at, though. The problem we have is with the 7 inches of ground clearance, which is a lot less than competitors like Toyota and Subaru. So, in other words, the Pathfinder is actually best kept on paved roadways and not, as its name suggests, anywhere off the beaten path.
So, which mid-size third-row SUV is going to cut it for you and your family? Should you opt for the Highlander or wait until the new Pathfinder makes its entrance into the market later in 2021? We will go over their details with you and, in the end, let you know which vehicle we think holds the most value and will ultimately be the better addition to your household.
First things first. Let's talk powertrains. A powertrain can make or break an entire driving experience. Honestly, both the Highlander and Pathfinder have great V6 engines that balance power and fuel economy. But one of them does it slightly better than the other.
The 2021 Toyota Highlander is powered by a standard 3.6-L V6 engine that puts forth a power output of 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. This engine is matched up with an 8-speed automatic transmission that delivers power to the front wheels. If the FWD system is not your thing, you can upgrade to all-wheel drive (AWD) on any trim level variant. There is also a Highlander hybrid powertrain that you can choose if you want to save even more money at the fuel pump.
The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder, as we have already said, comes with a 3.5-L V6 and new 9-speed automatic transmission courtesy of the auto parts maker ZF. This replaces the outgoing model's CVT, which had a smooth enough power delivery but came across as slightly outdated. This powertrain does generate 284 hp and 259 lb-ft of torque, bringing it just shy of the Highlander's output. FWD is standard, but AWD can be equipped on any trim level. It includes Sand, Snow, Mud/Rut, and Tow drive modes.
Drivability is a rather all-encompassing term that describes how a vehicle accelerates, brakes, steers, handles, provides ride comfort and quality, and just how well its tech features work.
Starting with the Highlander, we would venture as far to say as that it is an enjoyable vehicle to drive with only a few minor setbacks. The Highlander is, unlike many of its rivals, quick on the uptake. It responds quickly to power inputs, going from 0 to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds - a strong showing for a third-row SUV. The responses feel quick, even compared to the powerful Kia Telluride.
Steering and handling are no problem for the Highlander either. It can manage winding turns without any body roll, remaining composed as you go. The optional AWD system enhances this by supplying power to the two rear wheels. In slick road conditions, the AWD system comes in handy by providing extra stability and control.
Just bear in mind that the Highlander is a big vehicle and does sometimes feel like it. It does not move as lightly and effortlessly as some of its competitors, and it does not make panic stops in as quick a distance as you might like.
The Highlander's interior is plush with comfort, and the ride quality reflects this. The XSE's sport-tuned suspension provides a little extra firmness, and the standard suspension is certainly geared toward a soft, compliant ride. Wind and road noise is kept to a minimum. The only real complaint we can lodge is that the third row is tight quarters and has seats that could use more padding. Finding a seating position is easy, and the view you get is commanding. The front roof pillars are remarkably thin, and even the rear pillars are slender enough. With this much glass all around, you will not need to rely too heavily on blind-spot monitoring and rear-view cameras. Still, if you need it, you can upgrade all the way to a 360-degree surround-view camera system.
Technology has been hit-or-miss for Toyota in recent years. There have been more hits lately, but the Highlander still has a few misses. The optional 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen display looks beautiful from the outset and offers quick responses, but you get a ton of glare on the screen when driving during daylight hours. The standard 8-inch screen does help you avoid all the glare. There aren't any USB ports available for the third row, but you can get up to five for the first two rows on the line-topping Platinum trim level.
The new Pathfinder promises plenty of power from the carried-over V6. We suspect that the new 9-speed automatic transmission will improve the SUV's on-road feel, delivering plenty of power to the wheels when you need it. Our issue is with the lacking ground clearance of 7 inches. The Subaru Ascent offers 8.7 inches of ground clearance, which makes it a more capable off-roader than either the Highlander or Pathfinder.
The Pathfinder's new cabin looks contemporary, mirroring its new boxier exterior design. The old console-mounted gear shifter has been replaced by a smaller electronic shifter that helps free up some space. The new steering wheel has a flatter bottom and thinner outer rim. Second-row captain's chairs will finally be available, reducing the seating capacity to seven. The removable center console should help to improve third-row access, as will the one-touch button that folds and slides the second row of seats.
Standard infotainment equipment for 2022 will include a 7-inch digital instrument cluster, an 8-inch infotainment touchscreen display, and smartphone app integration via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. You will be able to opt for a 12.3-inch digital cluster and 9-inch infotainment touchscreen display on the higher trim levels, as well as Wi-Fi hot-spot connectivity, a wireless charging pad, and a head-up display.
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Safety features are becoming more and more in demand, and Toyota and Nissan have responded to this growing demand from consumers. Both vehicles come with their own set of standard driver aids. The Highlander comes with Toyota's Safety Sense suite of advanced safety features. This bundles in forward collision warning (which will warn you of a potential front-end crash and apply the brakes for you), adaptive cruise control (which sets a safe following distance from the vehicle in front of the Highlander), automatic high beams, a traffic sign reader, and lane tracing assist (which makes small steering corrections in order to keep the Highlander in its intended lane). The LE adds a blind-spot monitoring system, and the Platinum trim gets the surround-view camera system and adaptive headlights as standard safety features.
The 2022 Pathfinder features Nissan's Safety Shield 360 suite of driving aids. It includes blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, and automatic emergency braking. The Sv trim gives you ProPilot Assist, which adds on adaptive cruise control and lane centering. The SL tacks on a feature called Navi-Link, which utilizes mapping in order to quickly adjust ACC speed for when you need to brake quickly for a sharp turn.
Which Has the Best Value?
Both the 2021 Toyota Highlander and the upcoming 2022 Nissan Pathfinder have a lot of value, packing a ton of features in for reasonable costs. While the new Pathfinder does a better job of bundling more features in, the Highlander already comes with a bevvy of them on its base trim level. It gives you everything from emergency communications to on-board Wi-Fi hot spot connectivity. Getting blind-spot monitoring on the second trim level helps sweeten the deal. Even if you splurge on the Platinum trim level, you get a lot of upgrades for the price. Overall, the Highlander still outperforms the Pathfinder. The Highlander's XSE also provides you with a sporty option that you cannot get on the Pathfinder.
Which is Better?
Both the 2021 Toyota Highlander and the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder are capable daily drivers geared toward toting families around. Unfortunately, both of them have some drawbacks that keep them from being at the top of their segment. The Pathfinder will come with some admirable upgrades, but it will not offer a sporty trim that can rival the Highlander's XSE. You will also have to stick with the Highlander is you want to get a hybrid powertrain option. The Highlander does slightly better on power, and it is noticeable in the way that it responds to your inputs. While third-row access could be more generous, the amount of features that you get on any of the Highlander's trim levels make the vehicle's price tag feel easy enough to justify. Some of the higher trim levels' tech features are worth the upgrades though and will be all too tempting.