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For the better part of two decades now, Toyota has not been terribly focused on making its vehicles with sport in mind. They have been all about fuel economy. But things are changing in the ever-growing SUV market to which the 2021 Toyota Highlander belongs. And this year should shake things up a bit with the addition of the sport-oriented XSE trim level.
The XSE shares the same engine as the rest of the trims: a 3.5-L turbo V6 that puts forth 295 hp. But it has quite a few features that have been tweaked for a sportier performance, from the stiffer suspension to the heavier weighted steering column. And that is not to mention the numerous interior and exterior styling upgrades that make this new mid-tier trim level the one to buy in 2021.
But how does the line-up fare overall? It has a lot of good things it offers, such as some comfy seats, a user-friendly infotainment system, and superb outward visibility all around. Oh, and on top of all of that, Toyota goes to town with the amount of standard advanced driver aids that it offers on even the base trim level.
Things are not exactly perfect though. The Highlander does not offer much in the way of cargo space, and the third row is definitely best left for children. The brakes have a hard time making a panic stop in a reasonable distance, and you will still feel the weight of this big third-row SUV as you drive it. While these things might not exactly be deal-breakers, they could be somewhat problematic for certain potential buyers.
Is the 2021 Toyota Highlander the right third-row SUV for you? Or should you consider something else? This review will go over what is new for 2021, why we like this SUV, a few things we would like to see changed in the future, and how the Highlander stacks up against the competition. Be sure to read through until the end where we will give you our final verdict on the Highlander.
What's New for 2021?
The only real change worth mentioning is the addition of the sport-oriented XSE trim level. Aside from that, expect everything else from 2020 to carry over to this model year's line-up.
Top 10 Reasons to Buy a 2021 Toyota Highlander – The Pros
1. The XSE Trim Level
We simply must start this list off by discussing the all-new XSE trim level. If it's sport you want, then sport you shall receive. The 3.5-L V6 offers ample power on all trim levels, but it is the sport-tuned suspension that really kicks things up a notch on the XSE. You also still get to choose between front- or all-wheel drive on the XSE. There are also dampers that have been re-tuned to create even less friction, and the steering effort is given a bit more weight. Outside, you will find that the front grille has been inverted and that the air intakes are larger, leading to the idea that this is indeed a more athletic vehicle than the others in the line-up. The chrome trim is replaced with black for an even more aggressive edge, and the side rocker panels add to this image. Inside, the red-and-black two-tone SensaTec simulated leather and cloth mix upholstery looks nice with the red stitching, carbon fiber trim, and special ambient interior lighting.
2. A Lot of Seat Comfort
The first two rows of the Highlander are packed with seat comfort. The front seats are well bolstered and padded to hold up over long journeys, and even the optional second-row captain's chairs basically echo this comfort. Lateral support feels nice in both rows, and the heated front seats that come on the XLE and above definitely feel nice on cooler days.
3. A Quiet Ride Quality
The Highlander's cabin is well muted from wind noise, which barely makes a peep even when taken up to speed on the highway. The cabin remains insulated from road noise as well, and the engine is barely perceptible until you rev it. And, bonus, you get a suspension that has no problem smoothing out all types of road imperfections. All in all, it is one relaxing ride.
4. Excellent Outward Visibility
The view from the driver's seat is quite commanding as the thin roof pillars allow for a lot of glass to the front, sides, and rear. While a rear-view camera is standard and blind spot monitoring comes on the second trim and above, you will not really need these features in order to get a good glimpse at what is going on around the outside of the vehicle. Of course, if you do want to go all-out, there is an optional 360-degree surround-view camera system that gives you a bird's-eye view of what is going on. Handy but unnecessary.
5. Quick Acceleration
The 3.5-L engine gives this massive third-row SUV a quick thrust of power, allowing it to accelerate with ease. The vehicle only needs about 7.5 seconds to get from 0 to 60 mph on the highway, placing it in a dead-even tie with the swift Kia Telluride. The initial thrust of power does seem to be ever so slightly stronger in the Highlander though.
6. Agile Steering and Handling
For being as big and bulky as it is, the Highlander has the ability to remain controlled and even somewhat agile while rounding through turns. Body roll is basically unnoticeable, and the optional AWD system (a torque-vectoring one) adds additional balance when gliding over slick road surfaces by sending engine power to the rear wheels. Plus it gives a lot of extra traction, leading to an all-around feeling of stability and road grip.
7. The Infotainment System
Whether you get the standard 8-inch touchscreen or optional 12.3-inch display, the Highlander's infotainment system has become one of the more user-friendly ones on the market. The bigger screen does get some glare, but the 8-inch screen does not have much of an issue with that. The menus are all designed for clarity, and the buttons are appropriately touch sensitive.
8. Plenty of Advanced Driver Aids
There are a lot of advanced river aids that get rolled into the Safety Sense 2.0 bundle. This means that even the base trim gets forward collision warning and lane keep assist. Blind spot monitoring comes standard on all but the base trim. Advanced cruise control works noticeably well, setting a good pacing behind the vehicle in front of the Highlander. Only the lane departure warning seems slightly sensitive in some situations and not quite sensitive enough in others, but everything else works as it is supposed to.
9. Good Fuel Economy
For being a big vehicle with a V6, the engine puts forth a respectable fuel economy that seems to hold up in real-world tests. The AWD variant gets a combined 23 mpg (with 20 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway) while the FWD gets 24 mpg combined (21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway). In a class that is packed with rivals, the fact that the Highlander bests most of them by a few mpg is pretty significant. And this class is definitely not known for pulling high numbers. Of course, the hybrid variant does even better, putting you at about 36 mpg combined.
10. An Easy-to-access LATCH System
The LATCH system for child safety seats is one that parents will enjoy. The spacious second row means you will have an easy time putting rear-facing seats in and getting them out. The anchors are all easy to access as well. However, you will only find them in the second row; no anchors come in the third.
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Reasons Not to Buy a 2021 Toyota Highlander – The Cons
1. Third-row Leg Space is Limited
Speaking of the third row, it is probably the 2021 Toyota Highlander's biggest flaw. Of course, this is a common issue for the segment. But with flat seats, the lack of leg room just reinforces the fact that only children will fit back there. Adults should stick to the first two rows.
2. Not Much Cargo Space
There also is little in the way of cargo space in the Highlander. Behind the third row, you get 16 cubic feet of cargo space, which is relatively small for a third-row SUV. You will have to take the third row down in order to get a surprisingly better-than-average 48.4 cubic feet. Unfortunately, if you need all seats left upright, this means you cannot pack much into the cargo area.
3. It Feels Its Weight
The Highlander might handle with composure, but it does still feel its weight. It can feel clunky in some situations, especially while driving along on condensed city roadways. Think of it as though you are piloting a boat with wheels.
4. Panic Stops are Lengthy
Panic stops seem a bit long for this segment. Braking is really where you will need to apply effort while driving, so you will have to time your stops as best you can in it.
How It Stacks Up to the Competition:
2021 Toyota Highlander vs. 2021 Subaru Ascent
The 2021 Subaru Ascent should be stiff competition for the Highlander with its massive list of standard features, gorgeously designed interior with high-quality materials, user-friendly infotainment system, standard AWD, and 8.7 inches of ground clearance. However, a few things hold it back from really competing, especially the super-touchy gas pedal and the lack of space in both the second and third rows. And that's not to mention the fact that you will feel a lot of reverberation as bumps make it into the cabin.
2021 Toyota Highlander vs. 2021 Honda Pilot
The stiffest competition the Highlander sees is from the 2021 Honda Pilot. While accessing the third row is tough due to narrowness and a few driver aids are a bit too sensitive, the Pilot has a lot going for it. The interior is huge with wide seats, the ride is smooth and compliant, and the fuel economy is top-notch. You even get a lot of versatility in the cargo area as well as cleverly designed small item storage areas inside of the cabin.
The 2021 Toyota Highlander should be a strong contender in the third-row SUV segment. While it has a few downfalls, the good outweighs the bad here. And, with the new XSE trim level available, we think that drivers will find it all the more reason to buy the Highlander.
• Why buy a 2020 Toyota Highlander? w/ pros vs cons