2021 Toyota Highlander Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Jan 08, 2021

Introduction - Find the best Toyota deals!

Two decades ago, the original Toyota Highlander perfected the midsize crossover SUV recipe. Today, the fourth-generation 2021 Highlander is a popular choice with families seeking a safe and reliable 3-row SUV.

When shopping for a 2021 Toyota Highlander, your first decision is about what’s under the hood. A V6 engine is standard, but Toyota offers a gas-electric hybrid powertrain based on a 4-cylinder engine. Next, determine whether or not you want the optional all-wheel-drive system. Finally, pick a trim level. They include L, LE, XLE, new-for-2021 XSE, Limited, and Platinum. The Highlander Hybrid comes in all of these flavors except for L and XSE.

In addition to the new sport-tuned 2021 Highlander XSE, Toyota adds an enhanced Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ (TSS 2.5+) collection of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) as standard equipment. Lower trim levels boast improved headlights in a bid to retain top safety ratings for the family-sized SUV.

What Owners Say About the Toyota Highlander - Find the best Toyota deals!

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Gray Front View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

According to data collected from verified owners for the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, 58% of Toyota Highlander owners are male (vs. 56% for the segment), and the median age of a Highlander owner is 63 years (vs. 55).

Owners say their favorite things about the Highlander are (in descending order) the:

  • Exterior styling
  • Driving feel
  • Feeling of safety
  • Interior design
  • Powertrain

Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Highlander are (in descending order) the: 

  • Driving comfort
  • Setting the vehicle up
  • Infotainment system
  • Getting in and out
  • Fuel economy 

In the J.D. Power 2020 APEAL Study, the Highlander ranked number four out of 13 Upper Midsize SUVs.

What Our Independent Expert Says About the Toyota Highlander - Find the best Toyota deals!

In the sections that follow, our independent expert provides an analysis of a Highlander Hybrid Limited equipped with the following options: 

  • All-wheel drive
  • 12.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system
  • Second-row bench seat
  • Carpeted floor mats
  • Cargo liner 

The price of the test vehicle came to $49,658, including the $1,175 destination charge.

Getting In and Getting Comfortable

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Black Leather Front Seats

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

People prefer SUVs because they sit high off the ground and are easier to enter and exit. That’s true of the Highlander’s first and second rows of seats. The third-row, however, is challenging to get into and get out of for adults.

The Limited test vehicle had leather upholstery and heated and ventilated front seats. Thanks to 10-way power adjustment, the driver quickly finds a comfortable position behind the heated steering wheel, but the front passenger’s seat moves in just four directions. 

Second-row passengers get separate climate controls, but Toyota locates the air vents directly overhead, which is unpleasant. Legroom and thigh support are excellent, and manual side window shades are perfect for adding privacy or shielding a child’s eyes from the sun.

Climb into the third-row seat, and the second-row seat does not automatically return to its previous position. This design gives the third-row passenger some control, preventing accidentally crushed legs and toes. The Highlander’s third-row is cramped, though, and the seat cushion provides no leg support. Adults will be unhappy riding in this location.

Toyota places the Highlander’s controls where you expect to find them, but the unusual asymmetrical dashboard design makes the SUV’s interior look unfinished. Soft-touch surfaces lend a sense of quality to the cabin, but the shroud over the gauges is hard and hollow-sounding plastic, and there is flimsy feeling plastic on the backs of the steering wheel spokes.

Storage is a mixed bag. Under the rolltop center armrest, a wireless smartphone charger blocks access to the storage bin below. Lift it out of the way, and now a small storage tray blocks access. Remove the tray, and then you can reach into a deep but very dark storage area. 

This is not a good design. Toyota needs to move the wireless charger to the tray forward of the transmission shifter and replace the rolltop center console armrest with a large lid the opens completely for unimpeded access to the storage bin below.

As was true of the previous-generation Highlander, the latest model includes a shelf built into the dashboard. It’s split in two, though, limiting its usefulness in comparison to the old Highlander.

2021 Toyota Highlander Infotainment System Review

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Through the driver information display and the infotainment system, the Highlander offers a variety of configurable settings for various features and functions. It is worth spending time exploring all of the menus to custom-tailor the SUV to your personal preferences.

Toyota offers multiple infotainment systems for the Highlander, but they all include: 

  • Bluetooth
  • Apple CarPlay
  • Android Auto
  • Amazon Alexa
  • SiriusXM satellite radio
  • Safety Connect service with a free 1-year trial subscription
  • Wi-Fi Connect with a free 3-month/2GB data plan 

Additionally, all Highlander Hybrids have Service Connect (free for ten years) and Remote Connect (free for one year). Limited trim further includes Destination Assist (free for one year), a dynamic navigation and voice recognition system (free for three years), and an 11-speaker JBL premium sound system. 

An 8-inch touchscreen display is standard with all but Platinum trim, which gets a 12.3-inch display. Our test vehicle had the 12.3-inch touchscreen display as an option. Unfortunately, it suffers plenty of glare but is otherwise agreeable with several configurable tiles showing radio, navigation map, climate system, and phone data on the Home screen. The dynamic voice recognition is impressive, though you cannot control the climate system using verbal commands.

If you’re an audiophile, the JBL sound system requires fiddling to improve its sonic clarity. In its default settings, it sounds muddy and brassy.

What It’s Like to Drive the 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Gray Side View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

A 295-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine is standard in the 2021 Highlander, driving the front or all four wheels through an 8-speed automatic transmission. However, Toyota seeks to increase sales of its more efficient Highlander Hybrid, which commands a modest $1,400 premium over the V6 engine.

The hybrid powertrain is based on a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. Additionally, it includes an electronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), an electric drive assist motor, and a battery pack located underneath the back seat. A second electric motor helps to recharge the battery, as does a regenerative braking system. Choose the all-wheel-drive option, and a rear-axle electric motor powers the rear wheels.

Numerous driving modes are available. The primary driving modes are Eco, Normal, and Sport. An EV Mode allows for purely electric operation at low speeds, such as in shopping center parking lots. With AWD, a Trail Mode maximizes traction off of the pavement. Finally, a Brake Hold mode relieves the driver of maintaining pressure on the brake pedal at traffic lights.

The total output of the hybrid powertrain measures 243 horsepower and the EPA says it should get up to 36 mpg in combined driving. Compared to the previous-generation Highlander Hybrid, this amounts to less power but more efficiency.

Fuel economy is the sole reason to choose the Highlander Hybrid. It effortlessly supplies the gas mileage of a compact car without feeling sluggish. 

But it does not sound refined or sophisticated while going about its business. Engine racket accompanies nearly every press of the accelerator pedal. Still, the groaning and droning rise in pitch as the vehicle gathers speed, making it sound natural if unpleasant. Lift off of the accelerator, and the powertrain quiets to an imperceptible level.

At one point, while driving down a mountain grade, the powertrain began revving inconsistently, returning to normal only when the freeway flattened out at the bottom of the hill. It’s unclear why the SUV behaved this way, and it didn’t happen again.

Furthermore, you can feel the added weight of the battery and electric motors as you drive the SUV. It manifests itself mainly in excessive ride motions on undulating pavement, and because the regenerative brakes can be hard to modulate, the Highlander Hybrid sometimes lurches forward when bringing the vehicle to a stop. An adaptive suspension would help improve this SUV’s ride and handling qualities.

Aside from infrequent trips to the gas station, the Highlander Hybrid is most satisfying to drive at lower speeds and in undemanding situations. There is no joy to be had, except for the day your credit card bill arrives, and you discover how little you spent on fuel. This SUV sounds like it’s in pain when you ask it to accelerate, and the uninvolved steering, occasionally grabby brakes, and excess ride motions make you look forward to the end of every trip.

For these reasons, you may want to get the Highlander V6 instead. Most likely the new XSE trim, which has performance-tuned steering and suspension as well as an optional torque-vectoring AWD system.

Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ Review

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited ADAS Menu

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

For 2021, Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ (TSS 2.5+) is standard on all Highlanders. This collection of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) represents an upgrade over Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 (TSS 2.0), adding intersection support when you’re making left turns at intersections and emergency steering assist when you’re taking evasive maneuvers to avoid an obstacle.

Additionally, TSS 2.5+ includes: 

  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Forward collision warning with pedestrian detection
  • Automatic emergency braking
  • Lane departure warning
  • Lane-keeping assistance
  • Lane centering assistance
  • Road sign recognition
  • Automatic high-beam headlights 

All but the base Highlander L have a blind-spot warning and a rear cross-traffic warning system. For 2021, Toyota adds improved headlights to the L, LE, and XLE trim levels to improve visibility after dark.

As is true of most ADAS packages, TSS 2.5+ has its strengths and weaknesses. You can configure the sensitivity of some functions and turn them on or off, as is your preference. Sometimes this is easy to do while driving, and sometimes it is not.

Generally speaking, TSS 2.5+ operates in a smooth and refined fashion. I did find myself fighting the lane-centering assistance technology on too frequent a basis and preferred driving with this system turned off. The lane departure warning system’s beeping also got tiresome during a long drive, but there isn’t a quick and easy way to turn this off – not that I could find, anyway. The lane-keeping assistance system is effective.

The adaptive cruise control automatically adjusts the SUV’s speed for curves, but it is not a predictive system. You can turn this function on or off and adjust it for sensitivity. When changing lanes to pass slower vehicles, the adaptive cruise control takes too long to gather speed, so leave yourself plenty of room when doing so.

2021 Toyota Highlander FAQ - Find the best Toyota deals!

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Gray Cargo Area

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

How much cargo space does the 2021 Toyota Highlander have?

Behind the third-row seat, the Highlander provides 16 cubic feet of cargo space, and there is a shallow storage well under the cargo floor. In the test vehicle, it contained tire changing tools. 

Fold the third-row seat down, and the SUV supplies 48.4 cu.-ft. of volume behind the second-row seats. When you need maximum carrying capacity, a Highlander offers 84.3 cu.-ft. with the second-row seats folded down.

Most Highlanders have a power rear liftgate. With Limited and Platinum trim, a hands-free version is standard. Notably, the test vehicle’s cargo area lacked storage wells for carrying beverages home from the store.

Does the 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid get good gas mileage?

Yes, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid gets good gas mileage. In fact, given the sheer size of this SUV, the fuel economy is downright remarkable.

According to the EPA, the 2021 Highlander Hybrid should average between 35 mpg and 36 mpg in combined driving. On our testing loop, the SUV returned 31.6 mpg. While our test average falls well short of the EPA rating, the result is nevertheless impressive.

The Highlander Hybrid has a 17.1-gallon fuel tank. Based on our driving, this SUV provides 542 miles of range between visits to the gas station. You’ll want to get gas every 500 miles or so.

Is the 2021 Toyota Highlander safe?

Generally speaking, yes, the 2021 Toyota Highlander is safe.

In crash tests performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the 2021 Highlander gets an overall safety rating of five stars. That’s the highest possible rating. However, in frontal-impact tests, the NHTSA assigns 4-star ratings for both the driver and front passenger positions.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the 2021 Highlander its highest Top Safety Pick+ rating. However, it applies to the 2020 calendar year, and as this review was published, the IIHS had not carried that designation forward for 2021.

How much is the 2021 Toyota Highlander?

When it comes to 2021 Toyota Highlander prices, the most affordable version is the L trim with front-wheel drive. It costs $34,810 before adding any extras. At the opposite end of the lineup, the Highlander Hybrid Platinum costs $48,365. Toyota also charges a destination fee of $1,175.

What are the 2021 Toyota Highlander competitors?

In the J.D. Power 2020 Initial Quality Study (IQS), the Toyota Highlander was the 3rd highest-ranked model in the upper midsize SUV segment. The Kia Sorento was the highest-ranked model in the segment. 

In the J.D. Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout Study (APEAL), the Highlander was the 4th highest-ranked model in the segment. The Kia Telluride was the highest-ranked model.

Other competitors to the 2021 Highlander include the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, and Honda Pilot.

Independent Expert Opinion - Find the best Toyota deals!

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Gray Rear View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Because its third-row seat is suitable only for shorter adults or children, the 2021 Highlander is best when used as a 5-passenger SUV. If you need to carry more than five people regularly, you can wait for the rumored Grand Highlander to go on sale, you can choose a Toyota Sienna minivan (same thing, different wrapper), or you can consider a more accommodating 3-row SUV such as a Chevrolet Traverse, Kia Telluride, or Volkswagen Atlas.

Furthermore, the Highlander Hybrid is worthwhile only if you value fuel economy above everything else. Though it represents an affordable upgrade from the standard V6, it comes with compromises ranging from an irritating engine drone to excessive body motions.

Frankly, I preferred the previous Highlander Hybrid, which offered a more robust and refined V6-based powertrain, more athletic driving dynamics, and a more practical interior. But it wasn’t nearly as efficient as this latest model.

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience in test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2023 J.D. Power

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