2021 Toyota Highlander XSE AWD

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE AWD

The 2021 Toyota Highlander is a comfortable and practical three-row crossover, comes with lots of standard and available features and tech, and gets decent fuel economy for the class. Other midsize SUVs have better performance and more room, especially in the third row, but the Highlander is consistently a top seller.

Base Price: $43,355
As Tested: $47,152
Horsepower: 295
Mileage: 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway/23 mpg combined

The midsize SUV class is very competitive with some new additions, the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride. Consumers should shop around before making a choice.

The Highlander got a makeover for 2020 and is in its fourth generation. For 2021, there’s a new XSE trim, and Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ and LED projector headlights are now standard.

The Highlander comes in six trims: L, LE, XLE, XSE, Limited, and Platinum. The base L trim starts at $34,810 which is high for the class. The Platinum trim starts at $46,965 which is a little lower than other fully-loaded trims in the class. The Highlander is also available as a hybrid with starting prices from $38,410 to $50,315. Front-wheel-drive is standard and all-wheel-drive is available on all trims.

There’s room for eight passengers with the standard bench seats in the second and third rows, or seven passengers with the optional captain’s chairs in the second row.

My tester is the new XSE trim and starts at $41,405 with FWD and $43,355 with AWD. This trim gets some sporty exterior and interior tweaks, a sport-tuned suspension, navigation, ambient interior lighting, and front and rear parking sensors.

All trims get the same engine: a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque paired with an eight-speed automatic. While the Highlander isn’t the most athletic performer in the class, it provides a smooth, comfortable ride which is pretty much what you want in a three-row crossover. Acceleration is perky, there’s plenty of power for accelerating and passing at freeway speeds, even when the Highlander is loaded with kids and gear, and it feels composed when cornering. The eight-speed shifts quickly and smoothly.

Fuel economy is decent for the class. EPA estimates for my AWD tester are 20 mpg city and 27 mpg highway with a combined rating of 23. I got 21 mpg during my week with a mix of city and highway driving. FWD models do a bit better with 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway/24 mpg combined

When properly equipped, the Highlander can tow up to 5,000 pounds which is about average for the class.

The interior is pleasant and functional, but the lower trims do have a fair amount of hard plastics in addition to some soft-touch surfaces. Front seats are roomy and comfortable. The second row is fine for average-size adults, but taller adults may wish for more headroom. The third row is more cramped than what you’ll find in many rivals.

The Highlander comes well equipped. Standard features include proximity keyless entry, rearview camera, tri-zone automatic climate control, cloth upholstery, eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, a sliding and reclining second-row bench seat, eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system, six-speaker audio system, Bluetooth, satellite radio, five USB ports, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, Amazon Alexa, Wi-Fi hot spot, automatic high-beam headlights, and a rear seat reminder.

Available features include surround-view camera system, rearview mirror camera, head-up display, synthetic or real leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, heated steering wheel,10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, four-way power-adjustable passenger seat, second-row captain’s chairs, heated second-row seats, second-row sunshades, seven-inch digital instrument cluster display, 12.3-inch touch screen, navigation,11-speaker JBL premium audio system, wireless device charging, ambient interior lighting, moonroof, panoramic moonroof, auto-dimming rearview mirror, adaptive headlights, rain-sensing windshield wipers, universal garage door opener, a  household-style power outlet, and Driver Easy Speak, an intercom system that sends the driver’s voice through speakers to the second and third rows. (“Kids, don’t make me pull this car over!”)

The Highlander comes standard with the Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ suite of driver assistance technologies including forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, pedestrian detection, automatic high-beam headlights, lane trace assist, and traffic sign recognition.

Available driver assistance technologies include blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and front and rear parking sensors.

The infotainment system is straight forward, and controls are easy to see and reach. However, the system is looking a little dated compared to what you’ll find in some competitors and could use some updated graphics and quicker response times. There are handy physical controls for common functions such as audio and climate.

Cargo space is above average for the class. There are 16 cubic feet with all three rows of seating in place, 48.4 cubes with the third row folded, and 84.3 cubes with the second and third rows folded.

The good:

Comfortable ride

Well-equipped with lots of standard and available features and tech

User-friendly infotainment system

Standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay

Decent fuel economy for the class

The not-so-good:

Performance not as athletic as some rivals

Tight third row

Pricing info:

My tester starts at $43,355. Premium JBL Audio system is $1,680. All-weather floor/cargo liner is $318. Door edge guards are $125. Rear bumper clear applique is $69. Wheel locks are $80. Cargo cross bars at $350. Delivery fee is $1,175 bringing the grand total to $47,152.

Bottom line:

The 2021 Toyota Highlander continues to be a top seller among midsize SUVs because it’s a well-rounded vehicle with a comfortable cabin and lots of standard features and tech. It’s sure worth consideration but do check out rivals for better performance and third rows that are less cramped.

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