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A top seller. Tops in class? 2021 Toyota Highlander hits and misses

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE

By Chuck Giametta

What changes will make the 2021Toyota Highlander different?

A sporty XSE model expands the 2021 lineup of one of America’s top-selling three-row midsize crossover SUVs. It joins a roster expected to be little-changed otherwise coming off a complete model-year-2020 redesign. The first all-new Highlander since the 2014 model retained seating for up to eight but got new styling, updated powertrains, and more convenience features.

The 2021 Highlander will return with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (AWD) and the option of a V-6 engine or a gas-electric hybrid powertrain. It’ll attempt to recapture its title as the No. 1-selling SUV with three seating rows, leveraging a loyal following and Toyota’s reputation for reliability to fend off such rivals as the Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, and Kia Telluride. It was the Explorer that edged ahead in first-quarter-2020 sales, as Highlander transitioned to its new generation.

Should I wait for the 2021Toyota Highlander or buy a 2020?

2020 Highlander Platinum

Wait for the ’21 if you want the bolder look and sharper road manners of the XSE. Wait also if you suspect Toyota might extend its off-road-themed Adventure kit to this crossover or reintroduce the black-tinged Nightshade appearance package. Otherwise, the ’21 Highlander should be a virtual repeat of the 2020, although it’ll almost certain cost more.

Look for ’21 Highlander to return V-6 models in L, LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum trim. Expected to account for about 12 percent of Highlander sales, the XSE will slot between the XLE and Limited grades. The ’21 Highlander Hybrid should be back in LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum trim.

The 2020 redesign dropped Highlander’s available gas-only four-cylinder powertrain but carried over their existing V-6. A return of a budget-priced four-cylinder option could well be in the cards. The redesign also exchanged the previous-generation Hybrid’s six-cylinder engine for a more efficient four-cylinder-based powertrain and made the Hybrid available for the first time with front-wheel drive.    

Will 2021Toyota Highlander styling be different?

2021 Highlander XSE

Carryover models won’t change, but the XSE introduces bolder details via its unique grille, headlamps, and bumpers; larger air intakes; exclusive 20-inch wheels; and Highlander’s first exposed dual-tip exhaust. It’ll share with the other ’21 Highlanders the longer, lower, wider, and more sculpted body that came with the ’20 redesign.

Hybrids will again mirror gas-only trim levels except for exterior badging, wheel designs, and some hybrid-specific dashboard readouts.

All ’21 Highlanders will return with LED headlamps and mostly subtle trim differences to distinguish models — the Platinum featuring a bit more brightwork, for example, and along with the XSE and Limited, 20-inch alloy wheels in place of the other models’ 18s.

2021 Highlander XSE

Expect all but the L and LE to return with second-row captain’s chairs for seating for seven. Eight-passenger seating with a 60/40 split/sliding second-row bench should remain standard for L and LE and a no-cost option for XLE and Limited. All ’21 Highlanders will return with a 60/40 split/reclining third-row bench.

Upholstery will again be fabric on the L and LE, Toyota’s imitation-leather SofTex on the XLE, and genuine leather on the Limited and Platinum. The ’21 Highlander XSE gets a SofTex/fabric combo or optional red-and-black leather, plus carbon-fiber-look and red-stitched dashboard trim.

Still, cabin décor doesn’t rise to benchmarks set by the Telluride or its Hyundai Palisade cousin. Even in the full-zoot Platinum, with its embossed perforated leather and ambient LED lighting (Toyota says it’s the most luxurious Highlander ever), unpadded surfaces are conspicuous.       

2020 Highlander Platinum

Instruments and controls are logically arrayed, although the glossy plastic buttons, along with the dashboard infotainment touchscreen, are sensitive to reflections and fingerprints. Expect L, LE, XSE, and XLE to return with an 8-inch touchscreen and support for Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa.

That setup, incorporating imbedded navigation that works independent of a cell signal, should again be standard on the Limited and a $1,040 option for the XLE and XSE. A 12.3-inch touchscreen with imbedded navigation and an 11-speaker JBL-audio upgrade should return as standard on the Platinum and a $1,050 option for the Limited.

The 2020 redesign added a significant 2.4 inches to Highlander’s wheelbase (the distance between its front and rear axles). That ought to have resulted in a noteworthy increase in passenger and cargo space. It didn’t. In fact, this fourth-generation Highlander has marginally less passenger volume than the 2014-2019 edition, per Toyota’s own measurements. In practice, there’s plenty of adult-friendly room in the first and second rows on comfortable, supportive seating.

2020 Highlander Platinum third-row seat

Flat, thinly cushioned, and with little space for feet or legs, the kid-only third row is a fail in a vehicle pitched as transportation for more than five people. The Pilot, Telluride, Chevy Traverse, Nissan Pathfinder, and Volkswagen Atlas are among rivals with grownup-worthy third-row seating. They also have superior outward visibility. Highlander pinches the driver’s view aft, forcing reliance on the backup camera or, exclusive to the Platinum, the video-view mirror.

2020 Highlander Platinum

The ’21’s dashboard will retain handy oddments shelving. Cabin bins, cubbies, and cupholders are sufficient if not abundant. This crossover needed more cargo space behind the third row and the redesign delivered. But volume with the third and second rows folded decreased, to 40.6 and 73.3 cubic feet, respectively, for both gas-only and Hybrid models. That’ll keep overall carrying space below average for the segment. Expect a power liftgate to again be standard on all but the L model, with hands-free operation on the Limited and Platinum.

Any 2021Toyota Highlander mechanical changes?

2020 Highlander Platinum

Only by virtue of the firmer steering and tauter suspension that distinguishes the 2021 XSE. If Toyota adds an Adventure grade, it would come with AWD, perhaps tires with more aggressive tread, maybe a driver-selectable Trail mode, and possibly greater ground clearance than the standard 8 inches.

All gas-only ’21 Highlanders will reprise a 3.5-liter V-6 with 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque matched to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Driver-selectable Snow, Economy, Normal, and Sport modes are included. AWD Highlanders add Multi-Terrain Select with mud, sand, rock, and dirt modes. The AWD system responds to tire slip by automatically sending up to 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels. AWD XSE, Limited, and Platinum models upgrade with side-to-side rear-torque vectoring to improve cornering control.

2020 Highlander Platinum AWD

The ’21 Highlander Hybrid will return a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine paired with electric-motor for a net 243 horsepower (Toyota doesn’t publish net torque). A continuously variable automatic (CVT) will again be the sole transmission. Normal, Eco, and Sport driving modes are joined by an EV mode for electric-only driving at low speeds for no more than a mile or so.

This is a conventional hybrid, with sensors determining the best mix of gas, electric, or combined power to optimize performance and fuel economy. It recharges by recapturing energy otherwise squandered in braking and coasting. AWD is furnished by a dedicated electric motor powering the rear wheels automatically to quell tire slip.  

2021 XSE is first Highlander with exposed dual-tip exhaust

We had not tested an XSE or a fourth-generation Highlander Hybrid in time for this report. Gas-only V-6 models are satisfying performers, lively away from a stop and merging and passing with quick throttle response and little strain. They’re also your ally on curvy roads, with good balance, minimal play in the steering, and laudable suspension control in changes of direction.

Ride quality is generally good, although the 20-inch tires invite impacts from tar strips and the like to infiltrate the cabin. Occasional intrusion from wind rush, road roar, and sometimes the engine is the most notable dynamic shortfall.

Will 2021Toyota Highlander fuel economy improve?

2020 Highlander Hybrid Platinum

Expect the ’21 Highlander to repeat 2020 EPA ratings, with the gas-only model again above class average while the Hybrid remains the most fuel-efficient midsize three-row crossover that’s not pure-electric.

With the V-6, look for ratings of 21/29/24 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive (20/28/23 for the LE model) and 20/27/23 with AWD. Ratings may differ for the XSE or a possible Adventure model. Highlander’s V-6 will continue to employ automatic stop/start, but unlike many in this class, is unlikely to get fuel-saving cylinder deactivation. AWD models do have a driveline disconnect to save fuel when power to the rear tires isn’t required.

Expect the ’21 Highlander Hybrid to again rate 36/35/36 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 35/34/35 (35/35/35 for the LE) with AWD. By comparison, the only other hybrid three-row midsize crossover, the Explorer Hybrid, rates 27/29/28 mpg rear-drive, 25/23/26 AWD. All ’21 Highlanders will again use 87-octane gas.

Will there be new 2021Toyota Highlander features?

2020 Highlander Platinum with 12.3-inch infotainment screen

Only if there’s an Adventure model with specific off-pavement tweaks. Otherwise, the ’21 Highlander will reprise an extensive array of standard and optional amenities.

Every ’21 Highlander will again come with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. This contains autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, and automatic high-beam headlamps. Lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction is also included, as is steering assist to keep the crossover centered in its highway lane.

Blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection should again be standard on all but the L model. Limited and Platinum should again include rear cross-traffic autonomous braking, with a bird’s-eye video view optional on former, standard on the latter. Look for a head-up instrument display to remain a Platinum exclusive.

2020 Highlander Platinum video-view mirror

In addition to features already covered, all ’21 Highlanders will return with three-zone automatic climate control and automatic up/down for all door windows. The LE will again include a leather-covered steering wheel and shift knob, LED fog lamps, and heated mirrors. To that, the 2021 XLE would again add power front seats, a heated driver’s seat, second-row sunshades, and a power moonroof. That equipment will be standard on the XSE, along with the exclusive interior and exterior touches.

The ’21 Highlander Limited should return with memory driver’s seat, ventilated front seats, and faux-wood interior trim. To all that, the Platinum would again add steering-linked headlamps, heated second-row seats, a panoramic moonroof, and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

Will 2021Toyota Highlander prices be different?

2020 Highlander Platinum

Bet on an increase that however modest, would likely keep ’21 Highlander base prices a bit higher than those of direct competitors. Still, while several rivals offer more powerful top-line versions that breach the $50,000 threshold, only Platinum versions of the 2021 Highlander are likely to have base prices that high.

For reference, here are 2020 Highlander base prices, including Toyota’s $1,120 destination fee. With the V-6, the L started at $35,720 with front-wheel drive at $37,320 with AWD; the LE was priced from $37,920 and $30,520, respectively. Base price for the ’20 XLE was $40,720 with front-drive and $42,320 with AWD. Estimated 2021 XSE base prices are $41,900 and $43,500, respectively. The 2020 Limited was priced from $44,770 with front drive and from $46,720 with AWD, the Platinum from $47,970 and $49,920.

For 2020 Highlander Hybrids, base prices were $49,320 with front-drive and $40,920 with AWD for the LE, $42,120 and $43,720 for the XLE. The ’20 Hybrid Limited started at $46,170 with front-drive and at $48,120 with AWD, the Hybrid Platinum at $49,370 and $51,320, respectively. Options should again be limited to those already mentioned, plus $425 for certain exterior colors.

When does the 2021Toyota Highlander come out?

2020 Highlander Platinum

Look for a 2021 Highlander release date in fall 2020.

Best 2021Toyota Highlander competitors

Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]