Now in its fourth generation, the Toyota Highlander is more stylish and tech-laden than ever.
Crossover utility vehicles are the family vehicle of choice and the Toyota Highlander is a strong example of what we’re buying. Offering three rows of seating, the Highlander holds up to eight passengers and is the first model in the segment to offer a hybrid version. For 2020, the Highlander is fully redesigned, with upgraded technologies and more efficient powertrains available. An XSE trim is new for 2021.
Toyota invited journalists to San Antonio, Texas, to test-drive various gas and hybrid versions of its new fourth-generation Highlander, with the gas model already in showrooms. This spring, the Highlander Hybrid debuts; for the first time customers will choose between standard front-wheel drive or available all-wheel drive, just like the gas model.
Toyota Highlander Highlights
Toyota offers the gas Highlander in L, LE, XLE, XSE, Limited, and Platinum trims. The hybrid has four trims, beginning with the LE. The 2021 Highlander costs between $36,000 to just over $50,000 well equipped. The hybrid versions have a $1,400 price premium over the corresponding gas trim.
The fourth-generation Highlander is based on a new platform, sharing its architecture with such models as the Camry and Avalon sedans.
It is about two inches longer than the outgoing model, with the extra space added to the cargo compartment. The latest model has a bold front fascia and a chiseled body for a look that is at once sporty and upscale.
Inside, buyers have a choice of seven- or eight-row seating. The first choice is our preference as the middle-row captain’s chairs offer nearly the same level of comfort and support as the first-row seats. They also allow a bit more maneuverability for third-row passengers as space is tight for adults and trails the Volkswagen Atlas in usability.
Tech & Safety
The Highlander’s cabin has a wide-open vibe, but the focal point is the stylish center stack with its 8-inch touch-screen display. The top-trim models have a 12.3-inch display, the largest in the segment. The screen is clear and easy to read, although glare and a preponderance of fingerprints may hinder viewability. The audio packages are solid. We applaud Toyota for finally offering both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone compatibility.
Toyota’s safety package is also laudable as it has features to keep this SUV centered and a safe distance behind the vehicle in front. The best news is that this equipment comes standard.
Performance Versus Efficiency
Toyota Highlander shoppers face one important dilemma when shopping: choosing between models powered by a 3.5-liter V6 gas engine or a highly efficient hybrid powertrain. We tested both and found each has benefits that’ll interest buyers.
The gas engine makes 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque and works with an 8-speed automatic transmission. It delivers ample step-off acceleration and passing power, attributes that ensure confidence when carrying a full load of passengers. This model also boasts a 5,000-pound towing capacity, matching the Buick Enclave.
While the standard model boasts a 1 mpg increase in fuel efficiency, it is the hybrid that sees the greatest improvement. Performance is up, with 243 net horsepower at your disposal or 82 percent of the power of the V6. The most significant improvement is in its efficiency as the hybrid now delivers 36 mpg. That is a 24-percent improvement over the previous model. This model also tows, boasting a 3,500-pound towing capacity, which matches the gas-only Honda Pilot.
We found the Highlander provides smooth steering, average handling, and a comfortable ride. Torque vectoring all-wheel drive is optional and improves control. The new multi-terrain controller enhances wheel management on a variety of surfaces. Braking is firm for both versions, a welcome improvement with the hybrid.
Toyota Highlander Considerations
Toyota fans should be pleased with the changes to the Highlander, especially with the heightened efficiency of the hybrid. Our pick is the V6 XLE as it supplies the best combination of performance, amenities, and towing power for about $40,000. That’s a value proposition that should serve growing families for years to come.
See Also — The First-Ever Toyota Corolla Hybrid
Exterior photos copyright Stumpwater Media Group, LLC. Interior photos copyright Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc. All rights reserved.