The 2021 Toyota Highlander learned new tricks to keep us entertained on the road while the hybrid powertrain keeps it efficient. There’s an all-new 2021 Toyota Highlander three-row crossover out there. This year the Highlander adds an edgier XSE version that adds a little agro to its curb appeal—new bumpers, blacked out badges, big 20-inch wheels, and stiffer suspension can do that.
In addition to the new sporty Highlander XSE, Toyota offers the three-row crossover in L, LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum configurations. The Highlander Hybrid, which we recommend, is offered in every trim except L and XSE. Front-wheel drive is standard on most models, and all-wheel drive is available on every trim except Limited and Platinum, where it’s standard.
The exterior was revised last year and carries forward this year without any changes. The outside is more athletic than the dowdier Highlanders of yesteryear, and a tall tail helps the crossover look cocked and ready to spring from the blocks. Toyota subbed in a smaller, trapezoidal grille into the Highlander’s nose in most editions. The XSE gets a “Predator”-like lower front bumper that reaches down toward the ground, which is unique to that trim level.
Inside, the Highlander is better with a tiered dash that makes for good small item storage, and a sharp interior that cants controls toward the driver. An 8.0- or 12.3-inch touchscreen takes center stage in the middle of the dash, flanked by solid plastics in lower trims or soft materials on top trims.
Most Highlanders will be equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 295 hp and 263 pound-feet of torque. It’s paired to an 8-speed automatic transmission and front- or all-wheel drive. The combo is enough to power the two-ton crossover confidently and, when properly equipped, tug up to 5,000 pounds of trailer. It’s more entertaining than it has any right to be, and the XSE tightens the crossover up more than the rest of the bunch.
Toyota offers two all-wheel-drive systems on the Highlander, both suitable for wet or dry pavement and the occasional dusty trail. Highlander L, LE, and XLE get a simple all-wheel-drive system that can shuttle up to 50 percent of the available power rearward if the front wheels slip. Highlander Limited, Platinum, and new XSE get a more sophisticated system that sends up to 50 percent of its power toward the rear and can shuttle that power from side to side via a mechanical torque vectoring system that’s not only slick, but also very confident.
There’s yet another all-wheel-drive system available on the Highlander, but it’s attached to the Highlander Hybrid that we prefer. Regardless of driven wheels, the hybrid uses a 2.5-liter inline-4 and electric motor fed by a nickel-metal-hydride hybrid battery. The combo makes 243 hp and more importantly, up to 35 mpg combined, according to the EPA. That’s remarkable for a seven- or eight-passenger vehicle, and it’s still as entertaining to drive. Our all-wheel-drive Highlander Hybrid averaged 34 mpg in mixed driving over the course of a week and is definitely our top powertrain choice.
Driveability isn’t the first reason to buy a Highlander, of course—space is. Up to eight can snuggle up inside the Highlander relatively comfortably, and the first two rows have more than 40 inches of legroom. The third row is best for small children or occasionally, small adults, and the second row can slide forward a few inches depending on mood. Behind the third row, the Highlander hauls up to 16 cubic feet of cargo, which expands to more than 84 cubes with the second and third rows folded.
Every Highlander gets automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, active lane control and blind-spot monitors. In addition to that, even base Highlanders get 18-inch wheels, cloth upholstery, an 8.0-inch touchscreen with smartphone compatibility, and seats for up to eight for about $35,000. Top Highlander Platinums crest more than $50,000 but offer 20-inch wheels, premium audio, a 12.3-inch touchscreen, leather upholstery, and more.
The large three-row crossover segment is currently a hotly contested battleground with strong players from multiple manufacturers. Luckily the new 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is one of the best. With new refined driving manners, modern styling, and cutting-edge technology; the new Highlander Hybrid impresses. The fact that it also offers class leading fuel economy easily makes it a winner.