CHATHAM, Mass. – Toyota brings seven basic sport utility/crossover utility vehicles (SUV/CUV) to the most competitive segment of the automotive market, ranging from the subcompact C-HR to the large Sequoia. Right in the middle, offering a set of features aimed at pleasing consumers who want SUV features, modern amenities, comfort and room for up to eight passengers, comes the 2021 Highlander.
It would be an understatement saying the Highlander can answer a lot of SUV buyers’ questions. The lineup includes 12 gasoline-engined trim levels (six each in front- and all-wheel drive) and eight hybrid ones (four FWD and AWD respectively).
The trim levels vary in standard and available features, ranging from the L FWD starting at $34,810 to $48,915 for the AWD Platinum version. The hybrid group starts at $38,410 for the FWD LE and tops out at $50,315 for the AWD Platinum.
For this model year, Toyota added the gas-fueled XSE in FWD and AWD. In the Toyota world, the XSE badge signals a drive on the sporty side with specially tuned handling suspension, unique exterior styling, and exclusive interior trim.
Toyota Highlander Hits a Crossover/SUV Sweet Spot
Starting at $41,405 for the FWD variant, the Highlander XSE combines, according to the company, bold exterior design with more agile driving reflexes. Positioned between the XLE and Limited grades, the 2021 Highlander XSE is briskly motivated by a 295-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 that is teamed with an eight-speed automatic transmission.
Fuel economy during our time was 22.6 miles per gallon, just under the federal Environmental Protection Agency combined city/highway rating of 23 mpg (EPA rated 20 mpg in the city, 27 on the highway).
This same powertrain moved the 2021 Highlander Limited we spent the first week of the year driving around a very un-winter-like Cape Cod. The weather never really provided any kind of winter challenges to the AWD system, but it was nice to know it was there if we needed it.
Interior amenities provide comfort, convenience
It might not have been quite cold enough to produce ice, but the over-night weather did chill the Highlander’s interior making features like the standard heated steering wheel and three-level front-seat heaters very welcome. Both can be activated by simple, easily found dash buttons – unlike some automakers who bury these features one or two levels down in a touch-screen menu system.
The same is true of the thoughtful climate-control and audio systems’ controls. Both have extensive menus displayed on the optional huge 12.3-inch color touch screen, but basic actions can be handled by pushing large, well-labeled, well-located buttons. And the radio even has volume and tuning knobs which is a lot quicker for simple adjustments than any on-screen method.
This screen’s size means it can provide a lot of information, so Toyota allows the driver to segment it to display just what he/she wants to see. It can show three or four segments sourced from any part of the infotainment and/or vehicle-control systems, including the standard voice-activated navigation system.
An 11-speaker JBL premium sound system, including subwoofer and amplifier, fronts the audio sources which include AM/FM/SiriusXM satellite/streaming audio/Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.
USB ports to charge mobile devices as well as a wireless-charging pad (in the center console under the tambour door) keep everyone’s mobile devices ready to go.
Toyota improves standard ADAS with Safety Sense 2.5+
All these amenities (the leather covered seats also feature ventilation in the front) in the roomy, airy (large windows all around and a moonroof) and quiet cabin combine for a very relaxed driving experience. This feeling is enhanced by the inclusion of the upgraded for 2021 Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+, the company’s suite of advanced driver-assist systems (ADAS) incorporating:
Pre-collision System (PCS) with Pedestrian Detection enhanced with intersection support. At intersections, the system may detect an oncoming vehicle or pedestrian when performing a left-hand turn and may provide audio/visual alerts and automatic braking in certain conditions.
Additional PCS function includes emergency steering assist, which is designed to stabilize the driver’s emergency steering maneuvers within their lane while avoiding a preceding pedestrian
Road Sign Assist (RSA)
Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC)
Lane Keeping Technology: Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist (LDA w/ SA), Lane Tracing Assist (LTA) and Sway Warning System
Automatic High Beams (AHB)
Another ADAS features on the Highlander Limited include Blind Spot Monitor (BSM) with Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA)
The standard backup camera features projected path, while the Limited’s backup camera comes standard with dynamic gridlines. Our sample had the Bird’s Eye View Camera with Perimeter Scan (part of the 12.3-inch screen option). This view provided a live rotating 360-degree view around the vehicle which meant real ease in backing out of tight parking spaces with low, out-of-sight curbs.
The 2021 Highlander is equipped with eight airbags, including side curtain airbags for all three rows.
Toyota’s standard Star Safety System includes Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control (TRAC), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist (BA), Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), and Smart Stop Technology (SST).
Peace of mind beyond the hardware
Toyota has earned a reputation for building high quality, reliable vehicles. The Highlander projects that standard in the way it feels, the way the buttons operate, the way the doors close, the fit and finish both inside and out. Solid, dependable, secure are characteristics which come to mind driving the Highlander.
This kind of quality, a vehicle you can own for many years, brings its own value to the ownership equation. The 2021 Toyota Highlander Limited AWD has base price of $45,715. The 12.3-inch screen added $1,050, carpet floor mats and a tough cargo-area liner $318 and delivery, processing and handling another $1,175, bringing the total to $48,258.
Sweetening the package is ToyotaCare, a plan covering normal factory-scheduled maintenance, for two years or 25,000 miles, whichever comes first, and two years of Roadside Assistance, unlimited mileage. After time in the 2020 Highlander Limited a year ago, I said it hit the “sweet spot” in the SUV world. My experience in the 2021 version reaffirmed this conclusion – this is an excellent choice when shopping for a three-row, mid-size SUV.