Refined, restyled and reputable, the 2021 Toyota Highlander
Hybrid is all grown up. While the Highlander first came to market in 2000, it wasn’t until the 2006 model year that the hybrid variation joined the lineup. Toyota was the second manufacturer to offer a hybrid crossover following the Ford Escape Hybrid in 2005. When the Highlander Hybrid first debuted, it was a smaller 5-passenger midsize crossover and it has since grown nearly ten inches in length and seven inches in width while maintaining its height. The new Highlander is the biggest ever and it is noticeable both inside and out. Like the previous generation, it continues to offer third row seating making it a 7 or 8-passenger midsize crossover.
There are two engine offerings which include a 3.5L V6 DOHC gas engine that makes 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque or a 2.5L 4-cylinder hybrid engine that makes 186 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque. It is offered as either FWD or AWD The Highlander is available in six trim levels known as L, LE, XLE, XSE (new for 2021), Limited, and Platinum. The hybrid engine is offered with the LE, XLE, Limited and Platinum models. Prices range from $34,810 for a base FWD Highlander L and can climb as high as $48,915 starting MSRP for a Platinum AWD. Hybrid versions start at $38,410 for an LE with front wheel drive and can climb up to $50,315 for the Platinum AWD version. The test model for this review was a 2021 Highlander Limited AWD with beige leather, an optional 12.3-inch touchscreen, and all-weather mats which came to $48,808 MSRP.
At first glance, the Highlander Hybrid looks like any other Highlander. The only obvious way to spot one is the blue trimmed Toyota emblem on the front and back or the Hybrid badges on either front door. Aesthetically, the Highlander remains the same as 2020 models which were completely redesigned. With a wider stance, Toyota has given it a bigger grille trimmed in chrome along with a chrome strip across the top which is more of an evolution from the early third generation models made from 2013-2015. The front hood is sculpted with an indentation dip down the center of the hood adding some character. The headlights feature standard LED lighting that wraps around to the front fenders. The fenders have a prominent flare which is emphasized by a swooping character line up the rear doors. The side profile will highlight the longer nose of the Highlander and a more traditional rear roofline. Around back Toyota has added LED lighting in the taillights which look great at night and a bumper that consists of two different finishes which vary with trim level. Wheel options vary to include 18” painted alloys on LE models, 18” machined alloys on the XLE, and 20” alloys on the Limited and Platinum models. Overall, the Highlander offers a simplistic style that is well built, there are minimal gaps and the overall fit & finish has a Lexus vibe to it. The Ruby Red color on my test vehicle really looked sharp and stood out in a sea of monotone black, white, and gray variations of vehicles.
Under the hood of the Highlander Hybrid was the aforementioned 2.5L 4-cylinder hybrid engine that pairs the gas engine with a pair of electric motors with a continuously variable transmission. It is available with either front wheel drive or all wheel drive and is mated to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission with sequential shift mode. AWD versions feature an electronic on-demand system that will automatically supply power to the rear wheels when needed for added traction. The availability of AWD is a nice option in the Midwest with unpredictable weather year-round. The Highlander Hybrid also offers multiple drive modes and the flip of a switch in the center console. Drive modes include normal for your everyday driving, ECO for the most fuel-efficient ride, EV Mode for short electric driving only trips, trail which improved traction and sport which adds a little boost to the acceleration.
It weighs in at 4,595 lbs with the panoramic roof so it’s a fairly heavy crossover (similar to the VW Atlas weight). The hybrid engine felt somewhat underpowered off the line, but handled well in passing once cruising at highway speeds. The ride is very quiet and smooth. Steering is light to the touch but quick enough to give the Highlander some decent agility. It is also noticeable quiet on the road which is the result of sound-damping glass and soundproofing materials used in the build of the Highlander. Overall, the ride is soft and competent with a proven track record for reliability.
The Highlander Hybrid comes with a 17.1-gallon gas tank which will get you in the ballpark of 400 miles when full. It’s rated at 35 MPG city, 34 MPG highway and 35 MPG combined. After a week of suburban driving, I averaged 31.9 MPG in generally decent winter weather. And as if the fuel economy wasn’t good enough, Toyota recommends regular grade 87 octane fuel making this crossover the most fuel-efficient in the class.
Inside, Toyota has made tremendous improvements to the Highlander. The layout for the front passengers is well thought out, comfortable, and includes high quality materials. Most prominent was the available 12.3-inch touchscreen display at the center of the dash which is easy to reach. Toyota’s infotainment system now integrates with Android Auto, Apple Car Play, and is also compatible with Amazon Alexa. The system is rather easy to use but only takes up about three quarters of the large screen when in use. Below the large screen is a split level in-dash storage tray that provides the perfect place to set your mobile device or sunglasses. The design is very functional and even stretches across to the passenger side for added storage. I found this small touch very convenient and something often missing in many vehicles. Quite opposite to this convenience though, was the placement of the wireless phone charging tray. Toyota has placed that in the center console under the arm rest. Placing your mobile phone in this spot will require a cord to stretch across the dash in order to utilize Apple Car Play / Android Auto and it also blocks the deep storage bin below the phone. It seems that a more logical placement for the wireless tray would be in the storage shelf below the infotainment screen where I placed my phone every time I got in the Highlander. Toyota also includes wi-fi connectivity and five USB ports throughout the Highlander making it very functional for all passengers and their devices.
The seats in the Highlander were extremely comfortable and are available both heated and ventilated. Heated second row seats are also an available option on higher trim models. The comfortable seats reminded me of being in a Lexus with premium feeling finishes all around. Up above the front two rows was a larger panoramic moonroof that has a significant opening portion that is likely one of the bigger ones in the class outside of the Volkswagen Atlas roof. Toyota nailed the fit and finish of the first two rows but climbing back to the third row, it seems they dropped the ball. The Highlander’s third row seats are tight, even for kids. As an average height adult (5’9”), my knees were at my chest in the third row and my feet were pointed sideways. The third row in the Highlander is closer to the floor (I assume to maximize cargo volume when folded flat) which doesn’t leave much room. I did, however, put my son’s car seat in the third row and it was easy to access by sliding the second-row seats forward. The test vehicle had a bench seat in the second row which completely blocked visibility of the third-row passengers. Opting for the captain’s chairs in the second row will allow for better visibility to the third row, but will make the Highlander a 7-passenger vehicle. Overall, the interior space is a huge improvement over the previous generation and is better than most in the class, but the third row alone could be cause for some buyers to consider alternatives like the Hyundai Palisade or Kia Telluride which have figured out how to make that third row viable for adults.
Toyota steps up their safety game for 2021 with the addition of Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ standard on all Highlanders. This includes features like the pre-collision system with low-light pedestrian detection that utilizes a camera and radar for maximum range paired with both audio and visual driver alerts. Other features include full-speed range dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, lane tracing assist, road sign assist and automatic high beams. Similar to the 2021 Toyota Tundra I recently reviewed, the lane-keep assist is very sensitive and has a noisy alert sound that can’t be adjusted. There is an option to turn the system off altogether but unfortunately not just the audible alert. Features like the available blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert and the front & rear parking assist with automatic braking will add to the overall safety package making you feel quite comfortable and safe behind the wheel of the Highlander.
While not perfect, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid wins my most-improved award for the refresh it received in 2020. Reflecting back on my time in it, I remain impressed with how easy and comfortable it was to get behind the wheel and start driving. The price range is a bit higher than some of the competition but it is justified with the refinement and reputation that precedes the Highlander. In a category such as the mid-size crossover one, there are a lot of options… in some case manufactures have multiple offerings. That competition includes vehicles such as the Chevy Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade/Santa Fe, Kia Telluride/Sorento, Mazda CX-9, Subaru Ascent, and Volkswagen Atlas. With all of these options, be sure to drive a few before making a final decision as there are so many great vehicles on this list that all offer a little something different. And as for the Highlander Hybrid goes, for now it is the only Hybrid model on this list but a 2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid will be arriving on dealer lots soon.