With over 200,000 examples sold every year, the Toyota Highlander is one of the most popular three-row SUVs sold today. All-new just last year, it features ample cargo space, a strong safety suite, and four distinct powertrain combinations. With a half-dozen trim levels, buyers face a wide array of possibilities. To help narrow it down, we’ve compiled the following trim review as an easy way to navigate these choices.
2021 Toyota Highlander L Trim Pros and Cons
New entrants in this segment mean that even the Highlander L must deliver a strong value game to remain competitive with the formidable Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride duo. The Toyota boasts eight-passenger seating, but the third row in the Highlander is seriously cramped. Like the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade, V-6 power is standard in the Highlander. Producing a decent 295 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque, we found the 3.5-liter V-6 engine to be surprisingly thrashy. On the flip side, Highlander comes out on top with fuel economy, with FWD versions rated at 21/29 mpg city/highway and AWD netting 20/27. The Telluride is rated at 20/26 mpg (FWD) and 19/24 mpg (AWD); the Palisade is the same, except the FWD model comes in at 19/26.
The Highlander shines in other respects, including abundant storage nooks and cubbies throughout the interior. An 8.0-inch touchscreen is standard, as are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. We do wish, however, that the infotainment technology and graphics were a bit more modern. A power driver seat is standard, along with three-zone automatic climate control.
With these features, 18-inch alloy wheels, and available AWD, the Highlander offers a decent package in the L trim, though no options are offered. For more amenities, you’ll have to upgrade to a higher trim.
2021 Toyota Highlander LE Trim Pros and Cons
Budget-conscious buyers will most likely gravitate toward the LE trim of the 2021 Highlander. The most notable upgrade is the addition of a power liftgate. The LE trim also adds LED foglights and a leather-trimmed shift knob and steering wheel. More safety features abound, including rear cross-traffic alert, a blind-spot monitoring system, and side mirrors with blind-spot indicators. Toyota also throws in five USB ports, though we’re curious why none of them is located near the third row. There are two in the second row, however, but they’re inconveniently located near the floor on the center console.
For a premium of roughly $2,000 over L, this trim will most likely appeal to those who value the convenience of a power liftgate without requiring many additional options.
2021 Toyota Highlander XLE Trim Pros and Cons
Another $2,000 beyond the non-hybrid LE places you in a 2021 Highlander with the XLE trim. More comfort is the goal of this trim, which includes a power sunroof, roof rails, a wireless charging pad, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with HomeLink, second-row captain’s chairs, and heated power front seats. The XLE also sports an upgraded 7.0-inch color information display in the instrument cluster.
The heated and power seats might be the most enticing part of this trim package. This could be the sweet spot for many buyers, as the Highlander XLE provides a strong value play in the segment.
In terms of efficiency, Toyota’s ace in the hole comes in the form of the Highlander Hybrid. Available on LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum trims (but not L or XSE), this powertrain gets you a 2.5-liter I-4 hybrid powertrain producing a combined 243 hp, and it’s available in either FWD (36 mpg combined city/highway) or AWD (35 mpg combined) variants. As both city and highway mileage are rated practically the same, you’ll see a benefit regardless of where you drive. Although the fuel savings is noteworthy, the four-cylinder is annoyingly coarse and unpleasant at full throttle. On all trim levels, the Hybrid premium is $1,400.
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Trim Pros and Cons
Surprisingly more than just a cosmetic package, the XSE trim earns its “S” with a stiffer, sport-tuned suspension, firmer steering, and 20-inch wheels. Of course, there are also plenty of cosmetic changes to underscore the sporty nature of the XSE, including a mesh front grille, a metallic gray rear lower bumper, color-keyed side rocker panels, black roof rails, and a twin-tip exhaust. The truly adventurous will spec the red-leather seating to complement the faux-carbon fiber finishes in the interior.
This is the trim MotorTrend recently tested, and while it was slightly quicker from 0 to 60 mph than the XLE and Platinum trims, we really didn’t notice much of a difference in the ride or handling. Befitting its sporting nature, the XSE trim is only available with the V-6 engine.
No Highlander is synonymous with performance, anyway, so this trim is mainly for the extrovert who wants a little flair in their people hauler. That specific buyer will likely be happy to justify the $1,600 premium over the XLE.
2021 Toyota Highlander Limited Trim Pros and Cons
The amenities really start to pile on in the Limited trim. Power-folding side mirrors feature puddle lamps, and LED foglights are added up front. There’s a bit of bling found in the addition of 20-inch chrome wheels. The first- and second-row seats are trimmed in leather, the front seats are heated and ventilated, and the driver seat gains 10-way power articulation with power lumbar support. If rear-seat passengers are being unruly, an overhead console microphone enables the driver to project their voice to the rear speakers.
Power users will appreciate the 120-volt outlet between the front seats, and built-in navigation is available. Finally, the power liftgate can be operated hands-free.
This is a lot of additional equipment, which is reflected in its $6,800 increase over the L trim (and $4,000 over XLE).
2021 Toyota Highlander Platinum Trim Pros and Cons
One of the benefits of the Platinum trim is that second-row passengers are treated to a nicer experience via heated captain’s chairs as well as a panoramic moonroof. Not to be outdone, front passengers have access to a touchscreen that grows to 12.3 inches and a JBL sound system that features 11 speakers. We found the sound quality of this system to be excellent, with clear, strong imaging even at higher volumes.
The addition of adaptive headlights, digital rearview mirror, and surround-view camera systems are useful, but the 10-inch color head-up display reflects on the dash, and we found it distracting.
All told, the Platinum trim features a mixed bag of upgrades, and it’s a solid increase of $3,200 over Limited.
So Which 2021 Toyota Highlander Model Is Best?
If sporting pretensions aren’t your thing, the Limited is the best all-around trim, available with both front- and all-wheel drive in gas or hybrid versions. Limited is also the first trim that makes the 12.3-inch touchscreen available.
2021 Toyota Highlander Trims:
- Limited (MT‘s pick)