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A light blue 2021 Toyota Highlander Platinum is next to a red Highlander hybrid parked outside of a cabin in the mountains.

A Family SUV Gains Sporty Style: 2021 Toyota Highlander

Last year the Toyota Highlander got a full makeover and rose in sales throughout 2020, but that hasn’t stopped Toyota from tweaking this favored SUV. Three-row SUVs are a popular choice for families who want the space for extra passengers or cargo but just can’t bring themselves to drive a minivan. The 2021 Toyota Highlander upgrades with a new sport trim that should appeal to buyers seeking the more aggressive SUV appearance and performance, plus a new suite of safety features receives updates and additions. Even the entry-level trim sports a long list of desirable features buyers will love, and four out of six trims can be purchased as hybrids.

Sport XSE Trim Addition to Lineup

The addition of a sport trim for the Highlander may be a little extra boost to an SUV typically geared for pavement driving. Reviews of the XSE trim are positive in terms of Toyota beefing up this SUV. Either way, Toyota gives the XSE trim a few extra features not found on most other trim levels. Most noticeable is the front-end fascia, where Toyota takes design elements from some of its other models and applies them to the Highlander. The grille, in particular, has a family resemblance to the Camry, the sedan Toyota recently updated with a sportier appearance. Other exterior elements that stand out on the XSE include rocker panels and back-end fascia shaped for sport styling and exposed dual exhaust tips.

More importantly, Toyota adds a sport-tuned suspension that stiffens the ride and steering quality for a more responsive driving experience, plus a sport driving mode firms up the steering further to get better articulation from the road. Twenty-inch machined alloy wheels offer improved performance for rougher terrain, and all-wheel drive is an option that can be added for managing roads less traveled. With that said, the Highlander is definitely more of a road-oriented SUV, not a vehicle you want to take romping on trails in the backcountry. Still, the sport tuning will make a difference on those muddy or snowy roads, as well as handling curves with less roll. Finally, the interior gets its own special treatment with either black and red or black-only upholstery, faux carbon-fiber trim, and red stitching details. When you do take the road less traveled, you’ll have standard navigation to get you home.

A gray 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE is shown from the side driving through a city.

New Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+

Toyota is well known for its safety record as a brand overall, and 2021 once again proves safety is still high on Toyota’s list of priorities. The Highlander received the 2021 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award and earned a five-star overall safety rating from the NHTSA. In previous years, the Toyota Safety Sense suite of driver-assisted safety features forged a path for other brands to mimic in terms of life-saving technology that should be standard. This year, Toyota ups the ante with more advanced features included in its new Safety Sense 2.5+system.

While many brands are offering Automatic High Beams in upper trims, Toyota now makes this a standard feature. When combined with the Low-Light Pedestrian Detection that is paired with the Pre-Collision System, night driving will be much safer. On the highway, drivers can utilize the Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control to set a speed and specified distance to keep from other vehicles. Unlike older cruise control, you won’t have to re-engage the cruise control if someone slows down in front of you because the system will manage the speed on its own.

If you happen to drift out of your lane, your Highlander uses the Lane Tracing Assist feature to keep you centered, and then the Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist can keep you from accidentally veering off the road. Road Sign Assist reads certain signs, like speed limits and “Do Not Enter” signs, which show up in the instrument cluster for the driver’s benefit. This is especially helpful in unfamiliar places, so you aren’t caught driving down a one-way street or speeding when the limit is lowered. Each of these updated features is the standard safety suite for all trims, and then Toyota offers several more features that are added to upper trims or are optional. Front and Rear Parking Assist with Automatic Braking and a Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert are two such offerings. Also, an available surround-view camera is a feature that buyers will be sure to appreciate.

Entry-Level Trim Features

Buyers may enjoy the new sport trim, but it’s certainly not for everyone. In fact, Toyota takes an unusual tack with the entry-level trim by offering it with generous features. Often, the entry-level trim on many models is so bare-bones most buyers end up purchasing the second-tier trim in order to gain a few creature comforts. With the 2021 Highlander, you won’t have to pony up the extra cash because the entry-level comes standard with a surprising number of conveniences. If you go with the 2021 Highlander L with no options, you get the 3.5-liter V6 engine, front-wheel drive, and the Toyota Care two-year warranty that includes free maintenance. That’s a good start, but there’s more.

Standard seating makes room for eight, and the eight-inch infotainment screen comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Alexa capability, Sirius XM, WiFi, Bluetooth, Toyota Connected service capability, and five charging ports. Your passengers will not be bored, nor will they be uncomfortable when they can all control their own temperature with the tri-zone climate control. Toyota gifts all trims with a smart key system that means keyless entry and ignition, which also opens the liftgate and lights the interior automatically when you unlock it. On the exterior, heated wing mirrors, LED headlights, and a wiper de-icer are all standard equipment.

A close up shows a kid from a low angle looking out of the moonroof of a 2021 Toyota Highlander Platinum at a star filled sky.

Upper Trim Choices

For the buyers in search of more pampering, Toyota provides an array of features for upper trims that take the 2021 Highlander into the more luxurious territory. There are critics who may scoff at the Highlander for being too bland, but the ride quality and comfort factor are an obvious draw. When you roam into the mid-level XLE trim’s options, you gain wireless charging, a sunroof, heated front seats, and faux leather upholstery that’s easy to keep clean – a bonus when you have pets or kids in the back. The option of second-row captain’s chairs lends to a more comfortable ride for back seat passengers. With the Limited, buyers benefit in summer months with ventilation in front, plus upgrades like driver’s seat memory and real leather upholstery.

The Platinum trim is the top of the line and comes only with captain’s chairs in the second row, but plush seating makes enjoying the panoramic sunroof that much nicer. Several tech options are added with a digital rearview mirror, rain-sensing wipers, and a head-up display on the windshield. Depending on the trim level you choose, most have the option of either the 3.5-liter V6 or the 2.5-liter four-cylinder hybrid engine. Only the entry-level L and sport-oriented XSE come with the gas engine as the single choice. Otherwise, buyers can save significantly on fuel with 36 MPG combined and the standard front-wheel drive paired with the hybrid engine. However, you still get 24 MPG combined with front-wheel drive and the gas-only engine.

The Highlander Is the SUV for You

Whether you want the entry-level or the Platinum, Toyota gives buyers numerous choices to add more convenience. All the trims are comfortable in both ride quality and seat support. The cargo area has a number of tie-downs for the convenience of keeping items from rolling around, and there is ample room for groceries and gear behind the third row. When you want to take a small trailer on vacation, the V6 engine can tow up to 5,000 pounds, and every Highlander comes standard with trailer sway control. Overall, the 2021 Toyota Highlander is a fantastic family vehicle at any price point, and now it has improved safety features that will undoubtedly push other brands to offer more in order to keep up.