Having had the privilege of driving many vehicles, there are few vehicle formulas which I consistently enjoy. Those that know me will be aware of my addiction to high-revving, excellent handling, small two-seater roadsters. Judging by this, you’d think that a large 7-seat SUV would be incongruent with any of my tastes. While that assessment mightn’t be far off-the-money, I can attest to one thing, and that’s how much I love an old Land Cruiser.

Why is that? They’re imposing, no-nonsense SUVs that are built like absolute tanks. They’re also a nostalgic experience for me, having spent years in the back of my parents Land Cruiser. My parents’ one is nearly 20 years old, and I know it’ll still be running in another 20 years.   

The Highlander obviously isn’t a Land Cruiser. Instead, it’s Toyota’s softer offering, being the large crossover SUV sibling to the more rugged Land Cruiser range and the Hilux-based Toyota Fortuner. The Highlander is a success story for Toyota, having celebrated its 20-year anniversary last year. 
Over those twenty years, the competition has become increasingly stiff in the segment. This year, the 4th generation Highlander is up for New Zealand’s Car of the Year award. Let’s see how the Toyota Highlander compares with its increasingly competent competition, and whether it’s worthy of  New Zealand’s Car of the Year award.

What We Like and Dislike About The 2021 Toyota Highlander Limited

What we likeWhat we don’t like
Spacious Interior
Comfortable driving position
Interior build quality and attention to detail
Excellent ride quality
Refined V6 engine
Bullet-proof reliability
Dated Infotainment
Not as technologically gifted as competitors
Few amenities for 3rd row passengers
Low-end performance
Thirsty


What’s In The 2021 Toyota Highlander Range?

There are five different models available in the Highlander line-up. The models are separated by three different trim levels and two powertrain choices.

Each Highlander model is priced below:

ModelDriveaway Price*
Toyota Highlander GXL$60,990
Toyota Highlander Limited$63,990
Toyota Highlander GXL Hybrid$63,990
Toyota Highlander Limited Hybrid$66,990
Toyota Highlander Limited ZR Hybrid$74,990

*Driveaway price includes registration, WoF, number plates, pre-delivery costs, floor mats and a full tank of petrol. 

Of the two powertrain packages; there’s the petrol-powered 3.5L V6, producing 218kW of power and 350Nm of torque. Power is delivered to all-wheels (AWD) via an 8-speed automatic.

The second offering is a petrol-hybrid 2.5L 4-cylinder. The engine alone produces 142kW of power and 242Nm of torque, while the hybrid system gives it enough shove to deliver a combined power output of 184kW. This petrol-hybrid combo is paired with a CVT, delivering power via Toyota’s E-Four all-wheel drive. This essentially means the petrol engine drives the front wheels, and the electric motors drive the rear.

2021 Toyota Highlander Standard Equipment Highlights

  • 7 Seats
  • 8’’ touchscreen infotainment w Bluetooth (Apple Carplay and Android Auto compatible)
  • 4.2″ Multi-information Display
  • Reversing Camera
  • 6-speaker audio system
  • Adaptive Cruise Control
  • Cloth Seats
  • Push Button Start
  • 7 Airbags
  • 2x ISOFIX points
  • LED Headlights with day-time running lights
  • Powered door Mirrors
  • Rain Sensing Wipers
  • Auto High Beams
  • Road Sign Assist
  • Lane Tracing Assist with Departure warning
  • Toyota Pre-Collision System (feat: Autonomous Emergency braking, Pedestrian and Cyclist detection, Intersection Turn Assist and Emergency Steering Assistance
  • Rear Cross Traffic Alert and Auto Brake
  • Blind Spot Monitor
  • Down-hill Assist Control
  • Emergency Stop Signal
  • Hill-start Assist Control
  • Trailer Sway Control
  • Vehicle Stability and Traction Control

The Limited model variant adds:

  • Heated leather seats (front only)
  • 10-way Power Driver’s Seat Adjustment
  • 8-way Power Front Passenger Seat Adjustment
  • Three-Zone Climate Control Automatic Air Conditioning
  • 7″ Multi-information Display
  • Power tailgate
  • Sat-Nav with Suna traffic channel
  • Silver roof rails

The Limited ZR model variant further adds:

  • 20’’ alloy wheels
  • 11-speaker JBL sound system
  • Projector LED headlights
  • Quilted leather finished seating
  • Driver seat memory settings
  • Heated and ventilated seats (front only)
  • Heads-up display
  • Auto-dimming rear-view mirror
  • Rear door sunshades
  • Panoramic sunroof
  • Hands Free tailgate operation
  • Chrome roof rails
  • Faux woodgrain interior trim

The Highlander range offers seven different colour options, these are:

  • Frosted White (White)
  • Graphite (Deep Grey)
  • Celestial Silver (Silver)
  • Glacial Blue (Light Blue-Grey)
  • Eclipse (Black)
  • Ruby (Red)
  • Deep Sea Blue (Deep Blue)

For more details on the Toyota Highlander, visit the Toyota New Zealand website.

How Does The 2021 Toyota Highlander Compare To Its Competition

How long is a piece of string? Well, it actually mightn’t be that long in terms of competition for the Highlander Limited.  Sure, the marketplace for 7-seat SUV’s is extensive, but there aren’t many direct competitors which are exclusively petrol-powered.

Most of the competition either offer diesels or hybrid power plants, which is the competitive segment for Highlander Hybrid that we’ll have review of soon.

Here are some of your options:

Make/ ModelEnginePower/Torque kW/Nm  SeatsFuel L/100kmTowing CapacityBoot Space, litresPrice
Volvo XC90 B5 Momentum AWD2.0-litre turbo-petrol183/35078.22400680$99,990
Hyundai Santa Fe Diesel Elite AWD2.2-litre turbo diesel148/44076.1 2,500571*$80,900
VW Tiguan Allspace TSI R-Line AWD2.0-litre turbo petrol162/35078.42065700$77,990
Toyota Highlander Limited ZR Hybrid2.5-litre petrol hybrid142/24275.62090658$75,990
Hyundai Santa Fe Petrol Elite AWD2.5-litre petrol132/23278.72,000571*$73,900
Skoda Kodiaq Sportline TDI AWD2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel147/40075.42000630$72,990
Skoda Kodiaq Style AWD2.0-litre turbo petrol132/32078.12000630$69,990
Mazda CX-9 Limited2.5-litre turbo petrol170/42079.02000810$68,490
Kia Sorento AWD EX1.6-litre turbo petrol hybrid169/35076.11650608$65,990
Seat Tarraco FR 4Drive2.0-litre turbo petrol140/32077.22250760$64,990
Toyota Highlander Limited3.5-Litre Petrol218/35078.82000865$63,990
Mitsubishi Outlander VRX 4WD2.5-Litre Petrol135 / 24578.11600651$54,990
Honda CR-V Sport 71.5-litre Turbo Petrol140 / 24077.31000936$49,000

First Impressions of the 2021 Toyota Highlander Limited

Did you know that the Highlander is assembled in the United States? No? Well, whether or not you did, it doesn’t matter. The point is the Highlander definitely has American dimensions.

This Highlander. Is. BIG.

It’s nearly 5 metres long, and 2 metres wide. Combine that with the vehicle’s high-belt line (for safety) and the result speaks for itself. Interestingly, this Highlander is built upon the same platform used for the Toyota RAV-4 and the Camry (TNGA-K). However, you can sort-of tell that the body is on the larger side relative to its wheelbase, judging by the body overhangs. 

Despite the imposing mass, Toyota has managed to inject some flair into this generation. There’s plenty of body sculpting, flowing lines, and big exterior features; it’s considerably more stylised compared to the Highlander models before it.

The outcome of all this sculpting means the Highlander no longer has the aesthetic of a breadbox. It’s now quite a handsome machine – for a 7-seat SUV, anyway.

What’s The Interior Like In The 2021 Toyota Highlander Limited?

While the exterior styling might have injected some flair over the previous generation, the inside of the new Highlander is no departure from Toyota’s usual formula.

The Highlander’s interior is comfortable, well-built and vast!

On the inside, it’s built like a tank. Everything feels undeniably sturdy. Would I call it luxurious? Not exactly, but robust and well put together? Absolutely. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the previous generation Highlander, or any of Toyota’s SUVs, for that matter. You can absolutely torture them, whether that’s with barrages of children, or travelling endless miles up and down the country, and you’ll rarely hear any trim rattle.

Although obvious, this new Highlander’s sizable stature pays dividends inside the cabin. There’s enough space inside to rival a minivan, whilst sparing you from the embarrassment of driving one.

Once you’ve finally gotten comfortable with all the space around you, you’ll soon begin to appreciate the driving position. The front seats are comfortable and supportive, and were non-fatiguing on longer journeys. The centre arm-rest is perfectly positioned to give you a Captain’s chair feeling from the driver’s seat – or if you’re inclined to recline – it’s at the optimal height for your gangster-lean.  

There’s also an excellent use of storage throughout the Highlander. There’s deep centre console storage, with a slider for access. There’s space to stow valuables under the climate controls and in a recess carved into the dashboard on the passenger’s side. Both areas have grippy materials too, preventing your wallet from flying into the backseats after a spirited corner.

If that’s not enough attention to detail, the space under climate controls also has a small pass-through for a cable to connect to the USB controls on the lower shelf – it’s the little things.

Jump back into the second row, and you’ll immediately see the benefits of such a large body. There’s so much room for activities back here. Even with my driver’s seat positioned, I still had several inches of space before my feet would even get remotely near the front seat. In the Limited model, second row passengers will get a set of independent climate controls and a couple of USB outlets, but rear heated seats and sunshades are reserved for the higher specced ZR. The second-row seats also have four different handles on them – three at the base, one at the top. 

Why so many handles? Adjustability is the obvious answer, but it’s more that Toyota is showing their forethought for every single potential problem. For example, the top handle partially collapses the seatback and slides the seat forward, allowing third row passengers to get out easily. Although, this isn’t ideal if you’ve got items, say a car seat, in the second row. So, Toyota chucked another handle down the base of the chair, allowing the seat to slide forward without collapsing – told ya they’d thought about it. 

Although space in the front and second row is more than generous, the third-row seats are where you start to see the compromise. Fortunately, the kids won’t care. They seem to be happy just getting distance between themselves and the adults in the front. Although you might start to hear some groaning once they’ve realised there’s no USB ports or power outlets back there. This seems like an oversight from Toyota, as we’ve started to see this offered in the Highlander’s competitors.  

Fortunately, Toyota has considered boot space. Even with the third row in place, there’s still a modest amount of space left in the boot, meaning you needn’t leave any belongings behind if you’re stuck with the kids for the weekend. 

In many tangible metrics, the Highlander’s interior is excellent and arguably among the best in its class. However, where the Highlander falls short is on the intangible – specifically, on technology. It’s slightly behind the 8-ball when compared to some rivals, say for example, the Kia Sorento.

The infotainment is the main culprit here. The 8’’ unit is starting to feel antiquated relative to its competition. The user interface is fairly simple to understand and navigate, thanks mainly to the physical shortcuts on the screen bezel. Otherwise, the screen responds slowly to touch, making it difficult to interact with on the fly. I know you shouldn’t be doing this while driving, but some will. 

The resolution also isn’t up to 2021 standards, which you’ll really notice once the reversing camera opens up. I have a further nit-to-pick with the sat-nav system too. For some reason, the default view will show a handful of nearby locations on screen. Sure, many systems do this, but I couldn’t understand the system logic.

If you have a closer look at our photo, we can see highlighted locations of the nearby mall area, the local constabulary, a nearby college and a few other niche education providers, and a women’s gym. There are two problems; one, I’ve never searched for any of these places, nor have I been to many of them; and two, the information is out-of-date. For example, that women’s gym hasn’t existed for nearly five years. 

This is one of the many reasons, I suspect, that many who will drive the Highlander will use Apple Carplay or Android Auto, which fortunately, the system does have.

It’s also slightly disappointing knowing that this is an issue specific to the Australasian market. In the US, the Highlander comes with a crisp 12.3’’ inch unit, which is more modern and uses Toyota’s latest software. Why don’t we get it? Perhaps because New Zealand, next to Australia and the UK are the only right-hand-drive markets to get the Highlander. But you can get the new unit in the UK on higher-trimmed cars.

Overall, the aging infotainment and related tech is a blemish on what is otherwise a well-built and well-thought-out interior. This shortcoming means the Highlander is exposed to more technologically competent rivals, like Kia’s Sorento. But the Kia can’t match Toyota’s robust build quality on the inside.

What’s The 2021 Toyota Highlander Limited Like To Drive?

As we mentioned earlier, this Toyota Highlander is built in the USA. It’s also a safe bet to say that’s where they’ll sell the most Highlanders too, if history is anything to go by. For that reason, the Highlander’s driving experience does have plenty of Americanisms about it, if the size already wasn’t a giveaway.

Let’s start with the best bit, and that’s the ride quality. 

Much like the appearance of many Americans, the ride quality of the Highlander is pillowy. It wafts down the road like a cloud; it’s a supremely comfortable experience for those inside. You’re unlikely to register going over any small bumps either. I recall a few lane changes where I barely noticed the cats-eyes on the road. Whether this is the Highlander’s suspension and tyres smoothing them over, or the sheer weight of the Highlander pushing them into the tarmac, one cannot be sure.  

Given the soft ride, I’m guessing it corners like a skyscraper? Well no, actually.

Let’s not forget, America is a diverse landscape. Sure, you’ve got miles of straight road, but they’ve also got plenty of mountainous ranges, and everything from searing summers to frigid winters. The point is, yes, the Highlander will pitch a bit through sharper and more spirited corners, but within its own natural limits, the Highlander corners reasonably well. You can credit the all-wheel drive system and rear differential in the Highlander, helping to keep all that mass stable. It’s safe to say, you’re unlikely to be in for any hair-raising moments taking the Highlander over the Remutakas. 

Although cornering is well-behaved, there are moments where the Highlander cannot hide its Snorlax-like dynamics. Accelerate sharply from a standstill, and you’ll definitely notice the weight transition over the rear.  

Which brings us onto the powertrain of our Highlander. Powering our test vehicle is a 3.5-litre V6 producing 218kW of power and 350Nm of torque. This engine is Toyota’s 2GR-FE V6, which is an engine architecture that first saw the light of day back in 2004.

Does that mean it’s past its use-by date? Absolutely not.

This engine has been continuously developed and seen various updates through the years. It also means we know the history of this engine, and the fact that it’s nearly unbreakable. 

Toyota uses this engine in everything from a humble Camry through to some Lexus models. I mentioned before that the Highlander is built upon the same architecture as the Camry (TNGA-K). In America, the same platform and engine are used in the Toyota Avalon sedan and the Toyota Sienna minivan. If you’ve ever been to New York, you’ll know that the Avalon and Sienna are a common mainstay of yellow cab taxis. These Toyota’s are known to rack-up over 400,000 miles (yes miles, not kms), before they’re even considered to be on their last legs. 

So, how does this Highlander perform on the day-to-day?

The V6 is remarkably smooth and quiet. All of those development years means that Toyota can really dial in the engine just right. With peak power of 218kW, you’ll also notice a healthy mid-range powerband.

Where performance is lacking is at the low end. The engine has a tall power curve, producing peak power at 6,600rpm and peak torque at 4700rpm, meaning you do need to have the cogs in motion if you’re going to notice the car accelerating. Combine this fact with the Highlander’s natural heft, and you’ll find yourself desiring a bit more off-the-line performance.

Fortunately, you aren’t left sitting-still for too long, thanks largely to Toyota’s 8-speed automatic transmission. Toyota’s transmissions are solid, and this 8-speed is no exception. You’ll barely notice the gear shifts as the car steams on-ahead.

One unexpected perk was how the engine sounded under-load. It’s no performance engine, but it has a healthy V6 grumble when you’re stepping on it. This was honestly quite refreshing, given that many modern cars sound like they’re choking when you step on the right pedal. 

So, what are the advantages of getting the V6 over the Hybrid? We both know each engine will be reliable, but one clear advantage is that the V6 is the gruntier engine. The Hybrid produces combined power output of 182kW, relative to the V6’s 218kW. The V6 also has a full split all-wheel-drive system, and you’ll also have some light off-road capability.

In the Hybrid, you get Toyota’s E-four all-wheel drive, which is different to the way the V6 all-wheel drive system operates. In the E-four system, the petrol engine powers the front wheels and the electric motors run the rear. Interestingly, the Hybrid versions do not get downhill assist control, meaning the V6 does appear to have a slight off-roading edge in this respect.

If towing is your objective, fortunately there is no compromise between either model. Both are rated for 750kg of unbraked and 2000kg braked towing capacity.

The main downside of the petrol Highlander relative to the Hybrid is its thirst. During our time with the Highlander Limited, we achieved a fuel consumption rate of 11.8L/100kms. This figure is bang-on Toyota’s estimated urban driving figure. However, Toyota’s combined rating for the petrol-driven Highlander is 8.8L/100kms, and we did spend plenty of time on the motorway (extra-urban), so we missed this by some margin. Compare that with the combined claimed figure of the Hybrid at 5.6L/100kms, and you’ll see the V6’s natural handicap. 

As for all the safety gear on-board the highlander, everything worked as expected without any major quirks. The adaptive cruise control works smoothly and down to a halt, and everything else was well tuned for its purpose. This is a big tick for the Highlander, as too often these safety systems are overactive in many cars. My only complaint would be that the Highlander is a big vehicle, and there were times I would have welcomed having a 3600 view, or birds eye camera (particularly in tight carparks). Unfortunately, Toyota saves this for the Limited ZR only, which comes at a $12,000 premium over the Limited. Personally, I think this should be standard in a new vehicle, which has these dimensions.

2021 Toyota Highlander Limited Specifications

Price as Tested$63,990
Engine3.5-litre 6-cylinder 24-Valve Quad-Cam
Power, TorquekW/Nm[email protected],600rpm / [email protected]
Transmission8-speed Automatic
Spare WheelFull size (Alloy)
Kerb Weight, Kg1,970
Length x Width x Height, mm4966 x 1930 x 1755
Cargo Capacity, litres241 (all seats up)
552 (third row down)
1150 (second row down) 
Fuel capacity, litres68
Fuel TypePetrol (95 or higher)
Fuel EfficiencyAdvertised Spec – combined – 8.8L/100km
Real World Test – combined – 11.8L/100km

Low Usage: 0-6 / Medium Usage 6-12 / High Usage 12+
Towing CapacityKg, unbraked/braked700/2,000
Turning circle, metres11.4

Small: 6-10m / Medium 10-12m / Large 12m+
Warranty3-year, 100,000Km New Vehicle Warranty
4-year Roadside Assistance 
ANCAP Safety RatingsANCAP Rating – 5 stars 
Rightcar.govt.nz – 5 Stars – NSL27
REVIEW OVERVIEW
Economy
5
Handling
7
Infotainment
5
Interior
9
Performance
8
Ride
9
Safety
8
Styling
8
Value
8
Vehicle Technology
7
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A millennial who prefers driving cars to having avocado on toast.
<!-- wp:paragraph --> <p>There’s a reason the Highlander has been around for nearly twenty years. Those that have owned any previous model of Highlander know it’s a competent 7-seat SUV, that’ll reliably transport their families, from the days of day-care through to their kid’s University graduation. This is the charm of Toyota’s SUVs, they survive for so long that they become part of the family. </p> <!-- /wp:paragraph --><!-- wp:paragraph --> <p>For the latest generation, Toyota has taken a formula that works and improved it.</p> <!-- /wp:paragraph --><!-- wp:paragraph --> <p>The exterior design is a vast improvement over the bread-box design of the previous model. It’s also supremely comfortable and exceptionally well-constructed inside, which will help it stand up to years of abuse.</p> <!-- /wp:paragraph --><!-- wp:paragraph → <p>Behind the wheel, the Highlander offers cloud-like ride quality, while being dynamically competent for its size. Based on the Highlander’s history, it’ll also perform day-in and day-out, without any reliability concerns. In my eyes, this is the best stress-free motoring experience.</p> <!-- /wp:paragraph --><!-- wp:paragraph --> <p>Where the new Highlander falls short is on the technology front. The infotainment unit is behind the 8-ball compared with competitors. Our Limited variant could have benefited from a few more toys to make it appeal more, rather than existing in the shadow of the Limited ZR, which comes at a 12-grand premium. </p> <!-- /wp:paragraph --><!-- wp:paragraph --> <p>So, if you’re the sort that’s ambivalent about tech trends, and you want a large vehicle to ferry your family about for the next ten years or more, it’s tough to do better than a Toyota Highlander. </p> <!-- /wp:paragraph -->2021-toyota-highlander-limited-car-review

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