We recently reviewed the V6-powered 2021 Highlander Limited and Alistair rather liked it, but said it was pretty thirsty on fuel. How would it compare to a lower-spec model with a hybrid powertrain?

I used one as my Christmas break daily driver, then took it on a road trip to Napier, to find out.

What We Like and Dislike About The 2021 Toyota Highlander GXL Hybrid

What we likeWhat we don’t like
Spacious interior
Build quality
Fuel efficiency
Ride can be bouncy
Lacking in technology
EV mode has limited use
Heavy doors

What’s In The 2021 Toyota Highlander Range?

There are five different models available in the Highlander lineup. 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
  • 2 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 GXL Hybrid Compare To Its Competition?

I’ve assumed that the reason you’re reading this is for the hybrid version, so I’m comparing with other 7-seat hybrids. For now there’s not a lot of competition for the Highlander hybrid, but you can bet this list will grow rapidly in the coming months.

Make/ ModelEnginePower/
SeatsFuel L/100kmTowing
Volvo XC90 B5 Momentum2.0-litre 4-cylinder petrol twin-turbo hybrid183/35078.22400651$101,900
Kia Sorento Hybrid EX Wagon1.6-litre 4-cylinder petrol turbo hybrid132/26575.41350604$63,990
Toyota Highlander GXL Hybrid2.4-litre 4-cylinder petrol hybrid142/242 (petrol engine)75.92000552$63,990

First Impressions Of The 2021 Toyota Highlander GXL Hybrid

Well it’s big! From the side it definitely looks its full five metres long, but Toyota have designed in some nice sculpted lines and shapes to the side profile. It gives the car a muscular, chunky look which I like. At first I wasn’t keen on the front of the Highlander but over the two weeks I had it, it grew on me. 

Our review car was painted metallic Graphite Grey, which looked smart, but almost all of the Highlanders you see are either grey or white. I’d love to see more in the red and blue they have available.

What’s The Interior Like In The  2021 Toyota Highlander GXL Hybrid?

As Alistair mentioned, the Highlander is big inside as well as out, and has quite a few useful storage areas dotted around. Being the entry-level GXL, our car had cloth seats that are manually adjusted. They look really good in two-tone cloth and are very comfortable on short or long journeys. The interior build quality is excellent and the Highlander feels like it will take whatever abuse your family throws at it.

It’s all very grey, apart from cream pillar trims and headliner, but there are nice touches that lift the feel, such as stitching along the lower dash, and brushed-metal finish to various trims. Around the central screen is piano black which will definitely show fingerprints and marks as the car ages, but it’s all coherently designed. I like the way the screen and centre console controls have been integrated into a single trim piece that stands proud of the dash. Much neater than having a separate screen looking like it was tacked on afterwards.

The central screen itself is Toyota’s standard offering and it’s okay, but resolution could be better for the reversing camera, and it feels a bit dated compared to the competition. But it does have proper physical buttons and knobs for aircon controls, volume etc. Big points there for the Highlander. A minus though, is that being the GXL this model has no SatNav built-in. It supports Android Auto and Apple Carplay so you can use your phone’s nav functions, but having it built-in is always nice.

There’s a really handy storage shelf under the aircon controls, above the power sockets (a generous 2x 2.1A USB charge, one USB connection and one power port). It has a little hole to feed your charge cables through but could do with a rubber mat to stop your things sliding on corners.

The steering wheel is standard Toyota – leather-clad, comfortable, and with stereo and cruise controls logically laid out. The driver’s displays consist of the traditional two big dials with a smallish central screen which can show all of the usual trip computer things including a digital speedo. The left-hand dial, rather than being a rev counter, is a hybrid power/eco/charge meter.

There’s a standard gear shifter, electronic parking brake, and a decent-sized central cubby (with more charge points inside). Moving to the rear, there is loads of leg room. The rear seats can slide back and forth to balance leg room with third-row legroom or cargo space but it’s massive in there. Row 2 also gets its own climate control zone and controls.

Row three has two seats and you can fit two adults in there, but I don’t think they’d be happy on a longer trip. It’s a very knees-up seating position. Younger kids would likely be very happy there.

Finally there’s a reasonable 241-litre boot space, expanding to 552-litres with the rear seats folded flat. Dropping the third row is quick and easy by pulling a strap from the boot side. The second row folds almost flat, leaving a pretty cavernous area. We used this to great effect on our trip from Wellington to Napier, taking up our granddaughter’s first big-girl bed. We easily fitted in a single mattress, bed base, some storage drawers, and our luggage for the weekend.

What’s The 2021 Toyota Highlander GXL Hybrid Like To Drive?

After a couple of weeks of daily use around Wellington’s suburbs and CBD, I concluded that the Highlander is just a bit too big for this environment. Its 5-metre length is about the same or longer than most CBD parking spaces, but despite this I found it pretty easy to park. I would have appreciated a 360-degree top-down camera system to be included in this model, not just the top-spec one, but I managed with just the front and rear parking sensors. The high driving position definitely helps. It also felt huge when threading through some of Wellington’s tighter suburbian streets. 

There’s an EV-mode button for silent cruising, which would be great to use around the city, but it has some limitations. The first being that this is a HEV not a plugin, so battery capacity is limited. That meant that EV mode only worked for a short while or just refused due to insufficient charge. EV mode also only goes up to 20kph so it can only really be used in certain situations such as looking for a parking space, or for that final drive up your street so you don’t disturb the neighbours/wife/dog. Saying that the doors are pretty heavy and solid, and need a fair slam to close, so you’d probably wake them up anyway. Almost every time I shut the boot I ended up having to re-open it and shut it more firmly. Passengers had the same thing with their doors too. The other thing I found at low speeds was that the brakes were quite grabby at low speeds. It’s something I’ve noticed on other hybrids too and it makes it a challenge to slow smoothly to a halt.

But once it’s on the motorway it really comes into its own. The ride is very comfortable, though it can be a bit bouncy sometimes on more undulating surfaces at speed. But generally it’s a fantastic road trip car. Road noise isn’t intrusive even on rough chip seal, and the seats are very good. I did find myself looking for a lumbar support adjustment after a couple of hours’ driving, and realised that the GXL doesn’t have it. Not that it caused any aches like a certain electric car’s seats did, but some extra back support would have been appreciated.

The trip to Napier was uneventful, and we arrived feeling fresh and comfortable. This is really what the Highlander excels at. I did have some minor annoyances with the cruise control – it slows down on corners, then sometimes speeds up, then slows again. And sometimes, but not always, it fails to maintain the set speed downhill. It flashes up a warning and dings if you go 6kph over the speed limit, but not every time, and when it does it with cruise activated, the cruise control doesn’t sort it out. Finally, all of the cruise settings reset to defaults when the engine is turned off, so you have to re-set your following distance etc. All of these will likely be fixed via a software update at some point and they are minor but they would probably irritate me in the long run.

What about driver involvement? Well the Highlander drives very well, but it’s heavy and you can feel that if you try to push it too hard, but it’s not meant to be pushed hard, it’s a big, comfortable cruiser. And it does that very well indeed. It can certainly handle New Zealand highways with no problems at all, and holds well on corners without too much body roll.

The hybrid Highlander claims a combined fuel consumption figure of 5.6l/100km. I covered 1300km, half shorter trips, half road-trip, and I averaged 6.5l/100km. I think this is excellent in a 7-seat large SUV weighing in at over 2000kg. How did my fuel usage compare to Alastair’s time in the V6 version? He used 11.8l/100km against a quoted figure of 8.8. Given the way petrol prices are going, the hybrid is looking good.

What did Fred Think Of The 2021 Toyota Highlander GXL Hybrid? 

I only managed to get a few days’ driving into the Highlander, but that included a trip to the Wairarapa and back. I wish I had had more people with me to see how that 2.5-litre hybrid setup would go with a decent load, but at least Rob got to test it out more fully.

Overall, I enjoyed the Highlander. It had a lot more punch than I thought it would, although the engine got a bit vocal going over the Remutaka Hill.

The adaptive cruise acted strangely; at times on a bend – even on the motorway – it would slow down, then speed up, slow down again, then speed up – on the same bend. This surging didn’t feel that pleasant and in this respect, let down the overall smoothness of the car. 

Still, there’s a lot of space in the car, and rear legroom is outstanding. It can feel a bit close inside, and I think I’d upspec to a model with a panoramic sunroof to get some natural light inside for the kids. 

Not a home run for me, but I can see this model being very popular. I got 6.5L/100Km out of my run, and for the size of the car that is simply excellent.

2021 Toyota Highlander GXL Hybrid Specifications

Vehicle TypeLarge SUV
Starting Price$63,990
Driveaway Price
Price as Tested$63,990
Driveaway Price
Engine2.5-litre 4-cylinder 16-valve double overhead cam
Petrol electric hybrid
Power, Torque
TransmissionElectronically-controlled Continuously Variable Transmission
Spare WheelFull-size alloy
Kerb Weight, Kg2,045
Length x Width x Height
4966 x 1930 x 1755
Cargo Capacity,
(seats up/seats down)
241 (all seats up)
552 (third row down)
1,150 (second row down)
Fuel tank capacity,
Fuel Economy,
Advertised Spec – Combined – 5.6
Real-World Test – Combined – 6.5
Low Usage: 0-6 / Medium Usage 6-12 / High Usage 12+
Towing Capacity
Kg, unbraked/braked
Turning circle
Small: 6-10m / Medium 10-12m / Large 12m+
Warranty5 years Warranty
5 years Roadside Assistance
5 years Warrant of Fitness
5 years (or 60,000km) of capped price service
Safety informationANCAP Rating – 5 stars – Link
Rightcar.govt.nz – # Stars – NJL196

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Rob Clubley
I love everything about cars! Driving, looking at them, modifying. It's great to see what people do with cars, the different car cultures. If I was rich, my garage would be bigger than my house!
2021-toyota-highlander-gxl-hybrid-hybrid-car-reviewThe Highlander Hybrid could be the ideal road-trip vehicle for families of up to seven. It’s big, comfortable, practical, and frugal on fuel. Interior build quality and space are excellent, and ride quality and handling are superb, especially for something this size.</p> Around town it’s a bit of a tight fit, and some technology updates here and there wouldn’t go amiss, but it’s a great overall package.


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