When Toyota introduced the Highlander for the 2001 model year, it was already one of the top-selling and most popular automotive brands in the world. With the Highlander, which became one of the earliest crossovers—blending the defining attributes of SUVs and sedans—Toyota was determined to retain that status, if not enhance it. As a midsize vehicle, the Toyota Highlander borrows its platform from the Lexus RX 300. However, the Highlander is taller and longer yet lighter than its luxury-branded cousin. As a result of its length, the Highlander resembles a larger station wagon, and the increased interior space over the RX 300 draws comparisons with the practicality of a minivan.

Price and Value

Since the 2001 model year, the Toyota Highlander has delivered tremendous value. Although the Toyota brand alone strengthens it, the Highlander has earned its stripes as a midsize crossover. Although the crossover market has become saturated with multiple entries from other automakers, the Highlander has always justified its value with a large cargo hold, three-row seating, and standard safety technologies that are more advanced than the competition. It’s not surprising that the Highlander is a perennial bestseller; for instance, Toyota sold over 244,000 units in 2018, a sales record in the United States.

The 2020 Highlander can cost anywhere from $31,000 to $56,000.

A deep dive on the Toyota Highlander
Size and Seating Capacity

While the Toyota Highlander started out as two-row midsize vehicle, an optional third row was introduced for the 2004 model year. These days the Highlander is manufactured and sold as a three-row vehicle. However, maximum capacity varies depending on trim. The lower-level LE and LE Plus trims include a second-row bench-style seat to maximize their capacity to eight people.

On the upper-level XLE, SE, and Limited trims, that bench-style seat is replaced by a pair of captain’s chairs to drop capacity to seven. However, on the XLE and Limited, you can opt for the bench-style seat to bring up capacity back to eight people.

The most recent Highlander models have a standard cargo space—which is measured between the third row and the liftgate—of 13.8 cubic feet. You can fold down second- and third-row seats to maximize that space at 83.2 cubic feet on the XLE and Limited and 83.7 cubic feet on the other trim levels.

Battery, Range, and Engine Specs

These days the Toyota Highlander has an inline 4-cylinder (I4) engine that displaces 2.7 liters and delivers 185 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque.[4] This 2.7-liter workhorse is tied to a six-speed automatic transmission, which delivers power to the wheels in front. However, for both better efficiency and acceleration ability, go with the available V6, which displaces 3.5 liters and produces 295 horsepower and 263 pound-foot of torque for a gain of 110 horsepower and 79 pound-foot of torque. With the six-speed gearbox and front-wheel drivetrain, the 3.5-liter V6 delivers an EPA rating of 21 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway.

Moreover, with the 3.5-liter V6, you have the option of swapping the front-wheel-drive with an all-wheel-drive. With engine power transferred to all four wheels rather than just the ones in the front, tire grip on the road is maximized. This ability is especially crucial when driving on slippery surfaces. Notably, fuel economy does not take that much of a dip, which is only measured as 1 less mpg in the city.

A deep dive on the Toyota Highlander
Trims and Features

Throughout its production run, the Toyota Highlander has been presented with a range of trim levels to accommodate the wide range of customer tastes. The most recent Highlander models are split into L, LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum variants.

L: The Highlander L comes with the Entune multimedia system, which brings together a six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo system, Bluetooth hands-free phone calling and audio streaming, five USB ports for hooking up mobile devices, and a 4.1-inch touch screen. Riding on 18-inch alloy wheels and flanked by heated side mirrors, the LE comes standard with cloth seat upholstery and remote keyless entry.

LE: This trim option adds on to the L trim with a few additional features. Exterior features include heated mirrors with blind spot and turn signal indicators that can also be folded for safe and easy parking, LED fog lights, and a liftgate that is height-adjustable and jam protected. Interior features include a leather-trimmed shift knob and steering wheel, 8-inch infotainment system, and a blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert.

XLE: At this trim level—which represents the Highlander’s midrange—Toyota provides enhancements such as proximity keyless entry (instead of remote keyless entry), a navigation system, a moonroof, and an in-car intercom. In addition, the seats are trimmed with leather, and heating ability is added on the front seats.

Limited: As one of the top-level Highlander trims, the Limited maximizes the nameplate’s comfort and convenience abilities. This is the only model with standard front-seat ventilation, a cargo area cover, and a 12-speaker JBL GreenEdge stereo system.

Platinum: This trim is another higher end option. The Platinum trim features a 10-inch color infotainment display, a power panoramic moonroof with sunshade, rear bumper scuff plate, rear lower bumper accent, heated second-row captain’s chairs, rain-sensing windshield wipers, 20-inch alloy wheels, and digital rearview mirror with HomeLink.

A deep dive on the Toyota Highlander
Safety

Safety on the Toyota Highlander is largely defined by two packages: the Toyota Safety Sense P and the Star Safety System. The former brings together driver-assistance features, which consist of adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, automatic high-beam headlights, lane departure warning, and lane-keep assist. The latter combines smart stop technology with other active safety technologies such as vehicle stability control, traction control, an anti-lock brake system, electronic brake-force distribution, and brake assist. Also present is a rearview camera for monitoring what’s behind you when reversing the Highlander, hill start assist control, a year of Safety Connect, and seven airbags installed throughout the cabin to provide restraint and cushioning if there’s an accident.

A blind-spot monitoring system is available as are parking sensors with audible alerts.

Reliability

The Toyota Highlander has consistently ranked among the best midsize crossovers to own in terms of quality and reliability. Since J.D. Power started rating the Highlander in projected reliability in the 2006 model year, the Highlander rarely received a score below the 80s on a scale of 0 to 100. Each Highlander enjoys a warranty program that consists of a basic warranty of 36 months/36,000 miles, a powertrain warranty of 60 months/60,000 miles, and a rust-through warranty of 60 months/unlimited miles. The certified pre-owned program extends the original new-vehicle powertrain warranty to seven years/100,000 miles.

The Takeaway

The Toyota Highlander has made great use of its head start as one of the first midsize crossover vehicles. Over a period of three production cycles—with a fourth that began in 2020—Toyota has refined the Highlander as a spacious, reliable, durable, and tech-heavy machine that appeals to everyone from family-conscious drivers to daily commuters.