The Toyota Highlander is one of the most reliable and well-respected 3-row SUVs, but is a new or used Highlander the better value right now?
Minivans are slowly going the way of the dodo and 3-row SUVs are taking over. One of the most popular three-row SUVs on the market is the Toyota Highlander. It’s always been well-received, reliable, and nicely appointed. In 2020, its fourth generation was released with an all new interior and exterior. It made big steps forward from the third generation that was introduced in 2014. During that third generation there was an update in 2017, which made us curious. Considering that a used 2018 Toyota Highlander can be had in any trim level for just above $40,000, is a new 2021 Highlander, which can run as high as $55,000, really the best buy right now? We dig into the details and declare a winner and let you know which is the one to shop for, the new or used Toyota Highlander.
For our used Toyota Highlander, the 2018 model was available in six different trim levels and with three different powertrains. The base drivetrain is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 185 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque mated to a six-speed auto and front-wheel drive. The EPA says that combination will on average get 22 mpg combined. Above that is a 3.5-liter V6 with nearly 300 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque sending power to the front wheels via an eight-speed automatic. That version is rated at 23 mpg combined. Finally, an all-wheel-drive hybrid powertrain is also available that can get 29 mpg combined with the help of a CVT. It makes 306 horsepower and just 215 lb-ft of torque. That’s less torque than you get in an Avalon.
For 2021, the new Toyota Highlander simplifies things with the same V6 on every trim. It gets an estimated 24 mpg combined in its most optimal trim. A different hybrid powertrain is also available as a $1,400 option and leaps up to 36 mpg combined. The hybrid does so by using a 2.5-liter four-cylinder mated to two electric motors which create a maximum of 243 horsepower and just 186 lb-ft of torque. That’s 4 more lb-ft than the base Toyota Camry. That leads us nicely into our driving review. As far as specs are concerned, we’re calling this a draw between the new and used Toyota Highlander.
For those who want an SUV that can elicit some illicit responses with excellent driving dynamics, look elsewhere. The Toyota Highlander would need a lot more than Toyota’s customary GR trim package to excite its driver. This SUV is the epitome of a mall cruiser. No fault in that though for those who want such a vehicle.
The 2018 Toyota Highlander is a good example of why so many like the platform. It’s easy to place in traffic, it’s comfortable, and it’s incredibly practical. Highway trips are especially breezy with Toyota’s advanced driver assistance systems including adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and forward collision mitigation. Handling is notably muted though. Push the used Toyota Highlander into a corner and the body will roll while the tires struggle to find traction.
For 2021, the new Toyota Highlander gains some improvements in all aspects of the driving experience. It feels a bit more eager to accelerate and it also corners flatter. Communication from the controls is better as well. The newer Highlander’s driver aids package now includes lane tracing assist as well as speed limit recognition. The entire SafetySense suite is even better acclimated to the real world too. Those factors give the new Toyota Highlander a slim victory in this category.
The most important factor for the Toyota Highlander is how well it shuttles people and things in comfort, and we really like both of these SUVs for that sort of duty. In the same way that these SUVs share many powertrain components, their interior scores are similar.
As far as things they share, both the new and used Toyota Highlanders are best enjoyed from the front two rows. The third row in each is very cramped. Buyers in search of a vehicle that can comfortably hold three rows of adults would do well to consider something like a Kia Telluride or a Lincoln Navigator. For buyers that won’t be shuttling passengers in the last row very often, either Toyota Highlander will be very comfortable. The seats are spacious, supportive, and there aren’t any odd protrusions that cut down on comfort. Bumps and bruises in the pavement are soaked up and settled down effectively by both model years too.
When it comes to differences, the new 2021 Toyota Highlander has a slight advantage. It’s physically larger, and that’s most notable when it comes to cargo space. Not only is there more space for things behind the third row, but there are more cubbies in the interior as well. We also like the layout of the newer Highlander because controls are closer to their intended users. In addition to those benefits, the cabin is slightly quieter than in the used Toyota Highlander too. When it comes to the interior and rider comfort, the new car is the winner.
As mentioned above, the 2018 Toyota Highlander came in six different trim levels. Every one of them came with lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, and other safety equipment. We detail the major differences in each trim below.
The Highlander LE was the only one to come with a four-cylinder engine. It also received 18-inch wheels, a 6.1-inch infotainment screen with Bluetooth connectivity, and six speakers. Next up is the LE Plus. The V6 engine is standard from this trim level and above. The hybrid powertrain is also available as an optional extra. LE Plus models also add in an 8-inch infotainment system, a power liftgate, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, tri-zone automatic climate control, and fog lights.
On top of the LE Plus, the XLE gets a sunroof, leather upholstery in the first two rows, heated front seats, a 110-volt power outlet, and an integrated navigation system. At the SE level, the Highlander adds 19-inch wheels, LED running lights, and more sport edition specific trim both inside and out.
Buyers should take a long look at the 2018 Highlander’s Limited trim as it has specific 19-inch wheels, heated second-row captain’s chairs, a premium JBL sound system with 12 speakers, and rear parking sensors. Then at the top of the range, the Limited Platinum gets all the goodies including a heated steering wheel, a panoramic sunroof, a 360-degree parking camera system, and front parking sensors.
The new 2021 Toyota Highlander gets a slightly more straightforward lineup, but still has six trim levels. As noted above, it gets more standard safety equipment including lane-tracing assist and traffic sign recognition.
The base 2021 Toyota Highlander L also has heated mirrors, an 8-inch infotainment system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, tri-zone automatic climate control, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, and on-board WiFi. The next trim level, LE, adds fog lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, blind-spot monitoring, and a height-adjustable power liftgate.
The first pseudo-luxury Highlander available is the XLE with its wireless device charger, heated front seats, second-row captain’s chairs, sunroof, and bigger driver information display. Then there’s the XSE that is a more “sports-oriented” trim level according to Toyota. In this case, that means some flashier trim, a “sport-tuned” suspension, and an integrated navigation system.
Buyers that go for the 2021 Toyota Highlander Limited trim will get leather upholstery, ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a household-style power outlet, parking sensors both front and rear, and a premium JBL audio system with 11 speakers. And at the top of the lineup is the Platinum which adds a digital rearview mirror, heated second-row seats, a 12.3-inch infotainment screen, automatic wipers, adaptive headlights, and a top-down surround camera system.
These two SUVs have a lot in common even though they’re from different generations, but at the end of the day, the new 2021 Toyota Highlander is the one we’d buy. Yes, it’s a bit more expensive, but it’s important to consider the following factors. The used car market is really expensive right now and can fluctuate depending on your location, while new cars have a set price. The additional features and space make the newer model more attractive over the used Toyota Highlander, plus the full factory warranty seals the deal.