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Toyota Highlander 2021 LE AWD Base Model Review: Without the Extras, Is It Worth It?

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Auto123 reviews the 2021 Toyota Highlander LE base AWD model.

After being given a complete redesign in 2020, the Toyota Highlander remains unchanged for 2021. Measured by size, the three-row crossover sits just above the Venza and just below the 4Runner in the Japanese automaker’s lineup.

We tested the Limited version last year and were pretty positive about this new Highlander. Except that it cost $54,029, which doesn't make it very accessible to families on a budget who need an 8-seat vehicle. We asked to try an entry-level version and Toyota came through with an LE AWD version. Price? $46,309. Yes, that's still far from cheap!

So what do you get for $46,000?
Well, you get cloth seats, of very good quality and very comfortable. Most importantly, they look like they were conceived to withstand the assaults of children and, one imagines, their feet, their toys, their snacks and their chewing gum. The fabric of the seats looks strong and durable.

For that healthy sum, you also get plastic panels throughout the vehicle. The dashboard, door jambs and centre console are all made of thick plastic that is frankly not very pleasant to the touch. Well, I suppose you could say they’re also there with attacks from the little ones in mind.

On the other hand, storage space abounds inside the Highlander, no matter which version you go for., 100% online, shop for your next car, buy online and get it delivered to you anywhere in Quebec!

2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD, interior
2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD, interior

More good news is that, even in this base version, Toyota does not skimp on safety features. We applaud the manufacturer for making it a priority to offer essential safety features in all of its models. The Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 suite of systems is thus included with the entry-level version. You'll find a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, dynamic radar cruise control with a full range of speeds, a lane departure warning system with steering assistance and a lane keep assist system.

You'll also get four power windows. Sure, laugh, but we point this out because we sometimes test drive more expensive cars that don't have this option.

The Highlander is made for those who want room for all the members of the family. In this LE version, it can accommodate eight, as mentioned. Keep in mind, however, that the third row is designed for young children or teenagers. Older folks can sit in the third row, but honestly, we don't see them staying there for long trips. Fortunately, the second-row seats can be moved forward 30 mm to relieve somewhat the suffering of those behind them.

All occupants will find plenty of places to store cups, smartphones and other toys. Teens and tweens will be happy with the USB outlets sprinkled about – there are five in total.

Once everyone's on board, you can still count on 456 litres of cargo space. Need more room? Unload the third-row passengers, fold down their seats and you'll have 1,150 litres. With second-row seats also vacated and folded down, you're looking at 2,076 litres of cargo space. Some people will just have to walk or take the bus, that's all.

2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD, trunk
2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD, trunk

The engine
A 3.5L V6 that develops 295 hp and 263 lb-ft sits under the hood of the Highlander, mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission and an all-wheel drive system. Note that there is a front-wheel-drive L version, which we don't recommend given our climate.

The V6-4WD combo is competent enough to deliver a smooth daily drive and to move this two-ton SUV with confidence. Properly equipped, it can even tow up to 5,000 lb.

This LE version is interesting because it offers all-wheel drive and an 8-seat configuration. It also has a lot of safety features and Toyota doesn't skimp on the comfort features that will make its daily use enjoyable.

The version we tested retails for $46,309. The base L version with front-wheel drive (which will no longer be available in 2022) starts at $42,809.

As before with the Highlander, for an extra $2,000 you can upgrade to the hybrid version. If you don't need to haul 5,000 lb and want to reduce your fuel consumption (because you should know that the non-hybrid Highlander uses up 11.8L/100km), the hybrid is a smart choice and the extra $2,000 will quickly pay for itself. With this system, you can expect to get about 8.0L/100 km in mixed use. Get out your calculators!

2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD, profile
2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD, profile

The competition
How does the Highlander fare against the competition? Here's how:

Kia's Telluride, with a base price of $48,505, has a nicer interior than the Highlander. There's also more room in the third row and it's smoother to drive than the Highlander. The only problem with the Telluride is that there is no hybrid version. So, we recommend the Highlander as long as you get it in hybrid form.

The Hyundai Palisade starts at $41,399. As with the Telluride, the interior of the Palisade is very user-friendly and pleasant to live with on a daily basis. The exterior look is a little polarizing, but you’ll have ot make up your own mind. The V6 engine is also very smooth and only the hybrid version of the Toyota makes us lean towards the Japanese model ahead of this Korean SUV.

Mazda's CX-9 starts at $40,950 for 2022. It's a bit dated and should be getting a makeover soon. Pro: It’s powered by a 250-hp 4-cylinder engine that does quite well to deliver a quite dynamic drive. Con: The third row of this midsize SUV is more difficult to access than the Highlander's. Pro: We also like the CX-9's exterior styling and driving experience. Con: There is no hybrid version for the CX-9. We would choose the Toyota, as the Mazda is at the end of its life in its current configuration.

2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD, front
2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD, front

The Honda Pilot is available in Canada for $44,890. This is a serious competitor to the Highlander, as both have proven reliability and very good resale value. The Pilot's interior is very spacious and the comfort on board is impressive. You can fit eight people more easily than in the Highlander, but you'll have a little less room for luggage.

Like the CX-9, however, this Pilot is starting to age, and should receive an update soon. We would again lean towards the hybrid version of the Highlander. In case the hybrid version is not a choice for you, then we would swing our vote over to the Pilot which offers more usability than its Japanese competitor.  

Finally, the Ford Explorer, which starts at $44,769 in XLT trim, offers a similar interior to the Highlander. It's powered by a 4-cylinder engine making 300 hp and 310 lb-ft, and is mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission. This combination makes the Explorer a fun-to-drive vehicle with crisp, more energetic acceleration than the Toyota. The third row is easy to access and the vehicle was designed to accommodate families. We like this Ford, and if you’re interested in both, we can only suggest you test drive both vehicles.

For us, we feel the Explorer delivers a typically American vehicle experience, while the Highlander is far more typical of Japanese products. Big surprise there.. The Explorer offers a hybrid version, but to access it, you have to choose the Limited trim then select the hybrid option, which raises the price to $53,029. That's almost $10,000 extra to get the hybrid version. Moreover, during our last test drive, we weren't really convinced by the frugality of the Ford’s engine. So we'd go with the Highlander again.

2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD, headlight
2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD, headlight

We like

Available in hybrid version
Space on board

We like less

Too much plastic
Third row for little ones only
The price is high, even in the basic version

The competition

Ford Explorer
Honda Pilot
Hyundai Palisade
Kia Telluride
Mazda CX-9

See also: 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Review: When 4 Doesn't Add up to 6

2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD, rear
2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD, rear
2021 Toyota Highlander LE AWD pictures