2021 Highlander: Is it Just Me, or Did This Toyota Get Smaller?

A Girls Guide To Cars | 2021 Highlander: Is It Just Me, Or Did This Toyota Get Smaller? - 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Review

In a culture where “all-new” is king, I’m starting to feel a little like the old man shouting at the kids to get off his lawn.

When I first saw the 2021 Highlander I thought, “That’s pretty, but it looks tiny!” and, “It looks like a Mazda.” It’s no secret that I’m a truck girl, and if I can’t have a truck I want a big, masculine-looking SUV. So the current trend Toyota is on with the uber-sculpting of their vehicle exteriors leaves me a little crotchety. All that said, I’m still a huge fan of this 3-row SUV and always recommend it when friends are looking for a family SUV that is both comfortable and practical.

Related: 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid: This Transformer Can Do It All For A Reasonable Price

2021 Toyota Highlander Cargo Space

Maybe a third of the groceries I’d normally bring home for the week for our family of five. (Photo by Erica Mueller)

Let’s Start at the Back

Pros: The floorspace in the cargo area has a removeable mat which makes it easy to clean. The third-row seats are super easy to fold down, giving you an extra-large cargo space that is flat and easy to load. The seatbelts also store neatly against the sides of the vehicle so that they aren’t in the way of loading and unloading. Genius, really.

Con: The cargo area behind the third row might hold a small backpack for each of the 7 passengers this vehicle seats. Might. It is certainly not going to hold the pack-and-play, luggage for all 5 of us, and a computer bag too unless we fold down part of the third row. Fortunately, this is an option thanks to the 40/60 split seat.

2021 Toyota Highlander Legroom In The 3Rd Row

I call this kind of 3rd row a “just in case seat” because it’s not something you should plan on using regularly. (Photo by Erica Mueller)

Third Row Legroom Logistics

Over the years, the ads I’ve seen for this vehicle pride themselves on the 7-passenger capacity and often show 7 full-grown people climbing out of it. The ads don’t lie per se. There are 7 seats and 7 seatbelts. But if you are counting on any vehicle holding the number of passengers it claims to seat, you need to check that out for yourself. Climb into the farthest seat. Adjust the seat in front of you and the one in front of that. Install a child seat if you need one. Test again.

As a mom of three kids who range from 2 to 14, I find myself very critical of the space — or lackthereof – in vehicles marketed as family cars. Case in point: the 3rd row in the Highlander is anything but roomy. My teen could not sit back there. My 10 year old tried and was very cramped behind his sister’s rear-facing carseat, so he had to sit behind his big brother who is 6′ tall and couldn’t move his seat very far forward. This would mean that for our family, the seat behind the carseat would always be unuseable. And my tall husband would always have to drive because the front and 2nd row seats on the passenger side would have to move forward to make the remaining 3rd row seat halfway comfortable for a mid-size person. In a case like this, our family would be better off with a vehicle that didn’t have a third row, but had a roomy second row that seats 3-across.

Related: 7 of the Poshest Luxury 3-Row SUVs

2021 Toyota Highlander Drink Holders

This one left me scratching my head. It’s a center console for the second row, but it looks like a last-minute add-on and a tripping hazard. (Photo by Erica Mueller)

The Second Row in the 2021 Highlander

I feel like with most SUVs, the second row is where it’s at! The seats usually match the front seats in style and confort. Passengers get plenty of legroom, are close enough to hear the conversations up front, and thanks to captain’s chairs, there’s a lot less “He’s touching me!” going on in the back seat. I love love love captain’s chairs, and the 2021 Highlander has nice ones.

The second row has its own climate controls, heated seats, 2 USB charging ports, and a household outlet. All seems glorious until you look for drink holders. Rather than something folding out of the front center console, there is this big plastic console mounted to the floor. I realize its low profile is meant to be easy to step over if one is trying to access the third row between the seats, but it could be a big tripping hazard, especially if there were drinks in it. It also looks like someone forgot drink holders altogether and designed this as an afterthought. It just doesn’t match the rest of the vehicle’s beautiful interior. I think I’d try to find a way to remove it and just utilize the drink holders in the doors.

2021 Toyota Highlander Drivers View

I do love this view and I feel like the woodgrain in the center console is such a sweet touch. (Photo by Erica Mueller)

Front and Center. This Mom-Car Has All the Bells and Whistles

We own a Toyota, so I always feel at home behind the wheel of other Toyota vehicles. I know just where to look for all the controls, and I’m not spending the first few days fumbling about looking for windshield wipers, lights, and cruise control. I love that everything you need is at your fingertips on the 2021 Highlander’s steering wheel, or on a stick mounted to the steering column.

More things to love include the many cubbies for keys, phone and change; a wireless charger for your phone; a console-mounted gear selector; Sport, Normal and Eco driving modes; and best of all — the infotainment screen is integrated with the climate controls, radio and vents so that it all looks like it belongs together. It really is beautiful.

Love or Just Like?

As you can see, my feelings about this new Highlander are a bit mixed. I’m not super crazy about the exterior styling, but I can totally chalk that up to personal taste. It’s not something that would ever keep me from recommending it as a good option for someone in need of a vehicle in this segment. I adore the driver’s seat, display and controls. I wish the Sienna’s was more like it! I found the road noise in this model to be a lot louder than I expected and had to remind myself that I’m not used to sitting that close to the ground and that this is not a luxury sports car. Sometimes roads are noisy.

Overall, I still like it. I love the cargo space when the 3rd row is down. I love that there is a hybrid option for better fuel economy. I like the wireless charger being hidden in the center console for distraction-free driving. And I’m kind of in love with the cut-out style doors that make room for more drink holders.

I’d love to hear what you think of the all-new 2021 Highlander!

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A web developer, digital marketing consultant, auto journalist, truck expert, photographer and lover of gadgets, Erica is a textbook... More about Erica Mueller