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Comparison between 2021 Toyota Highlander and 2021 Toyota RAV4

1. Overview

Overall, the 2021 Toyota Highlander has a premium and elegant design, combined with a large space and abundant features. (Griffith, 2023)

As a mid-size SUV, of course, space is one of the determining factors. You wouldn't expect a mid-size SUV to have a narrow space, right? Don't worry, the Toyota Highlander has a spacious cabin. Seven people can fill the spacious cabin and there are even some spaces to put baggage. After talking about the passenger space, we must also consider the driving position. The 6-way electric driver seat with memory, combined with the 4-way electric passenger seat, will spoil us in the driving position.

2021 Toyota Highlander is presented as a mid-size SUV. This car is a combination of power and elegance. When you look at its exterior, you will find a premium design that makes it a little bit difficult to believe that it is an SUV. Long and sporty, that is the first impression from the exterior. And of course, this impression is realized by having a 2,850 mm wheelbase and 1,930 mm width. These measurements make its wheelbase and width even greater than the Toyota Fortuner. Moreover, it has a ground clearance of about 185 mm, which means it is capable of passing bumpy roads. Another strength of the Toyota Highlander is its LED headlamp and rear lamp. Not only that, it also has an automatic rain sensor at the front side and a wiper at the rear, which exhibits its premium class.

1.1. Introduction to the 2021 Toyota Highlander

The steady drive to provide a strong safeguard for Toyota owners is a task that the Safety Sense suite is expected to fulfill and exceed in new Highlander models. Adding to the capabilities of the TSS 2.0, the new XSE model will also hold the standard Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Traffic Alert, complete with a rear seat reminder for all 2021 Highlanders. Earning an IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK recognition requires top ratings in crash tests, an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention, and a good headlight rating. Highlander models have traditionally held this recognition, and the aim is to achieve this again for all 2021 Toyota Highlanders with TSS 2.0 on all trims step by strengthening headlamps to garner a higher IIHS rating. (Wang et al., 2023)

"Vehicle Supply" statement - Scott Cooke: "With its bold, distinctive design, we expect the all-new Highlander XSE to be a top seller and a vehicle that families and all SUV owners really enjoy driving."

High off the introduction of their next-generation 2020 Highlander, Toyota has decided to present a family-favorite vehicle that will hold significant weight on SUV fanatics. The 2021 Toyota Highlander will also host the responsibility of providing a safe and comfortable ride for families with children through the all-new XSE grade that provides a sportier alternative to the other models. Coming with a bold design, the XSE model will be powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine, complete with 8.0-in. touchscreens, LED projector headlights, and a host of other features. This includes a series of advanced driver-assistance features and a stronger safety sense with new developments for the Toyota brand.

2021 Highlander Introduction

1.2. Introduction to the 2021 Toyota RAV4

First introduced in 1994, the RAV4 has since risen to become the best-selling non-pickup in the Toyota lineup. Toyota never was one to fix something if it wasn't broken, and so the 2021 RAV4 lineup remains mostly unchanged after the debut of the first RAV4 Hybrid model. Engines are carried over from the previous year's models and the traditional gasoline RAV4s are anticipated to continue to be the better sellers. The RAV4 is available as a 4-door compact SUV or as a 2-door soft-top, capable of fulfilling the needs of most anyone with a price tag closer to the economy segment. New to the lineup is the RAV4 Electric model which compliments the well-established Hybrid model. Visual changes for the 2021 lineup encompass a restyled XSE Hybrid and new exterior paint options. The value-laden XLE grade adds even more desirable equipment with a new convenience package. More details are included in the sections below.

1.3. Key Similarities

Both vehicles also have an abundance of standard safety features. The Star Safety System is Toyota's way of improving a vehicle's stability, traction, and braking. This system includes Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control (TRAC), Anti-lock Brake System (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist (BA), and Smart Stop Technology (SST). A system that combines the use of radar with a camera to help detect pedestrians as well as a vehicle, road sign assist, lane departure alert with steering assist, and auto high beam can also be found on both vehicles. This safety package is said to be one of the most advanced offered by Toyota. Coming standard on all Highlander and RAV4 trims, Toyota Safety Sense includes frontal collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning with steering assist, automatic high beams, and full-speed adaptive cruise control. Offered on both vehicles, Blind Spot Monitor (BSM) with Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA) is also extra insurance when changing lanes or reversing the vehicle. Lastly, all 2021 Toyota Highlanders and 2021 Toyota RAV4s will feature eight airbags and a backup camera.

Both the 2021 Toyota Highlander and the 2021 Toyota RAV4 have similarities, despite being different types of Toyota SUVs. They both are equipped with powerful all-wheel drive systems and are estimated to give the same fuel economy. When it comes to performance on wet and icy roads, all-wheel drive is superior to front-wheel drive (2WD) because it provides better traction.

2. Performance and Powertrain

This is where it gets interesting, as power and performance are key factors that determine the usability and overall enjoyment of a vehicle. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 is offered with a variety of engine options. The base engine found in the LE, XLE, XLE Premium, and Limited trims is a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder that produces 179 horsepower and 172 lb-ft of torque. It's mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission and can be paired with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (AWD). An Adventure trim 2.5-liter 4-cylinder is also available, though tuned slightly above to churn out 203 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque - likely more ideal for those who plan to frequently haul heavier loads or travel up steep inclines. The most fuel-efficient option is the RAV4 Hybrid that employs a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder power plant paired to a Toyota Hybrid System II (THS II) engine with front and rear electric motors. Total system output is rated at 219 horsepower and can achieve an impressive 41/38 mpg (city/highway). The Highlander comes standard with a V6, which is a rare find these days considering the current trend towards smaller forced-induction power plants. The 3.5L Dual Overhead Cam (DOHC) V6 is mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission and can be paired with FWD or an all-weather capable AWD system, the latter coming with a multi-terrain select and MUD & SAND driver-select modes that lightly re-tune the dynamic torque vectoring AWD system to better respond to varying landscape conditions. This powerful engine produces 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, able to tow up to 5000 pounds. A Toyota Hybrid System is also offered on the Highlander Limited and Platinum trims, pairing a 2.5-liter DOHC 4-cylinder engine with 2 electric motors to provide a combined 243 net system horsepower and a rated 36/35 mpg (city/highway). (Shigeta & Hosseini, 2020)

2.1. Engine Options

The 2021 Toyota Highlander has really hit the ground running in the right direction, as it now has a more assertive and desirable style that's a step up from its predecessor. This has been a big boost for the vehicle, as it has now become more of a compelling choice for a midsize SUV. The star player for the new Highlander will be the available V6 engine. This powerplant is also part of Toyota's Dynamic Force engine line and this version is a 3.5-liter with a very healthy output of 295 horsepower and 263 lb.-ft. of torque; a substantial increase compared to the 2019 model. The transmission paired with this will be an 8-speed automatic that's more than capable of handling the upgraded power figures. This is a large increase from the previous model which proved to be quite lackluster in acceleration, as commented in the previous review. Furthermore, Toyota will also be offering a hybrid version of the Highlander, which will be covered in more detail later in a separate review.

With the 2021 Toyota RAV4, you're going to notice that it has a challenging demeanor that's emphasized by its sporty fender flares and various LED lighting packages. This unique personality is only enhanced by options such as paddle shifters, a sport-tuned suspension, and even an off-road package. One of the highlights at the RAV4's disposal would be the Dynamic Force 2.5-liter inline-four-cylinder engine. It also boasts a fine 203 horsepower and an impressive 184 lb.-ft. of torque, backed by an 8-speed Direct-Shift Automatic Transmission.

2.2. Fuel Efficiency

Both vehicles give drivers the option of all-wheel drive, and in the fuel economy department this doesn't affect the RAV4 much. Gas models still get an estimated 27 mpg combined, while the AWD-hybrid RAV4 sees minimal change with an estimated 40 mpg. The Highlander does take a bit of a hit when AWD is added, dropping to an estimated 23 mpg combined for non-hybrid models.

The Highlander focuses more on power and people-moving, and because of this the standard powertrain is a 295-hp 3.5L V6. Paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission, the setup gets an estimated 24 mpg combined.

Fuel economy doesn't have to be boring. Both the 2021 Toyota RAV4 and the 2021 Toyota Highlander follow this line of thinking and make efficient travel fun and simple. That being said, the RAV4 wins in this category. This crossover comes standard with a powertrain that includes a 203-hp 2.5L four-cylinder engine and an 8-speed automatic transmission. This duo makes the RAV4 one of the most fuel-efficient SUVs on the market, boasting a 28 mpg combined fuel economy. The hybrid RAV4 takes it up a notch and earns an impressive 40 mpg combined fuel economy. If your focus is fuel economy, the RAV4 is your choice.

2.3. Handling and Suspension

Be competent and poised all around. Both Highlanders and RAV4s share the composed and predictable handling. Few drivers are going to have complaints about the way their vehicle steers or tackles corners. The Highlander offers a choice between a standard suspension and a sportier one that accompanies the SE model. The difference isn't radical, and you might well prefer the less firm tuning of the standard setup, which provides the most compliant ride. The RAV4 feels more responsive and carlike, especially the Sport models, which have a firmer suspension and larger tires that can make for a choppy around-town ride but payoff with more precise handling. V6 models can feel quite a bit sportier than the four-cylinder versions, especially in models with the third-row seat, which carry a heavier-duty suspension. Electric power steering is new to the RAV4 this year, and while it probably won't change the feel of the wheel, it might come with improved efficiency—something we explore in the next section. Electric power steering has become common in newer vehicles as a way to save fuel and the power used by the steering pump, but considering how little electricity power steering actually uses, it's a technology that makes sense more for hybrids and fully electric vehicles. In any case, the current model's steering has been one of its stronger points.

2.4. Towing Capacity

The Toyota Highlander, a bigger and heavier vehicle, comes with a more powerful V6 engine and can be fitted with an official 2" receiver to tow up to 5000 lbs. The smaller and lighter Toyota RAV4 comes with a smaller 4-cylinder engine and can be fitted with a smaller 1 1/4" receiver to tow up to 1500 lbs. The information is black and white until you consider the quality of towing. The weights mentioned are the maximum each vehicle can tow. The quality of towing is about how easy and effective the tow will be. The RAV4 is often praised for having engine power that is not proportional to the size of the vehicle and actually tows trailers or caravans exceeding the 1500 lb limit. Overworking an engine on a small car often results in poor fuel efficiency and excessive wear and tear. The RAV4 incorporating a tow pack to facilitate towing costs just over $1000 installed, which would be comparable to the cost of the pack for a Highlander. The smaller receiver is less intrusive and can be installed at a very low cost to make a small and effective towing solution for those wanting to tow light loads. The Highlander, on the other hand, is a more substantial towing vehicle often used to tow loads of 3000 lbs or more. High-quality towing can be very demanding on an engine, and it quickly becomes evident that the Highlander's V6 engine has ample power to comfortably tow heavy loads, and for this, the extra weight is not an issue. In comparison to the RAV4, the Highlander is a more expensive vehicle to prepare for towing, despite the towing load being lower on a dollar-for-dollar basis. As mentioned, engine power, the size of the vehicle, and the towing load make the RAV4 a quality tower of light loads, and the guarantee is that the wear and tear on a vehicle towing a load within its limit will be far less than a vehicle overworking to tow a load beyond its limit.

3. Interior and Technology

In Toyota Highlander, the cabin space will feel airier and more open compared to that in Toyota RAV4 because of its wider and bigger dimensions. Although both vehicles are capable of seating up to seven passengers, the ample space of Toyota Highlander will also contribute to the comfort of the second and third-row passengers, while in Toyota RAV4, the second-row passengers might feel the area slightly constrained. The cabin space can be adjusted in the Toyota Highlander LE/XLE types with its standard second-row bench seating for eight passengers or opt for second-row captain's chairs for seven, while 7-passenger seating is standard for all its other types. Meanwhile, Toyota RAV4 only offers seating for five passengers. The three-zone climate control in Toyota Highlander, along with its conversation mirror and roll-top storage box, will also add up to the comfort and functionality of the vehicle. But in terms of seating comfort, both vehicles employ the same high-quality materials for the interior and have power-adjustable driver seats to ensure driving comfort. The cabin space of these vehicles is also engineered to minimize NVH (Noise, Vibration, and Harshness) through various measures such as sound-insulating glass, an acoustic-type windscreen and front door glass, and an asphalt sheet sound insulator, as well as more sound-insulating materials for the dashboard. This will significantly reduce driving fatigue and thus increase the comfortable driving experience. High-performance dissipative shock absorbers are also employed in both vehicles to ensure low vibration and harshness.

3.1. Cabin Space and Seating

The Toyota Highlander is bigger than the RAV4, so it makes sense that it has more interior space. Its third row of seating makes it more practical for those who regularly have more than four passengers, while the RAV4 is only available with two rows of seats. The downside of the third row is, of course, its impact on luggage space when it is in use. Both cars do have a good range of adjustment for the seats and a comfortable driving position, making long journeys less of a chore. They are also easy to get in and out of. Those looking for a car that will cope with a child seat or two should consider the availability of ISOFIX mounting points. All models of RAV4 come with two sets of ISOFIX, on the outer positions of the rear seats. The Highlander has mounting points for both of the outer positions in the second row, and also on the passenger seat. Keep in mind that it is not safe to use a child seat in any passenger seat that is equipped with an airbag, so the Toyota Highlander becomes less suitable for those who are planning to use the front passenger seat regularly.

3.2. Infotainment System

The 2021 Toyota Highlander comes with an 8" infotainment touchscreen. This screen is there in all the trims. The base L still provides a lot of features including Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, and Apple CarPlay. Audio is provided by a 6-speaker audio system and SiriusXM radio. Higher-end models such as XLE and Limited offer the choice of a 10" color Head-Up Display. There is also a digital rearview mirror with the Limited trim. The new 2021 Toyota RAV4 has an infotainment screen size that varies depending on the trim. All RAV4s have a minimum size of 7", but it can increase to 8" on the higher-end trims. The base LE comes stocked with a 7" touchscreen and also offers Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, and Apple CarPlay. Higher-end trims can have additional options such as SiriusXM radio and JBL speaker system. An interesting option for all trims is that there is an available Digital Rearview Mirror that displays what is behind you (camera see-through) instead of the traditional glass reflective mirror. This mirrors the feature available for the Highlander.

3.3. Advanced Safety Features

Toyota has packed its two vehicles with an array of advanced safety equipment. Both the 2021 RAV4 and 2021 Highlander come standard with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 (TSS 2.0), an advanced suite of driver assists that comes with features like forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, road sign assist, and more. The 2021 Highlander also has a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert. RAV4 Trail and higher trims have Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD, and it includes multi-terrain select with several drive modes so the driver can tailor the system to the conditions. These include Snow, Rock and Dirt, and Mud and Sand. High AWD versions of the 2021 Toyota Highlander have a similar multi-terrain select system. Both the 2021 RAV4 and 2021 Highlander have strong safety ratings. RAV4 has a 5-star safety rating from the NHTSA. The IIHS gave RAV4 top ratings in all crash tests and front crash prevention, and a decent "Acceptable" rating for headlight performance. The IIHS has not yet rated the new Highlander.

3.4. Connectivity Options

When guests of the 2021 RAV4 XLE Premium and XSE can enjoy a trial of Audio Plus with a three-month SiriusXM All Access trial which offers plenty of content with over 300 radio channels and countless on-demand programs. Available for all is the Dynamic Navigation and a three-month Remote Connect trial, which allows control of several features when away from the vehicle and near a compatible smartwatch or device.

As for the 2021 RAV4, the LE and up will have a standard 7-inch Multi-Information Display and Dual Zone Automatic Climate Control. Ideal for holding the family down on long trips, passengers will find comfort and amusement with the retractable rear window sunshade and rear seat vents. As a crossover that is the cornerstone of adventure, the RAV4 also offers a 120V/100W Deck Powerpoint for the XLE Premium and up, perfect for recharging equipment when a campsite is the cabin of the RAV4. TR and XLE Premium also have the option for Audio Plus with JBL and Clari-Fi - a package that upgrades the audio system and adds an 8-inch touchscreen.

The 2021 Toyota Highlander offers various connectivity options. All grades provide at least five USB ports and an available in-car Wi-Fi hotspot. The base L and LE come with a three-zone manual climate control system and an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Moving up to the XLE, the mid-grade convenience for Highlander furnishes the in-cabin coolness with a 7-inch Multi-Information Display and a digital auto-dimming rearview mirror. Higher grades further enhance the in-car experience with entertainment and technology packages.

4. Pricing and Trim Levels

Moving on from the features, now we come to the pricing and trim levels which will largely affect the consumer decision. In terms of pricing, the RAV4 will come off as the cheaper option, starting at an MSRP of $26,250 in contrast to the Highlander at an MSRP of $31,830. The base RAV4 comes in 7 different trims, which can be found from the Toyota website: LE, XLE and XLE Premium, Adventure, TRD, Limited. The Highlander on the other hand has more limited options starting at only 5 trims: LE, XLE, XSE, Limited, Platinum. Looking at the price difference here and the number of trims available, the RAV4 obviously has a wider range of options which can cater to the differing consumer needs. Due to the price and limited trim level options, those with a family considering larger vehicles may be shied away from the Highlander due to price, and those with children younger than driving age may not consider a car purchase with the intent for their children to hand it over to them in the future. Step one foot into the RAV4, step one foot out, it is more likely than not.

4.1. Base Trim Comparison

While being the cheaper of the two, the RAV4’s LE FWD has many similar standard features to the Highlander’s L FWD. Lower ground clearance means it doesn’t require steps to get in, but the driver's seat is not power adjustable, and there is only single-zone climate control with rear seat vents. Good fuel efficiency is a strong point with the RAV4 compared to other compact SUVs, and it’s also worth noting a hybrid version with AWD is available at the same price as the base model Highlander. At any rate, the RAV4’s LE FWD is a basic trim with an excellent price point for the features it offers, particularly with the CarPlay/Android Auto service not available with the base model Highlander.

RAV4 LE FWD ($36,290)

The L FWD is the cheapest Highlander, at $40,990. Standard features include seating for 8 passengers, 3-zone independent climate control, 8-way power adjustable driver and front passenger seats, 8” touchscreen display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, and an electronic parking brake.

Highlander L FWD ($40,990)

4.1. Base model comparisons

Toyota’s 2021 Highlander and 2021 RAV4 are the company’s flagships for the midsize and compact rental markets. Both Toyota SUVs are available in multiple trims with various options, but even the base models come well-equipped. Built on the new TNGA-K platform, the 2021 Highlander steers towards more luxury and comfort, while the 2021 RAV4 with the TNGA-K platform is designed to be more versatile and rugged. Below is a comparison of both vehicles' base model trims:

4.2. Available Upgrades and Packages

The 2021 Toyota Highlander has a lineup of 11 various trims including the L, LE, XLE, XSE, Limited, and Platinum. The hybrid model has available trims for the LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum versions. Many of the added features will mimic those of the RAV4, however, with a higher cost due to the larger vehicle size and added luxury features. An example is with the XLE hybrid which has a convenience package that is similar to that of the RAV4.

For example, the LE trim has an added value package which includes a power liftgate, 17-inch alloy wheels, and a blind spot monitor with rear traffic alert. This package is also included in the LE hybrid for no added cost. However, the XLE hybrid has a convenience package which includes all features the XLE non-hybrid includes, plus heated front seats, power liftgate, and a power moonroof, which comes at an $1140 additional value. The XLE non-hybrid also has an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat with two-way lumbar support, compared to the four-way adjustable driver's seat that the standard XLE has.

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 has a lineup of 10 various trims including the LE, LE Premium, XLE, XLE Premium, Adventure, TRD Off-Road, XSE, and Limited. Additionally, a hybrid version is available for the standard LE, XLE, XLE Premium, and Limited trims. Each adds approximately $1000 to an already $800 more than the standard, non-hybrid RAV4. Typically, the hybrid versions of the RAV4 will come with added features compared to its non-hybrid counterpart at the cost of the aforementioned additional price.

4.3. Price Range and Value for Money

As for the 4-cylinder Sport and Limited RAV4s and the top trims on both Highlanders, it is very apparent that the RAV4 offers better fuel efficiency at every additional cost. This makes the RAV4 the better value purchase for those simply interested in a spacious and reliable vehicle and who aren't particularly seeking a performance boost. The $1,750 difference in price between a Limited RAV4 and the base Limited Highlander is a modest cost for a substantial increase in performance and interior space. Although it may not wholly be cost-efficient considering the $2,450 price difference between the Limited RAV4 and the 4-cylinder Sport, both options are good steps up when compared to RAV4 and worth the additional costs if fuel efficiency isn't a top concern. In the end, it really depends on what one feels is enough for what they're paying for.

In terms of interior space and performance, the difference between the two vehicles' pricing becomes much more tolerable. The $1,250 difference in price between our two base model Highlanders grants you an extra 185 horsepower, 263 more lbs.-ft of torque, 2.4 inches of additional third row legroom, and a total passenger volume increase of 41.5 cubic feet. Step up from the base model RAV4 to the V6 Sport model and the price difference is a mere $550. With all the added benefits of the Highlander and only a slight increase in price, the value here becomes quite clear. Though this isn't much of a comparison since Toyota no longer makes RAV4 V6s, it's important to note that the V6 Sport RAV4 has been virtually the same price as the base model Highlander. This similarity in pricing points brings the vehicles' value comparison back into discussion especially when you compare the two vehicles' top trims.

When it comes to the price and value for money, the Highlander and RAV4 offer strong cases. The RAV4 is the clear victor here as we take a look at the numbers. The Highlander comes in at a base price of $31,230, $3,000 more than the top-trim RAV4. It's an expensive difference especially when you consider that the fuel economy between the two is very similar. On all-wheel drive models, the Highlanders are estimated 20/27/23 while the RAV4 comes in just a touch better at 22/28/24.


Griffith, S., 2023. The Wires That Bind: Electrification and Community Renewal: Quarterly Essay 89. [HTML]

Wang, X., Cheng, Y., Lv, T., & Cai, R., 2023. Fuel vehicles or new energy vehicles? A study on the differentiation of vehicle consumer demand based on online reviews. Marketing Intelligence & Planning. [HTML]

Shigeta, N. & Hosseini, S. E., 2020. … Development of the Automobile Industry in the United States, Europe, and Japan with Special Focus on the Vehicles' Power Sources. Energies 2021, 14, 78. academia.edu