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2021 Highlander vs. Explorer Comparison

As we enter the 2021 model year, both the Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer have made minor changes to their SUVs since 2020. The newest addition for both vehicles is a more sport-styled trim option, the Highlander XSE and the Explorer XLT.

Standard offerings, like advanced safety features have continued into the 2021 model year as well. The Highlander has the latest Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ (TSS 2.5+) which includes upgraded technology and safety features. The 2021 Explorer offers similar standard safety features with Ford Co-Pilot360™.

Going beyond safety features, you'll also notice that Highlander has a minimum of 7 seats, with many grades offering seating for 8. The 2021 Explorer is only able to seat 7 passengers, no matter which configuration you choose.

Plus, when you want to bump up the luxury, the Highlander Limited (starting MSRP $44,040) is less than the 2021 Explorer Limited (starting MSRP $45,005).

Decide for yourself which of these mid-size SUVs is right for you in terms of performance, interior, and safety as we compare them side by side.

Published Date: 06/23/2021

2021 Highlander driving past the city at sunset

Performance

  • When you pick a Highlander Hybrid model you'll have far better EPA-estimated MPG ratings than the Explorer hybrid model.
  • All Highlander models with AWD have standard Downhill Assist Control (DAC).
  • On top of AWD you also get Snow Mode + Drive Mode Select (ECO, Normal, Sport) + Multi-Terrain Select (Mud/Sand, Rock/Dirt, Normal) with the Highlander AWD.

Mid-size SUVs like the Highlander and Explorer seek to combine utility with performance and capability. The Highlander’s available hybrid configurations bring all three without draining your wallet at the pump.

Fuel Economy and Capability

For your next adventure, the 2021 Toyota Highlander has four hybrid engine model options to help make your drive even more fuel efficient. The Highlander Hybrid LE FWD starts at $38,735 and has an EPA-estimated 36/35/36 (city/highway/combined). If you want a hybrid Ford Explorer option, you'd need to get the more expensive Explorer Limited Hybrid which starts at $50,245 MSRP. Although it has a hybrid engine, the Limited Hybrid with RWD still only has EPA-estimated 27/28/27 (city/highway/combined) MPG ratings according to fueleconomy.gov.

Looking at the standard gas engine performance of each SUV, the 2021 Highlander L comes standard with a 3.5L V6 engine while the 2021 Explorer has a standard 2.3L EcoBoost® I-4 engine.

When tackling hills whether off-road or on, you don’t just need power. For added confidence, all Highlander gas models with AWD come standard with Downhill Assist Control (DAC). The 2021 Explorer specs page lists Hill Descent Control™ as an optional feature on the base model Explorer, XLT, and Limited. It does come standard on the Explorer ST, however.

Plus, when you choose the Highlander available AWD drivetrain you also get Snow Mode + Drive Mode Select (ECO, Normal, Sport) + Multi-Terrain Select (Mud/Sand, Rock/Dirt, Normal). The similar Terrain Management System™ and Intelligent AWD is available on the base level Explorer as well as on the XLT and Limited. These features are standard on the Explorer ST.

Interior of 2021 Highlander

Interior

  • The Highlander has Amazon Alexa compatibility standard, while the Explorer does not mention this feature on their specs page.
  • For more luxury features, the Highlander Limited has what you want for less.
  • Fit more passengers in the Highlander with seating for up to 8 on certain models.

When it comes to connectivity options the Highlander wins this category.

Connectivity and Comfort

The Highlander has standard Android Auto™, Apple CarPlay®, and Amazon Alexa compatibility on all trim levels. SiriusXM® with a 3-month All Access trial subscription is standard in the Highlander, too, along with the other available ways to play. Comparatively, the 2021 Explorer's included SYNC® 3 audio system has Apple CarPlay™ and Android Auto™. You also get SiriusXM Satellite Radio with the same 3-month All Access trial subscription, but Amazon Alexa compatibility is not offered.

To display all of these apps, both the Highlander and Explorer have standard 8.0-in. touchscreen displays. Additionally, the Highlander Limited and higher models have an available 12.3-in. touchscreen while the Explorer ST only has an available 10.1-in. touchscreen. Not only is the Highlander's upgraded screen size larger, it'll cost you less too.

The Highlander Limited also comes with a heated steering wheel and leather-trimmed front-and second-row seats with heated and ventilated front seats. You also get Qi-compatible wireless smartphone charging and five USB ports. All of this can be yours for a starting MSRP of $44,040. Comparatively, the 2021 Explorer Limited comes in at a starting MSRP of $45,005 and includes a heated steering wheel and heated and ventilated leather seating surfaces with micro-perforation and accent stitching. You also get wireless charging and five USB ports.

Not only are there more connectivity options with the Highlander, there is also more seating. The Highlander L, LE, and Hybrid LE seat 8 passengers standard. The Highlander XLE, Hybrid XLE, Limited, and Hybrid Limited models have the ability to seat 7, or 8 with 3rd-row seating. The Ford Explorer only seats 7 on all trim levels.

Front view of 2021 Highlander parked in a garage

Safety

  • The Highlander and Explorer have similar safety advancements that come standard with Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ (TSS 2.5+) and Ford Co-Pilot360™.
  • You'll have to get the Explorer XLT or higher to get Intelligent Adaptive Cruise Control with Stop-and-Go & Lane Centering, however.
  • When reviewed by the NHTSA, the Highlander and Explorer both got the highest possible Overall Safety Rating.

The 2021 Highlander and Explorer both have lots of standard active safety features to help keep you safe on the road.

Standard Safety Features

The Highlander comes standard with the newest Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ (TSS 2.5+). This suite of safety features includes: Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection (PCS w/PD), Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist (LDA w/SA), Lane Tracing Assist (LTA), Automatic High Beams, Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC), and Road Sign Assist (RSA). To help you stay aware of your surroundings, the TSS 2.5+ PCD w/PD and LDA w/SA features are designed to assist by alerting you with audio and visual alerts.

The Explorer offers a comparable safety package called Ford Co-Pilot360™. The features that come standard on the base model include Pre-Collision Assist with Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), the Lane Keeping System (includes Lane-Keeping Assist, Lane-Keeping Alert and Driver Alert), and Auto High-Beam Headlamps. For Intelligent Adaptive Cruise Control with Stop-and-Go & Lane Centering you'd need to get the Explorer XLT and tack on $4,335.

With such advanced driver-assistive technology, it makes sense that the Highlander and Explorer were rated highly by the NHTSA. Both the 2021 Highlander and 2021 Explorer received 5-Star Overall Safety Ratings.

2021 Highlander towing a boat

Conclusion: Highlander vs. Explorer

  • The Highlander hybrid models have far better fuel economy estimates than the competitor Explorer hybrid models.
  • The Highlander comes with Amazon Alexa capability, which is not available on Explorer.

Although these two mid-size SUVs have some similarities, the Highlander has more going for it.

With more trim options available, you can upgrade your Highlander to get more luxury, better fuel economy ratings, or both. The Highlander Hybrid LE has better gas mileage ratings with EPA-estimates of 35/36/35 (city/highway/combined) MPG. The 2021 Explorer Limited Hybrid has EPA-estimated 27/28/27 (city/highway/combined) MPG ratings.

The Highlander also offers more when looking at connectivity options. You get standard Android Auto™, Apple CarPlay®, and Amazon Alexa compatibility. The Explorer only offers Android Auto™ and Apple CarPlay® compatibility with the SYNC® 3 media package.

Whether you want more connectivity options or are looking for an SUV that can easily go from daily commute to summer road trip, the 2021 Highlander is the way to go.