Many families need a three-row SUV because it’s a packaging solution that provides seating for more than five passengers, loads of cargo space, and strong towing capacity. Many also perform well off the beaten path thanks to the availability of all-wheel drive (AWD) and a raised ride height. The segment is growing and the competition is only getting hotter between these versatile vehicles. The Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer are household names because of their long-running success in the SUV world. Redesigned for the 2020 model year, both SUVs now offer the latest in tech and safety, and each one has a hybrid variant. Those in the market for a three-row cannot overlook the Highlander and Explorer. But which one is right for you? Keep reading and we’ll help you decide.
Regardless of the trim you get, the Highlander and Highlander Hybrid come well equipped with lots of tech and driver-assistance features. The base, fleet-only L and LE trims come with an 8.0-inch touchscreen (the same as the Explorer), Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa compatibility, SiriusXM satellite radio, and five USB ports. The upgraded infotainment system found in the Limited trim adds a navigation system and an 11-speaker JBL audio system. The top system (optional in the Limited and standard on Platinum) adds a large 12.3-inch touchscreen (larger than the Explorer’s). There are two sizes for the digital instrument cluster screen; the two base trims get a 4.2-inch screen, but the others get a larger 7.0-inch display that’s smaller than the Explorer’s. Some other notable tech features include wireless smartphone charging, a rearview mirror camera, and a 10.0-inch head-up display.
Like the Highlander, the Explorer comes standard with an 8.0-inch touchscreen, but a larger 10.1-inch screen is available on the top ST and Platinum trims. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Sirius XM satellite radio, Amazon Alexa compatibility, and four USB ports are found on all trims. A navigation system is optional. The available 12-speaker B&O audio system becomes standard on the Limited trim and the upgraded 14-speaker B&O system is optional on the ST and Platinum trims. The Explorer’s XLT and Limited trims (the base Explorer trim is for fleets only) are equipped with a 6.5-inch digital instrument cluster screen but the ST and Platinum trims feature a large 12.3-inch display that’s larger than the Highlander’s. Another neat tech option is a wireless charging pad.
Driver-assistance features and safety
Many automakers have recently jumped on the driver-assistance bandwagon, and Toyota is definitely one of them. Like many of its other models, the Highlander comes standard with a long list of safety tech. All trims get a package called Toyota Safety Sense 2.5 that includes forward collision warning, emergency automatic braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane departure alert, lane-keeping assist, lane centering, automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control, and road sign assist. Blind-spot monitoring and rear-cross traffic alert are standard on every variant except for the lowest L trim. Front and rear parking sensors are standard on the Limited and Platinum trims. A surround-view camera system is available and steering-responsive headlights are only found on the top Platinum trim.
On the crash safety front, the Highlander performed well. The Toyota is considered a 2020 Top Safety Pick by the IIHS, and it received the highest five-star overall safety rating from the NHTSA.
The Highlander isn’t the only SUV that’s generous with driver-assistance technology. The Explorer comes standard with a package called Ford Co-Pilot360, which bundles forward collision alert, emergency automatic braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear-cross traffic alert, and automatic high beams. A package called Co-Pilot360 Assist+ is optional on the XLT trim and standard on the Limited and Platinum trims. It features adaptive cruise control, lane centering, road sign assist, and evasive steering assist. Note the Highlander offers all of these features as standard, with the exception of evasive steering. The Limited trim gets a surround-view camera, while the ST and Platinum models receive a self-parking system and rear automatic braking. Steering-responsive headlights are only available on the Platinum trim.
The Explorer received the highest five-star overall safety rating from the NHTSA, and the highest award from the IIHS, 2020 Top Safety Pick+. Although, that only applies to Explorer models built after May 2020, because models built before that received an acceptable rating (second highest) for the small overlap front-driver-side crash test (resulting in no award).
Engines and fuel economy
The non-hybrid Highlander is only available with a 3.5-liter V6 bolted to an eight-speed automatic transmission. It makes 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque, and its fuel economy is rated at 24 mpg combined when buyers order front-wheel drive. Selecting all-wheel drive lowers that figure to 23. Its maximum towing capacity checks in at 5,000 pounds when it’s properly equipped, which is enough to tow a boat or a camper.
The Highlander Hybrid’s powertrain consists of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, two electric motors (though all-wheel-drive models get a third one on the rear axle), and a CVT. The system’s total output checks in at 243 horsepower. With front-wheel drive, the hybrid SUV returns an impressive 36 mpg combined. Selecting all-wheel drive lowers that figure to 35. Its towing capacity is rated at 3,500 pounds, which is less than the Explorer Hybrid’s.
Unlike the Highlander, the Explorer comes with a few different engine choices.
Its base engine is a turbocharged, 2.3-liter four-cylinder that produces 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. It’s rated at 24 mpg combined with rear-wheel drive and 23 mpg combined with all-wheel drive. The Platinum trim benefits from a twin-turbocharged, 3.0-liter V6 whose output increases to 365 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque. This engine also appears in the ST, but it is tuned to 400 horses and 415 pound-feet of twist. Fuel economy checks in at 20 mpg combined for both power levels. The twin-turbo V6’s maximum towing capacity is 5,600 pounds, while the turbo four can pull 5,300 pounds. Both engines shift through a 10-speed automatic.
The hybrid powertrain uses a 3.3-liter V6, an electric motor, and a 10-speed automatic. The system’s combined output is 318 horsepower and 322 pound-feet of torque. It packs more power than the Highlander Hybrid but it’s less efficient: The rear- and all-wheel-drive variants return 28 and 25 mpg combined, respectively. When it comes to towing, the Explorer Hybrid’s 5,000-pound rating is impressive — especially for an electrified vehicle.
Styling, dimensions, cargo space, and towing
The majority of SUVs have many exterior design similarities, and these two aren’t any different. When looking at the pair, many can argue that Highlander designers gave the Toyota a more modern design while the Explorer has a tougher, bolder look. The difference lies inside. The Highlander offers a more premium look and feel while Explorer’s interior has less styling and cheaper materials and components.
The Highlander is smaller than the Explorer in every direction. Its wheelbase is about seven inches shorter, which reflects the fact that it’s built on a front-wheel-drive platform. It’s also about four inches shorter, three inches narrower, and two inches lower. However, ground clearance is almost even. All Highlander models sit 8.0 inches off the ground while the Explorer offers between 7.9 and 8.3 inches depending on how it’s configured.
One area where the Highlander clearly wins is seating capacity. It can carry up to eight passengers in most trims. Only the Platinum models is limited to seven seats. On the other hand, the Explorer maxes out at seven passengers and that’s only in the base trim. All other trims seat six, though a second-row bench seat is optional. Still, what the Explorer lacks in seating, it makes up for in passenger space.
When it comes to cargo room, the larger Explorer wins again. With the third row up, the Explorer’s 18.2 cubic feet of cargo space beats the Highlander’s 16 cubic feet. However, if you rarely use your third row and save that space for cargo instead, the Highlander just edges out the Explorer with 48.4 cubic feet versus the Ford’s 47.9 cubes. But, if you need to haul something huge and need all the space behind the front seats, the Highlander’s 84.3 cubic feet is smaller than the Explorer’s 87.8 cubic feet. Hybrid model interior dimensions are the same.
Since nearly every variant of the Highlander is available with a hybrid powertrain, there are 10 trims to choose from. The base L trim (which is not available as a hybrid) starts at $34,810 and the LE at $37,010. The mid-level XLE trim begins at $39,810 while the sporty XSE model is $41,405 (no hybrid option). Getting the Limited takes the price to $43,765. The top Platinum trim shoots the starting price to $46,965. If you want AWD, it’s an extra $1,600 on the lower trims and $1,950 on the Limited and Platinum.
Getting a hybrid model is actually cheaper than AWD. For an extra $1,400, you can add the hybrid system to any trim except, as noted, the L and XSE, but that’s with FWD. If you want an AWD hybrid, you’ll need to add between $3,000 and $3,350 to the aforementioned prices. Interestingly, all Highlander Hybrid trims start below the Explorer Hybrid (see below). So, if you’re looking for an affordable three-row hybrid SUV, the choice is pretty easy.
With the Explorer, things are simpler thanks to its six trims but also more expensive towards the higher end of the spectrum. The Explorer’s base trim (for fleets) starts at $32,765 and the XLT takes the price to $36,925. The Limited trim significantly increases the price to $48,380, which is more than the Highlander Platinum. The performance-oriented ST trim has a starting price of $54,740 and the Platinum trim is the most expensive, starting at $58,250. That’s much more than any Highlander, but buyers who go this far up in the trim hierarchy will get more power than Toyota offers. Adding AWD will cost $2,000, though keep in mind the ST and Platinum trims come standard with it.
The Explorer Hybrid is only offered in the Limited trim and adds $4,150 to the price, bumping the starting price to $52,530. Opting for AWD adds $2,195, giving the Explorer Hybrid with AWD a starting price of $54,725. That’s more than the Highlander Hybrid Platinum with AWD, which is the most expensive variant at $50,315.
The Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer belong in the highly competitive midsize, three-row SUV segment that also includes the Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Chevrolet Traverse, Mazda CX-9, Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas, and Dodge Durango.
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