If you’re in the market for a new family car, odds are you’re looking at a crossover and not at a minivan. Car-based people movers with a tall seating position and a generously-sized interior are taking over the market, and it’s not difficult to see why. They’re often spacious, safe, reasonably efficient, and loaded with useful tech features.
The 2021 Honda Pilot and the 2021 Toyota Highlander are two of the main players in the midsize crossover segment. Both have earned an enviable positive reputation by delivering the value and dependability motorists expect from Honda- and Toyota-branded cars at a reasonable price. They overlap in some areas, but they’re different in others. We’re taking a look at how they compare in terms of design, tech, fuel economy, and comfort.
The entry-level Pilot LX comes standard with a 5-inch central display screen and seven-speaker audio system. Honda also offers a more elaborate infotainment system, with an 8-inch touchscreen and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility, on higher trim levels. Navigation, an upgraded audio system, and kid-pacifying rear-seat entertainment system are also available, but you’ll have to move even further up the trim level ladder.
The base Highlander offers more tech features than the Pilot. It comes with a six-speaker stereo and an 8-inch touchscreen compatible with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa. Buyers who stretch their budget to one of the more expensive trim levels are rewarded with navigation and, at the very top, a 12.3-inch touchscreen.
The Pilot and the Highlander are both car-based crossovers. They look like traditional SUVs, but they offer more refined on-road manners than, say, a Jeep Wrangler at the expense of off-road capability. They come standard with front-wheel drive, and they’re optionally available with all-wheel drive for light off-roading and slippery roads.
The only engine offered on the Pilot is a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. Honda no longer offers a six-speed automatic, so the only transmission available is a nine-speed automatic. Front-wheel-drive models can tow up to 3,500 pounds when properly equipped, while selecting all-wheel drive increases that figure to 5,000 pounds.
Over at Toyota, the Highlander’s standard engine is a 3.5-liter V6 that puts 295 horsepower and 263 lb.-ft. of torque under the driver’s right foot. It’s bolted to an eight-speed automatic transmission, and it gives the crossover a 5,000-pound towing capacity regardless of whether it’s front- or all-wheel drive.
It’s important to remember that lots of real-world factors can influence fuel economy.
In its most fuel-efficient configuration, with the nine-speed automatic and front-wheel drive, the Pilot returns an EPA-rated 20 mpg in the city, 27 mpg on the highway, and 23 mpg combined. The Highlander maxes out at 20, 28, and 23, respectively. It’s important to remember that many real-world factors, such as driving style and the types of road you drive on, can influence fuel economy. As the saying goes, your mileage may — literally — vary.
Unlike Honda, Toyota offers a hybrid powertrain option. The 243 hp system is built around a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, and it raises the Highlander’s fuel economy to 36 mpg in the city, 35 mpg on the highway, and 36 mpg combined. Buyers can choose front- or all-wheel drive, so there’s a hybrid to suit everyone’s needs.
If you ask us, the Pilot and the Highlander won’t win any beauty contests. They’re functional above all, though both wear styling cues that bring them in line with their respective makers’ current design language. Honda introduced the current, third-generation Pilot for 2016 and gave it an array of visual updates for 2019. Toyota’s fourth-generation Highlander went on sale for the 2019 model year, so it’s not even a year old.
Both are fairly close in size. The Pilot measures 194.5 inches long, 69.8 inches tall, and 78.6 inches wide. The Highlander stretches 194.9 inches long, 68.1 inches tall, and 76 inches wide. Wheelbase lengths are pretty close, too: 111 inches for the Honda and 112.2 inches for the Toyota. Honda claims 7.3 inches of ground clearance for the Pilot compared to 8.0 inches for the Toyota.
On the inside, the Pilot boasts seating for up to eight people, with 152.9 cubic feet of total passenger volume. The Highlander can also seat eight, with a maximum passenger volume of 141.3 cubic feet, depending on the model — ordering the panoramic sunroof lowers that figure to 136.1, for example. The Pilot has 16.5 cubic feet of cargo space with all three rows of seats in place, 48.8 cubic feet with the third row folded flat, and 83.9 cubic feet with the second and third rows folded. The Highlander’s figures check in at 16, 48.4, and 84.3, respectively. Here again: It’s close.
Honda and Toyota offer an array of safety features designed to keep you and yours as safe as possible. The Pilot comes standard with basic features like anti-lock brakes and stability control, and front, front-side, and three-row curtain airbags. Every Pilot regardless of trim level also boasts collision mitigation, road departure mitigation, forward collision warning, and lane departure warning. Adaptive cruise control comes standard, too, but buyers who want a blind-spot-monitoring system need to move up in the trim level hierarchy.
In comparison, the Highlander comes standard with adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, lane-keeping assist, road sign detection, cyclist detection, and a pre-collision system, plus eight airbags (including one that protects the driver’s knees). Blind-spot monitoring and park assist are also available on higher trim levels.
Not surprisingly for vehicles pitched as competitors, the Pilot and Highlander are fairly close in price. The entry-level Pilot LX with front-wheel drive starts at $32,250. The range also includes EX, EX-L, Special Edition, Touring, Elite, and Black Edition models. The latter — which is only offered with all-wheel drive — starts at $49,920.
Highlander pricing starts at $34,810. That figure corresponds to a base L model with front-wheel drive, a V6 engine, and no optional equipment. From there, you can upgrade to an LE, XLE, XSE (new for 2021), Limited, or Platinum model. The most expensive Highlander, with all-wheel drive and no options, costs $48,915. The Hybrid model starts at $38,410 and tops out at $50,315 for a range-topping model with the optional all-wheel drive system.
None of the aforementioned figures include the mandatory destination charge, which is like shipping and handling for cars. Honda and Toyota both charge $1,120.
If the Pilot and the Highlander don’t sound appealing, there are plenty of other choices. The Nissan Pathfinder, the Mazda CX-9, the Ford Explorer, the Chevrolet Traverse, the Hyundai Santa, the Kia Sorento, and the Volkswagen Atlas all offer a similar combination of space, features, and price, as does Subaru’s Ascent (pictured above).
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