2021 Toyota Highlander vs. Honda Pilot: Their Differences Are Starker Than Ever

by Gabrielle DeSantis

In the past, the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot provided exceptional innovation, performance, and value. They were also seemingly made from the same mold. Both midsize SUVs consistently earned excellent reviews from industry experts and were Consumer Reports Top Picks.

But in 2021, the Highlander and Pilot are quite distinct. How are they different from each other now? And do they still provide great features, performance, and prices?

The Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot were practically carbon copies

In the past, these two all-around great midsize SUVs were “almost carbon copies,” Consumer Reports notes. They were pretty evenly matched in key areas, such as price, performance, and features. And now? Well, they’re quite a bit different. 

Over the past few years, the two SUVs have been growing apart. The CR team details the differences using test results and owner satisfaction and reliability feedback. 

Age is a contributing factor here. The Toyota Highlander was all-new in 2020 with a new V6 and four-cylinder hybrid models with front and all-wheel drive. The Pilot debuted in 2016, and though Honda has refreshed it here and there, it’s not much different from its original version.

How do the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot differ today?

The 2021 Honda Pilot at a glance

With bigger dimensions than the Highlander, except for the wheelbase, the 2021 Honda Pilot is an excellent minivan alternative. It offers a composed ride and absorbs road blows gracefully. The cabin is nice and quiet, too.

However, there’s only one powertrain option — a 3.5-liter V6 engine mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission. But it’s a good option that’s smooth-shifting, powerful, and quick off the starting line. Still, it feels bulky, and its steering isn’t the most responsive. 

In addition, the cabin provides plenty of room, and three adults can comfortably sit in the second row. The third row is great for kids, but it’s a little cramped for adults. Still, the Pilot offers more passenger space than the Highlander.

And all 2021 Honda Pilot trims come with automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, and lane-keeping assist. You can’t get blind-spot alerts on the base trim, but it’s standard on all others. 

Consumer Reports member feedback reveals inconsistent reliability in the Pilot‘s latest generation. The Pilot’s average predicted reliability rating is below that of the Highlander and owner satisfaction isn’t quite on par with what Toyota claims.

An overview of the 2021 Toyota Highlander

Owners love the 2021 Toyota Highlander for many reasons, CR reports. First, it offers more than one powertrain option. A 3.5-liter V6, paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission, provides enough power for quick errands and highway driving. And a hybrid model with a four-cylinder engine and an electric motor delivers stellar gas mileage.

Like the Pilot, the Highlander can take the hits from the road and keep the noise down. And you can’t get blind-spot monitoring with the base model. Still, the Highlander boasts excellent advanced safety features across the lineup. Driver assists include automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, and lane-keep assist.

And unlike the Pilot, the Highlander comes with free scheduled maintenance for the first 25,000 miles or two years, whichever comes first.

Toyota has made big improvements to the Highlander’s transmission over the years, and it offers a smooth-shifting experience. But the hybrid models pack a continuously variable transmission that gets a little loud under duress. 

Inside, the cabin is nice enough, but hard plastics abound, and the interior doesn’t have the Pilot’s upscale vibe. You’d have to cough up more money for a higher trim for a nicer Highlander.

Also, the third row is even smaller than that of the Pilot. Again, kids are the only passengers who can sit comfortably back there. But the Toyota Highlander’s reliability rating is above average.

Only 1 can be the better midsize SUV

The 2021 Honda Pilot and the 2021 Toyota Highlander are pretty evenly matched in Consumer Reports testing and advanced safety features. Their towing and payload numbers are also neck-and-neck.

With good visibility and a roomier, more indulgent interior, the Honda Pilot is easier to enter and exit. It has more cargo space, too. But the gear selector is unintuitive, and the controls can be cumbersome for some drivers. And its average reliability rating will concern many prospective buyers.

Overall, the Toyota Highlander wins with better handling, controls, and fuel efficiency. It also boasts an impressive reliability rating. That could mean greater savings over the SUV’s life. And the free service period is a nice perk. 

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