2021 Toyota Highlander vs 2021 Hyundai Palisade: Compare Crossover SUVs

The difference between three-row crossover SUVs such as the 2021 Toyota Highlander and 2021 Hyundai Palisade often boils down to which one least resembles a minivan. 

Neither of these has the sliding doors maligned by aesthetes and preferred by pragmatists, but both have exceptional safety ratings and capacious interiors. Yet they go about hauling up to eight passengers and their gear in much different ways and with a different sense of style.

The broad face and vertical snout of the Highlander borrows from Toyota’s truck department, as do the flexed wheel arches, but the body line rises into a tall tail as if it’s ready to pounce on suburban streets. The swooping door panels match the Sienna, but without the slide track. The inside prizes storage over style with a tiered dash headlined by an 8.0-inch or available 12.3-inch touchscreen.

2021 Hyundai Palisade

2021 Hyundai Palisade

2021 Hyundai Palisade

2021 Hyundai Palisade

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

Whereas the Highlander toned down its bold grille for its 2020 redesign, Hyundai went all in on the front of the Palisade when it was introduced for 2020. The honeycomb grille stamps the front like a stretched omega, and vertical C-shaped daytime running lights bridge the upper and lower grille elements that is mirrored in back with the rear taillights. The luxury-like interior stands out with an electronic gear selector opening up space in the console. The contoured dash better integrates the similarly-sized touchscreens of the Highlander. The Palisade catches and holds our collective eyes better. 

How the SUVs feel behind the wheel is a much closer contest. Both use 3.5-liter V-6 engines mated to 8-speed automatic transmissions, with front-wheel drive standard or all-wheel drive and a towing capacity of 5,000 pounds. The Palisade’s 3.8-liter cranks out 291 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque, and has good mid-range punch to downshift and sprint ahead on crowded merges or other passing moves. The charm is in the quiet ride that’s more insulated from the road, on either 18-inch or 20-inch wheels.

The Highlander rides as well as the Palisade, thanks in part to its independent suspension, and it’s more confident with how it distributes its 295 hp and 263 lb-ft. The base all-wheel-drive system sends up to 50% of the torque to the rear wheels, same as the Palisade, but the top XSE, Limited, and Platinum trims have a more advanced system that uses torque vectoring to shuffle that 50% of torque to either rear wheel for greater grip and more traction off-road or in inclement weather. 

2021 Hyundai Palisade

2021 Hyundai Palisade

2021 Hyundai Palisade

2021 Hyundai Palisade

2021 Hyundai Palisade

2021 Hyundai Palisade

2021 Hyundai Palisade

2021 Hyundai Palisade

The Highlander’s biggest advantage over the Palisade is its available hybrid powertrain. A 2.5-liter inline-4 works in concert with a version of Toyota’s familiar hybrid system to drive the front wheels; an electric motor powers the rear wheels to make 243 hp total and get an EPA-rated 35 mpg city, 35 highway, 35 combined with all-wheel drive. The Highlander V-6 with all-wheel drive rates at 23 combined, whereas the Palisade comes in at just 21 mpg combined. 

The hybrid makes the Highlander the most efficient three-row crossover SUV without a plug, and as efficient as the 2021 Toyota Sienna minivan that’s now exclusively a hybrid.

The Highlander can’t match the roominess of the Sienna, and it doesn’t feel as spacious as the Palisade. Sliding second-row seats max out at more than 40 inches of leg room, and captain’s chairs available on top trims replace the bench seat on L and LE models and allow seating for seven instead of eight. It’s a similar story for the Palisade, except getting in and out of the third row is easier with push-button second-row seats, and leg room is better in both the second and third rows thanks to an extra two inches on the wheelbase. Wider and taller, the Palisade offers more cargo room behind the third row at 18 cubic feet compared to 16 cubes in the Highlander.

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum AWD

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum AWD

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum AWD

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum AWD

The standard safety and convenience features make the decision between the two even tougher. Both models do a good job of withstanding and avoiding crashes, earning five stars in crash testing from the NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick+ award from the IIHS. That’s as good as it gets; automatic emergency braking, active lane control, and rear parking sensors come standard on the Palisade, but the Highlander adds adaptive cruise control as standard. A full suite of safety features can be added on either model, ranging from surround-view camera systems to blind-spot cameras in the Palisade. 

Both models come standard with LED headlights and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, but the Palisade’s is wireless unless you opt for the larger touchscreen. Hyundai’s 5-year/60,000-mile warranty can’t be matched. Both models come in luxury trims exceeding $50,000, but the Palisade Calligraphy trim dons the nouveau luxe look better than the Highlander Platinum.  

For this reason, and the slightly roomier interior, the 2021 Hyundai Palisade overcomes its hybrid shortcoming and edges out the 2021 Toyota Highlander by the narrowest margin, with a TCC Rating of 7.3 out of 10 compared to 7.2 for the Highlander. If the hybrid option doesn’t sway you, then the winner here is the one that looks less like a minivan.

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