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Toyota Highlander vs. 4Runner

This is a white Toyota 4Runner on a dirt road.

There is nothing as frustrating as choosing an SUV from your favorite manufacturer and then finding out they make two extremely similar vehicles. On paper, the Toyota Highlander and the Toyota 4Runner look remarkably similar to the point that it can be hard even to tell them apart.

However, when you look at them, both the Highlander and the 4Runniner are designed with entirely different clientele in mind. The interiors have different qualities; with the engines producing similar amounts of power, it is the type of power being produced that is massively different.

To understand how these two SUVs are different and why it is important to use one in the roughest situations while the other is only meant for trips to school and back, we need to break them down. We always recommend that people have a good look at the designs, structure, and technology in both SUVs.

On The Outside

This is a black Toyota 4Runner on a desert sand dune.

The Highlander is built like the typical modern-day SUV, with smooth lines and lines that flow from the front of the vehicle to the rear. With a slightly lower ride height and less rugged options to be added onto the outside, it is a vehicle that has been made to fit into the background of any city.

The Toyota 4Runner is almost the complete opposite of the Highlander, made to fit in on any farm, with hard, jagged lines that make it reminiscent of Land Rovers. The 4Runner has a design that focuses on utility rather than looks, making it an option favored by those who care little about what their SUVs look like.

Both vehicles have recently received exterior updates, sporting full LED lights as standard, options for extra trim being added onto the outside, and wheel sizes changed to custom rims. The 4Runner has the option to have roof racks installed, while the Highlander has more color options.

Choosing between these two based on looks should be easy, whether for something utilitarian or sleeker. However, both of these have very different interior options and engine powers, which makes choosing one on shape and color alone very ill-advised.

Step Inside

This is where the big differences between these two vehicles start, as the 4Runner is not meant to be used in cities ferrying families from one building to the next. While the Highlander is not made to have you wade through farmlands and then jump back into the driver’s seat without dust off.

Seating And Upholstery

This is a close look at the seating and upholstery of the back seat of a Toyota SUV.

As both of these SUVs are made by Toyota, you can get every kind of interior upholstery available from the company, with the Highlander and the 4Runner starting with standard cloth upholstery. However, you can easily upgrade the interior upholstery of these SUVs to full leather, faux leather, or a mix.

The only difference that we have found is that the Highlander does allow for heating on the second row of seats. Something that is not an option at all with the 4Runner, with the only heated seats being the front two seats of the vehicle.

The Highlander comes standard with three rows of seats, making for a total of eight seats that can be used, with the last row only being suitable for children or toddlers. However, the 4Runner does not come standard with this option, only having the optional add-on of 2 seats in the rear.

Toyota Highlanders are perfect if you have to drive a large group of friends across the country or when you have a large family to transport. The Toyota 4Runner has several different accessories that can be added instead of the third row of seats, like cargo decks or custom toolboxes.

Cargo Space

This is a close look at the interior of this Toyota SUV with its back seat folded.

When it comes to total cargo space, both the 4Runner and the Highlander can fit almost anything you can imagine short of full canoes. With all the seats up, the Highlander will give you 16 cubic feet of storage behind the chairs, with the 4Runner offering less when you have a third row of seats.

However, as standard with only five seats in the SUVs, the 4Runner has 46.3 cubic feet of storage, with the Highlander offering 48.4 cubic feet. However, the balance switches over when you put the second row of seats down, as the Highlander only offers 84.3 cubic feet while the 4Runner offers 88.8 cubic feet of total storage.

Features And Infotainment

This is a close look at the SUV interior showcasing the dashboard on the driver's side.

The 4Runner that is currently available is based on the 2010 design with only a few feature updates throughout the years. This means that it only has a few standard features, with the infotainment system, port options, audio system, and screen options all being optional extras that you need to pay extra for.

Because the Highlander has been completely refreshed for 2020 with its hybrid engine, it has several things as a standard for interior features. As standard, the Highlander includes an 8-inch touchscreen with a screen size upgrade being available, along with Wi-Fi, Amazon, CarPlay, Auto as a standard.

The Highlander is aimed at those who want access to the latest technology and features, which means that many of these come as standard, beating the 4Runner who has a clientele that does not focus on this as much.

Under The Hood

This is a close look at the engine under the hood of a Toyota SUV.

These two vehicles’ engines are wildly different, with the 4Runner focused on working no matter what while the Highlander is focused on the economy. This means that neither of these two engines is comparable in certain terms, while in others, the winner is easy to predict.

Engine, Drivetrain, And Transmission

The Highlander sports the well-known 3.5-liter V6 295 horsepower engine that has been coupled with its eight-speed automatic transmission. This combination provides a good top speed; with the hybrid engine, this SUV can provide quite good performance no matter what the on-the-road performance requirements are.

The 4Runner has a much older, much larger, V6 4.0-liter engine that only produces around 270-horsepower to lug around the large chassis of the SUV. The 4Runner can easily and comfortably be driven around a city or the highway but will outperform its younger sister when off-roading.

With the refreshed technology and slightly stronger engine, the Highlander is much better than the 4Runner because of advancements in technology.   

Performance

This is a close look at the dashboard meters of a Toyota Highlander beyond the steering wheel.

The Highlander will outperform the 4Runner each time on a straight line, with much better acceleration times and top speeds. The 4Runner is not specifically made to be driven on tarred roads every day, making its performance when racing or taking turns at speed rather disappointing.

However, we need to consider the performance of these engines when it comes to overcoming obstacles, mud, mountains, and hills. The 4Runner has a chassis that has been built for this, with the engine providing a lot more power at lower speeds than the Highlander.

Comparing these two against each other, you need to also consider the roads and terrain that both have been made to overcome on a day-to-day basis.

At The Pumps

This is a close look at the engine under the hood of a Toyota Highlander.

The Highlander wins this race hands down, achieving 21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, making it one of the most efficient SUVs on the market. Even when opting for the all-wheel-drive option, you will reach 20 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway.

However, the 4Runner does not achieve this and only achieves 16 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway, whether you are using the rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive option. This fuel economy means that it is not meant to be driven for short distances on a tarred road as you would spend all your money on keeping it fueled.

Safety First

The Highlander achieves all the latest safety ratings with flying colors, so far passing every safety test that it has been subjected to. With few to no signs that it is dangerous to drive, the 4Runner never scored top marks in any tests but has achieved acceptable levels of safety.

Pricing Comparison

This is a look at a white Toyota SUV running on a mountain road.

The Highlander as a basic starts at $35k and reaches a high of $50k when you have every possible feature added onto the SUV. The Hybrid engine adds $4k onto the base price, which makes it a competitive SUV to have in the market.

This is a white Toyota 4Runner parked on a desert road.

The 4Runner starts more expensive than most SUVs on the market at $36k and only goes up from there, with the top-of-the-line model starting at $50k. Without adding extra features and trim choices, this will increase the price faster than you can get in the SUV and start it.

And The Winner Is…

There is no clear winner between these two SUVs as they are aimed at two different types of SUV owners. If you are never planning on even driving on a dirt road, the Toyota Highlander should be the only SUV you are looking at as it is efficient and has every creature feature you can imagine.

However, if you plan on only ever driving on a tarred road with your SUV on the day you are picking it up from the dealer, the 4Runner is meant for you. It lacks in creature features and technology it makes up for in capability and reliability that few other SUVs, even the Highlander, can beat.

References:

Toyota: Toyota 4Runner Features

Motor Trend: Toyota Highlander vs. Toyota 4Runner

Forbes Wheels: 2021 Toyota Highlander vs. 2021 Toyota 4Runner Comparison