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Toyota Highlander vs. Ford Explorer

This is a black Ford Explorer on display at a car show.

Your family is growing, another baby on the way, perhaps? Is your current wagon just not big enough to handle your need for more transport space? If your answer is ‘yes’ to both questions, you’re probably looking at buying an SUV – a versatile, economical, comfortable, and super-safe utility vehicle.

An SUV, or Sports Utility Vehicle, combines the comfort and performance of a passenger car with the load capacity of a van or truck. The interior of an SUV is designed to carry more passengers and more cargo than a conventional sedan. The Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer are midsize SUVs.

Raising a family implies budget savvy. Unpredictable expenses are part of the equation, always. Having a comfortable, economical, and dependable transporter for your spouse and kids is mission-critical. A wise buy will make your life easier.

So let’s start with a purchase price-point of $35,000. The Toyota Highlander and the Ford Explorer are SUVs worth considering. Let’s ride!

Is It Wise To Buy an SUV on Purchase Price Alone?

This is a black Toyota Highlander at a car dealership.

When you’re on a tight budget and shopping for a new family vehicle, there is a set of critical cost considerations beyond the vehicle’s purchase price.

For budget-conscious buyers, the vehicle’s life-cycle costs (aka cost-to-own [CTO], or total-cost-of-ownership [TCO]) must be wisely considered.

These are expenses that are incurred to keep the vehicle in top shape for the duration of your ownership period so that you can resell it for the highest possible price.

What is Cost-to-Own (CTO)?

Cost-to-Own is the amount you will spend on your new family transporter during its life with you. These include its purchase price and its running costs, calculated to determine the cost-efficiency of a Capital Asset, a business tool, albeit a tool used for the business of building a family.

Factor in these expenses:

  • Purchase price.
  • Running costs:
  • Fuel costs
  • Consumables costs (tires, oils, lubricants etc.)
  • Maintenance & Repair costs (labor time, parts, tires)
  • Insurance costs

You will eventually want to sell the vehicle for the best price. This is determined by Vehicle Resale Value, which forms another component of a simple formula to calculate CTO:

Purchase Price + Running Costs – Resale Value = CTO

As a parent with growing children, you’ll make a wise purchase if you follow the principles of ‘optimum vehicle selection’ – choosing the right tool for the job – and the CTO formula.

OK. With the technicalities of vehicle purchasing out of the way, let’s cut to the chase and look at the midsize SUVs, the Toyota Highlander and the Ford Explorer, as possible SUV family wagon choices for your particular needs.

You’ve budgeted for a $35K price tag (give a take a couple of hundred dollars either way) on an SUV that can handle your expanding transportation requirements = more people, pets and more stuff.

You’re looking for the best value ‘utility’ rather than ‘sports’ characteristics in your SUV. You’re not going to go overlanding in the thing – you’re going to be running around town mostly, with the odd sedate road trip on highways and manageable dirt roads.

Thus, your optimum vehicle selection criteria are:

  1. Best price
  2. Fuel economy (around 20 mpg in the city)
  3. More seating (6+ seats)
  4. More cargo space (big enough to load a single bed)
  5. Comfort (plush but rugged interior with good infotainment system)
  6. Reliability (must rate 80%+ with accredited research house)
  7. Safety (as many modern safety features and technologies as possible)
  8. Performance (good road handling and engine responsiveness)

Let’s compare the two SUVs now and see how they stack up in meeting your selection criteria and CTO considerations.

What 2021 Model Toyota Highlander Can I Get for $35K?

This is a white Toyota Highlander L on a brick road.

The 2021 Toyota Highlander L is the base model of the range, retailing at $35,085.

What 2021 Model Ford Explorer Can I Get for $35K?

This is a silver Ford Explorer XLT on a dirt road.

The 2021 Ford Explorer XLT is the second-from-base model of the range, retailing at $35,075.

SHOOTOUT  – Which SUV is Better for My Family?

Customer Criteria


Highlander L: $35,085

Explorer XLT: $35,075

Winner: Explorer

Fuel Economy

Highlander L: 21/29mpg comb.

Explorer XLT: 21/28mpg comb.

Winner: Highlander


Highlander L: 8

Explorer XLT: 6/7

Winner: Highlander

Total Cargo Space

Highlander L: 84.3 cubic feet

Explorer XLT: 87.8 cubic feet

Winner:  Explorer

Comfort Rating*

Highlander L: 7.4/10

Explorer XLT: 6.6/10

Winner: Highlander


Highlander L: 85/100

Explorer XLT: 74/100

Winner: Highlander


Highlander L: 9.9/10

Explorer XLT: 9.8/10

Winner: Highlander


Highlander L: 6.8/10

Explorer XLT: 7.3/10

Winner: Explorer

Total Score

Highlander L: 5/8

Explorer XLT: 3/8

Highlander Wins

* Source of data –

Is the Toyota Highlander a Better Family SUV than the Ford Explorer?

This is a black Toyota Highlander on display at a car dealership.

On paper, the Toyota Highlander L pips the Ford Explorer XLT by a nose or two. But it’s prudent to dig a little deeper to understand why the 2021 Toyota Highlander L is the better SUV for a young and growing family.

Fuel Economy

There’s not much separating the Toyota Highlander L and the Ford Explorer XLT when it comes to fuel efficiency. A mere one mile per gallon in favor of the Highlander, according to JD Power research.

The Highlander has a bigger engine (3.5 Liter) than the Explorer (2.3 Liter) You’d be forgiven if you assumed the bigger engine would guzzle more gas. This is not the case.

The fact that the Highlander is a front-wheel-drive SUV and the Explorer a rear-wheel drive SUV contributes to the marginal difference in consumption figures due to the lower weight of FWD drivetrain componentry.  


This is a close look at the Toyota Highlander interior showcasing the rows of seats.

The Highlander is a clear winner in this department, with eight seats in a three-row configuration. The seats are cloth-covered and comfortable, although the third-row bench is a tight fit with little legroom.

The Explorer has the option of two captain’s chairs or a three-seat conventional bench in the second row, with a two-seat bench as the third row. The seats are cloth-covered but lack the comfort of the Highlander.

Both the Highlander and the Explorer have four LATCH child safety seat connectors.

Cargo Space

This is a close look at the cargo trunk space of a Ford Explorer.

Can they both fit a single bed in the back? Yes! The Highlander and the Explorer can both fit a queen-size mattress in their load areas with all rear seats folded down.

How much can you load with the seats up?

  • Toyota Highlander: 16 cubic feet with all seats up; 48.4 with third-row bench down, and (as mentioned earlier) 84.3 cubic feet with all rear seats in the down position.
  • Ford Explorer: 18.2 cubic feet with all seats upright; 47.9 cubic feet with third-row bench down; and 87.8 cubic feet with all rear seats in the down position.


This is a close look at the interior seats of the Ford Explorer.

Although they’re both at the bottom of their respective model ranges, the Toyota Highlander L and the Ford explorer XLT are fitted with several comfort features found in premium-class SUVs.

Driving Comfort Features

Toyota Highlander L

This is a close look at the driver seat controls and dashboard of Toyota Highlander.
  1. Back-Up Camera
  2. Cruise Control
  3. Adaptive Cruise Control
  4. Climate Control
  5. Vehicle Anti-Theft System
  6. Interior Cargo Shade (Optional)
  7. Keyless Start
  8. Steering Wheel Controls
  9. Trip Computer
  10. Keyless Entry
  11. Power Door Locks
  12. Heated Mirrors
  13. Power Mirrors
  14. Driver Vanity Mirror
  15. Power Steering

Ford Explorer XLT

A man driving the Ford Explorer on a mountain road.
  1. Back-Up Camera
  2. Cruise Control
  3. Adaptive Cruise Control (Optional)
  4. Vehicle Anti-Theft System
  5. Keyless Start
  6. Rear Parking Aid
  7. Power Liftgate
  8. Steering Wheel Controls
  9. Leather Wrapped Steering Wheel
  10. Trip Computer
  11. Keyless Entry
  12. Power Door Locks
  13. Heated Mirrors
  14. Power Mirrors
  15. Driver Illuminated Vanity Mirror
  16. Power Steering

The Highlander earns a higher score for ‘comfort’ than the Explorer, despite the Explorer listing more comfort features. Hard plastic interior finishes in the Explorer let it down. The Highlander has a plush finish and scores above average for its class.

Both SUVs have good infotainment systems with optional extras. 


Two factory recalls (engine and airbags) have compromised the Explorer’s ‘reliability’ rating. The Highlander scores very well in the ‘reliability’ category, in typical Toyota style.


Vehicle safety technologies, be they ‘active’ or ‘passive’ have come a long way in recent years. Both the Highlander and Explorer are equipped with state-of-the-art accident prevention systems to keep your family ultra-safe.

The following safety systems are standard in both the Highlander and the Explorer:

Airbags all-round; ABS all round; Brake Assist; Electronic Stability Control; Traction Control; Lane Departure Warning; and Lane Keeping Assist.

One difference is the Explorer has a Cross Traffic Alert signal. Both score extremely well in the safety ratings.


The Explorer is the more responsive SUV with its turbocharged engine and RWD drivetrain. While both SUVs have an automatic transmission, the Explorer pushes out more horsepower and torque than the Highlander.


The Toyota Highlander L and the Ford Explorer XLT are both excellent entry-level midsize SUVs. Deciding which suits you best will ultimately depend on who will drive your new SUV the most. The Highlander is more reliable and sedate – a good choice for mom. The Explorer has more sportiness and its interior is more robust – a good choice for dad. Ultimately, the choice is yours, but let the kids decide! 


J.D. Power

U.S. News Cars