The SUV and crossover craze has picked up speed in the USA, and in the battle of the family haulers, the Toyota Highlander barely needs an introduction. It’s been around for ages and has topped best-seller lists repeatedly – but as newer brands have improved, tougher competition is making it harder for Toyota to stay on top. If like me, your eye has been caught by the likes of Kia’s new Sorento, you’ll be wondering which is the better buy.
While the Highlander is a reliable, trustworthy, capable SUV, it is aging in style and design. It can seat up to eight in comfort. The Sorento is slightly smaller and has a modern aesthetic that appeals to younger generations. It cannot match the safety standard of the Highlander, so opt for the Toyota SUV if space and safety are your priority.
Both these SUVs have a lot to offer, and with solid selling points for each, it’s not as clear-cut as simply saying the one is better than the other. Let’s look at what each brings to the table.
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On the Outside
Toyota is not renowned for building eye-catching vehicles, and so the Highlander doesn’t particularly stand out. Still, it looks good with sleek lines and an assertive stance.
The basic models come with 18-inch wheels, while the top-of-the-range models come with larger 20-inch alloys for a bit more style. The more expensive trims get a moonroof too.
By contrast, the Sorento offers a striking package with much more modern design cues and a sightly tapered rear. The Sorento is smaller in size, and the most basic models have 17-inch wheels as standard. The rump gets a roof spoiler and imitation diffuser for some sporty touches.
We much prefer the look of the Sorento, which resonates with the fact that SUVs don’t have to be limited to large, lumbering brick-shaped vehicles.
Seating and Upholstery
Cars like this are designed to ferry larger groups of people, and the Highlander can do that with ease; there are three rows of seats, and you can load up to eight passengers if you choose a model with bench seats for the second and third rows. Alternatively, stick with the captain’s chairs in the second row if you only need space for seven.
Fabric upholstery and hard-wearing plastics abound in the Highlander, and it gives off a much more practical and functional vibe. Upper trim models do get leather seats, which are also heated and come with ventilation.
With space for seven passengers max, the Sorento’s smaller dimensions mean that the third row is tighter than usual. Whereas the Highlander can have three abreast right at the back, you can only have two kids or petite adults in the rear of the Sorento.
Like the Toyota SUV, base models have cloth upholstery with faux leather in mid-grade models and proper leather for the top-end trim. The cockpit is much more modern and has more soft-touch surfaces than the Highlander.
Regarding how much you can store in the trunk, if you have all three rows packed with passengers in the Highlander, you still have 16 cubic feet over for bags and sundries. Drop the back row, and you have just under 50 cubes. Total cargo space is around 84 cubes.
Naturally, due to its slighter size, the Sorento doesn’t offer as much cargo space as the Highlander does, with only 12.6 cubic feet behind the rear-most seats. With that stowed away, you have 45 cubes, and for the most in trunk volume for storage, fold-away all the seats for just over 75 cubic feet.
Features And Infotainment
The features list is similar between these two SUVs – automatic climate control, power-adjustable seats, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto are all standard. Both also have an eight-inch infotainment touchscreen on base models, going up to 12.3-inches on pricier trims. The Sorento offers a 12-speaker Bose audio system at the top of the range, while the Highlander offers an 11-speaker JBL unit.
Under The Hood
In the SUV segment, there has to be enough muscle to move the metal, and since these are hefty vehicles topping out over 4,000 pounds when fully specced, you need a capable powertrain.
Engine, Drivetrain, and Transmission
You have two options with the Highlander – a strapping 3.5-liter V6 engine with 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, or a hybrid motor setup that offers a combined 243 hp. With the gas motor equipped, the Highlander has an eight-speed automatic transmission and can be had as either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive for better traction.
A bit more choice is available to the Sorento, with two gas engines and a hybrid on the menu. The first is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 191 hp and 182 lb-ft; the second choice is a turbocharged variation, with more impressive outputs of 281 hp and 311 lb-ft. The transmission here is an eight-speed auto.
Opt for the hybrid version, and you get a 1.6-liter four-pot with an electric motor that puts out 227 hp and 258 lb-ft – it uses a six-speed auto to row the gears for you. In all variations, you get the choice between front-wheel and all-wheel drive, too.
Performance in the SUV segment is not limited to top speed and off-the-line sprint times; still, claims that the gas-fed Highlander can get to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds are impressive. The Sorento has a slower 7.4-second 0-60 mph time.
However, towing capacity is more critical, since you will use cars like this to take the family on vacation or for a lazy weekend at the lake more often. While the Sorento can tow up to 2,000 pounds, the Highlander offers a much better 5,000-lb max towing capacity.
At The Pumps
Family cars also need to be economical, and with both the Toyota and the Kia we’re discussing here having a hybrid alternative, we should expect some gas savings.
The Highlander is an understandably thirsty beast when fitted with the old-school V6 – you can expect EPA-rated figures of 21/29/24 mpg (city/highway/combined) in FWD guise, which drops a little if you choose for AWD instead. The hybrid does much better, with gas mileage figures of 36/35/36 mpg. You can travel upwards of 600 miles on a tank of fuel with the hybrid, or around 400 with the V6.
But if it’s frugality you’re after, the Sorento is just a little better. The gas models manage around 24/29/26 mpg (dropping a point or two for AWD-equipped versions). The hybrid is superb, though, and earns ratings of 39/35/37 mpg. Range in the hybridized version is around 650 miles to a tank.
The Highlander earns full marks from the NHTSA and comes fitted with eight airbags and a reverse camera. You also get pedestrian detection, road-sign assist, radar cruise control, lane departure alert, and a head-up display on the top trim.
Not to be outdone, the Sorento offers the same safety features, but you may have to pay a little extra for them, depending on which trim you choose. In crash tests by the NHTSA, it scored four out of five stars overall.
Neither of these SUVs bears the luxury tag, so pricing should be reasonable and affordable for the average family. Starting at around $35k for an entry-level model, the gas Highlander is good value for money. If you want the hybrid Highlander, you’ll need at least $39k for a basic version.
Coming in quite a bit cheaper, the Sorento in its most basic gas guise has a starting price of around $30k, while hybrid derivatives require you to lay out at least $33,600. Given that the Sorento isn’t as big as the Highlander, the price difference does make sense. You can get a top-spec Sorento with all the bells and whistles for under $50k, while a similarly equipped Highlander will be just two or three thousand dollars more.
And The Winner Is…
We have to be honest and mention this isn’t a fair fight. The Highlander is one size up over the Sorento, so a comparison to the Kia Telluride would be a little more accurate. Still, if you’re stuck deciding between these two, it pays to look at what your needs are.
The Highlander offers powerful engines, loads of space, a comprehensive safety suite, and various practical seating arrangements. However, it’s aging a little, and the Sorento is much more modern in look and feel. Handsome and with an equally impressive list of features, the Sorento is excellent value for a reasonable price, although the engine options are a little uninspiring.
If you’re looking for a reliable, safe, comfortable family hauler for up to eight, the Highlander is the right one for you. For smaller families who value style and better fuel economy figures, you can’t go wrong with the Sorento.
Car and Driver: Toyota Highlander 2021
Car and Driver: Kia Sorento 2021
Cars US News: Toyota Highlander
Cars US News: Kia Sorento