The Toyota Highlander has long been a go-to pick in the three-row SUV segment, but Subaru introduced an appealing alternative with the Ascent for 2019. Our rankings position the Ascent as the overall superior offering, but depending on your priorities and how you’ll use the vehicle, the Highlander could be a smarter buy. Keep reading to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the 2021 Toyota Highlander and 2021 Subaru Ascent.
2021 Toyota Highlander: Pros Over the Ascent
Highlander Hybrid Fuel Economy
Subaru only offers one powertrain option for the Ascent, but in the case of the Toyota, buyers can choose between a more powerful V-6 and a fuel-sipping gasoline-electric hybrid. Opting for the latter swaps out the naturally aspirated V-6 for a 2.5-liter I-4 and electric motors. Power drops from 295 hp to 243 hp, but the Highlander Hybrid delivers a best-in-segment 35/35 mpg city/highway with all-wheel drive.
Toyota’s reputation for reliability contributes to low running costs and excellent resale value. Taking into account the five-year cost of ownership, our partners at IntelliChoice awarded the Highlander its highest possible value rating of Excellent, compared to the Ascent’s strong but unexceptional Good rating.
Whereas the Ascent looks like little more than an overinflated Forester, the new Highlander features sharper, more distinctive bodywork. Sleek LED headlights define the front end, and a muscular character line running along the profile accentuates its rear haunches. You can even order a Highlander on stylish 20-inch wheels.
2021 Subaru Ascent: Pros Over the Highlander
Both three-row SUVs provide plenty of cargo space, but the Ascent edges out its Toyota competitor. The Subaru’s cargo area measures 17.8 cubic feet behind the third row (compared to 16.0 in the Highlander) and 86.5 cubes with the seats folded down. Maximum cargo volume in the Toyota measures 84.3 cubes.
Even though the Highlander’s V-6 develops more peak power, the Ascent is noticeably quicker. Its standard turbocharged four-cylinder delivers more torque at lower rpm, meaning the Subaru offers more performance pulling away from a stop or merging onto the highway. The Highlander feels sluggish at the low end by comparison.
We’ve criticized the Ascent and the Highlander for their tight third-row seating (the Chevrolet Traverse is comparatively capacious), but we’d rather sit in the way-back of the Subaru. The Subaru’s third-row legroom comes in at 31.7 inches; the Highlander offers just 27.7 inches.
Every example of the Ascent includes all-wheel-drive as standard, and if you need a three-row SUV with all-wheel drive, it’s Subaru that provides the more accessible offering. A base Ascent starts at $33,345, compared to $37,685 for a base Highlander L with its optional all-wheel-drive system.
These are close competitors with different strengths. The Toyota offers a massive fuel economy advantage with the Highlander Hybrid, but some drivers will prefer the Ascent’s punchy low-end performance. And although the Highlander has a more favorable cost of ownership, the Ascent benefits from more cargo capacity and third-row legroom. Neither SUV will disappoint—for our money, though, we’d go Subaru.
2021 Toyota Highlander Pros Over the Ascent
- Highlander Hybrid fuel economy
- Exterior styling
2021 Subaru Ascent Pros Over the Highlander
- Cargo capacity
- Turbocharged engine
- Third-row legroom
- Standard AWD
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