Toyota 4Runner vs Toyota Highlander: Which Toyota SUV Is Best?

Toyota 4Runner vs Toyota Highlander

Comparing the Toyota 4Runner with the Toyota Highlander seems a bit like comparing someone who is very into sports and athleticism with a younger sibling who prefers classical music and fine arts.

But is this how Toyota intends to segment its audience for mid-size utility vehicles?

Probably not. An automaker’s lineup decisions are more complicated, and so are the personalities and needs of car buyers. I decided to test both the Toyota 4Runner and Toyota Highlander to see how they line up.

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Toyota 4Runner vs Toyota Highlander Comparison

SpecificationsToyota 4RunnerToyota Highlander
Length / Width / Height
190.2 - 191.3 / 75.8 / 71.5 - 72 in.
194.9 / 76 / 68.1 in.
Curb Weight (Base SE)
4,400 - 4,805 lbs
4,155 - 4,595 lbs
Ground Clearance
9.0 in. 2WD - 9.6 in. 4WD
8.0 in.
Max. Cargo Volume
89.7 cu.ft.
84.3 cu.ft.
Max Towing
5000 lbs.
5000 lbs.
3500 lbs. (Hybrid)
Net Horsepower
270 HP - 4.0L V6
265 HP - 2.4L I4 Turbo
243 HP Net - Hybrid System
Fuel Economy
City / Hwy.
16 / 19 RWD or 4WD
22 / 29 FWD; 21 / 28 AWD
36 / 35 Hyb. FWD; 35 / 35 Hyb. AWD
$39,555 - $54,020
$36,420 - $52,625

Tale of the Tape

Toyota-4Runner-Tale-of-the-TapeThe 2023 model year marks the 40th anniversary of the 4Runner, and although Toyota is celebrating with a colorful retro-looking Special Edition based on the SR5 Premium trim, the model continues to hold onto its 13-year-old 5th generation status. Granted, there have been numerous updates in that span of time, including a slew of safety improvements, but the platform remains the same.

Standard 4Runner seating allows five passengers, but with available seating for up to seven in SR5 and Limited trims, one could make a case for 4Runner being a family vehicle of sorts. Even so, there’s no getting around its rugged off-road purpose. With ground clearance at 9.6 inches in 4-wheel drive editions, compared with 8 inches in all Highlander editions, Toyota is clear on the adventures to which it anticipates owners will subject the 4Runner.

For the Highlander, now in its fourth generation, three-row seating has long been a staple and underscores its inherent family-oriented sensibilities. Standard across the lineup, the layout accommodates up to 8 passengers in lower trims, while higher trims get second-row captain’s chairs instead of a 3-passenger bench.

Surprisingly, I found that the Highlander, though several inches longer and taller than the 4Runner, provides 5.4 cubic feet less overall cargo volume with rear seats folded out of the way. Nevertheless, passengers will find the Highlander’s first and second-row seating space roomier and more comfortable than in the 4Runner. Third-row seating is a squeeze.

In all except its hybrid editions, the Highlander’s towing capacity matches the 4Runner.

The Takeaway: There’s no argument that these two vehicles are innately different though similar in stature. The 4Runner will serve customers who might encounter rough roads daily while being generally accommodating for family transportation. The Highlander, however, makes a much better case for being family-friendly – its easier to get into and out of, and it’s roomier for all occupants.

Cabin Quality and Design

Toyota-Highlander-Cabin-Quality-and-DesignThis is where I began to see the vehicles truly deviate from one another. Aesthetically, the interiors of these two vehicles have very different objectives. Where the 4Runner conveys a sense of readiness for the rough and rumble of the outback, the Highlander presents a more plush and quiet experience, particularly in the upper trims. Their stylistic dissimilarity coyly manifests itself by the 4Runner having a foot pedal parking brake to the Highlander’s electronic switch-operated parking brake.

Also, in the Highlander, sound-dampening and soundproofing zero-in on minimizing noise, plus cabin climate control extends through all three rows even in the base L trim. The 4Runner toughs it out on its base SR5 with single zone front air conditioning and rear ventilation ducts. Dual zone climate control kicks in at the pricier 4Runner Limited grade, as do niceties such as heated and ventilated front seats. In addition, only the 4Runner driver enjoys 8-way power seat adjustments, whereas, in the Highlander, XLE grade and higher provide the front passenger with this comfort.

The Highlander also enjoys the convenience of wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and an available 12.3-inch infotainment display; the 4Runner does not. Phone app integration in the 4Runner is wired via USB. To its credit, the 4Runner features a handy multi-terrain monitor in TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro trims that provides drivers with selectable views of the surroundings while navigating difficult trails.

The Takeaway: If comfort and convenience are at the top of one’s list of priorities, the Highlander will easily satisfy that need, but if one is more inclined to shake things up with off-the-beaten-path adventure while enjoying a bit of old-school ambience, then the 4Runner is a better fit.

Performance & Powertrains

Toyota-Highlander-Performance-&-PowertrainsI also noticed a significant difference in how these two vehicles perform. Performance is the one area where the numbers belie what really puts these two vehicles on different paths. Looking at horsepower, one might be misled into thinking that their five-horsepower difference makes the 4Runner and the Highlander nearly the same.

Or, when considering torque, one could conclude that the Highlander’s new turbocharged 2.4-liter engine with its 310 lb-ft of torque makes it mightier than the 4Runner’s V6 that manages 278 lb-ft. But then there are the drivetrains, and one realizes that the title is up for grabs.

The 4Runner is offered with either 2WD or 4WD. The 2WD editions send power to the rear wheels utilizing a limited slip differential that’s beneficial when digging out of snow or sand. The 4WD models get either a part-time system featuring a two-speed transfer case with selectable low range gearing, or a full-time system with a Torsen locking center differential that changes the front/rear torque split based on driving situations. TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro models get a crawl control feature that manages speed and braking on especially challenging terrain.

Alternatively, the Highlander comes with either front-wheel drive or, optionally, one of two types of all-wheel drive systems. AWD for the lower three trims can route 50% of the available torque to the rear wheels when wheel slip is detected. Upper trims with AWD can actively distribute torque between left and right rear wheels, plus the system automatically disengages from the rear wheels when cruising steadily to reduce fuel consumption. In addition, the Highlander offers an optional Multi-Terrain Select system that enables drive modes for road conditions such as mud/sand and rock/dirt.

The Highlander also offers a hybrid lineup that can be equipped with either FWD or AWD. The net 243-horsepower hybrid gas/electric system maximizes fuel economy but reduces towing capability to 3500 pounds. In addition to standard gas/electric hybrid performance, AWD models utilize a rear-mounted electric motor to power the rear wheels as needed.

The Takeaway: To find crucial performance differences between the 4Runner and the Highlander, look to the powertrains. The 4Runner offers rock-steady, truck-like 2WD or 4WD setups while the Highlander favors modern, fuel-efficient FWD and AWD systems.

Safety Equipment and Scores

Toyota-4Runner-Safety-Equipment-and-ScoresAlthough both models offer a suite of advanced safety technologies, there are key differences in their overall safety systems. For starters, the 4Runner gets the Toyota Safety Sense-P system which provides vehicle and pedestrian detection with automatic braking to help avoid frontal collisions. It also includes dynamic radar cruise control that automatically adjusts speed to maintain a pre-set distance behind another vehicle.

The Highlander gets a more advanced Safety Sense 2.5+ system that adds intersection support to help avoid collisions when making turns and provides emergency steering assist to stabilize the vehicle when suddenly veering around obstacles, pedestrians, or bicyclists. Plus, there are the more comprehensive full-speed dynamic radar cruise control and road sign assist systems.

Also, while the 4Runner features lane departure alert, the Highlander goes a step further adding steering assist to take corrective action if the driver doesn’t respond to alerts when drifting out of a lane. In addition, the Highlander comes equipped with Trailer Sway Control, while the 4Runner provides just a sway warning system.

Interestingly, Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Traffic Alert come standard across the 4Runner lineup, while on the Highlander it’s featured at the LE grade and higher. Also, the 4Runner gets ventilated brakes both front and rear, while the Highlander brakes are ventilated in the front only.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the Highlander a Top Safety Pick Plus designation, its highest recommendation. The 4Runner, however, was faulted by the organization for driver’s side protection in a front small overlap collision, receiving a Marginal score in the Crashworthiness category.

The Takeaway: This matchup presents challenging choices when considering vehicle safety. Both models provide notable safety technologies that assist the driver in preventing collisions. Nevertheless, while the 4Runner is certainly better prepared to go the less traveled road, the Highlander delivers a higher margin of safety in the event of a crash no matter where it happens.

Current Toyota 4Runner Deals & Incentives

YearMakeModelCash Incentives (up to)Best Avail. APRLease OffersExpiration

You may qualify for additional deals and incentives, check out this month's Toyota deals and average prices paid.

Current Toyota Highlander Deals & Incentives

YearMakeModelCash Incentives (up to)Best Avail. APRLease OffersExpiration
2023ToyotaHighlander4.29%$469/month for 36 months, $3,999 due at signing10/3/23

You may qualify for additional deals and incentives, check out this month's Toyota deals and average prices paid.

So, Which Is Better, the 4Runner or the Highlander?

While I found that these are two very different vehicles, they each have their purpose. The better question is actually, “Which one is better at...?”. Each model has skills for which it is more proficient and offers features that serve a need better than the other.

If you're inclined to use your vehicle frequently for rugged, adventurous purposes, then the 4Runner might make you happier.

If you need a versatile family vehicle that delivers a premium environment in which to travel, consider the Highlander.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why hasn’t Toyota retired the 4Runner in favor of the Highlander?

The short answer would be that there continues to be a big audience for the 4Runner. U.S. sales of the 4Runner in 2022 came in at around 121,000 units. Sales of the Highlander in the same period reached nearly 223,000 units. Both are quite desirable figures for any automaker.

Would it make better financial sense to buy the 4Runner or the Highlander?

That depends on your performance needs, desire for comfort and your budget. Going up through the trims, the pricing of these vehicles is mostly on equal footing. However, the 4Runner’s cost of ownership on a yearly basis will be more than the Highlander’s particularly because of its fuel-hungry ways. That said, there are places that the 4Runner will dare to go that would be off-limits for the Highlander. Conversely, riding in the Highlander is a more serene experience than in 4Runner. So, how do you put a price on happy?