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Comparison: 2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid vs. 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Which of these hybrid mid-size 3-row SUVs is the one to get?


2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid 

Starting Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price: $53,799 CDN


•    Powerful gas-electric powertrain
•    Excellent towing capabilities
•    Generous rear cargo room


•    Hybrid powertrain not available on lowest-priced trim
•    Fuel economy no match for more efficient Highlander
•    Generous headroom for all three rows


2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid Highlights 

Through the decades, the Ford Explorer has been available with several chassis and powertrain offerings. The current sixth-generation Explorer, all-new for 2020, follows the same strategy of offering different flavours for a wide range of buyers, making it the second-most popular mid-size SUV in Canada in 2020. A new reason to buy the popular all-wheel-drive (AWD) Ford SUV is the addition of a gas-electric hybrid powertrain.

Between the base, $45,549 CDN 2021 Ford Explorer XLT and the topline $65,649 CDN Platinum trims, the new hybrid powertrain is an option starting with the mid-line Limited trim at $53,799 CDN. Compared to the 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Ford’s approach is more about adding power. The hybrid’s 3.3-litre 6-cylinder engine mates with an electric motor for a system output of 318 horsepower and 322 pound-feet of torque. That’s well above the Toyota’s 243-horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque numbers and allows the hybrid Explorer to tow up to 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms) compared to the Toyota’s 3,500-pound (1,588-kilogram) rating.

Inside, no space compromises were necessary with the Explorer Hybrid. For example, the lithium-ion battery pack fits beneath the rear seat, so interior volume has not been affected adversely. Except for 3rd-row shoulder room, the 7-passenger Explorer Hybrid offers more passenger space than the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Plus, Ford’s 515-litre cargo space behind its rear seat betters the Toyota’s 453-litre number.


2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Starting Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price: $45,490 CDN


•    Hybrid powertrain available on base Highlander LE trim
•    Car-like fuel economy
•    Seats for up to 8 passengers


•    CVT transmission doesn’t feel as natural as Explorer's conventional 10-speed automatic transmission
•    Limited towing capacity and rear cargo space


2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

The 2021 Toyota Highlander 3-row midsize SUV is in the second year of its fourth generation. Like the Explorer, the AWD Highlander’s hybrid powertrain option is rare in this segment. Unlike the hybrid Ford, the Toyota hybrid has been optimized for fuel-economy over outright power, paring a 2.5-litre 4-cylinder engine with an electric motor that returns a combined city and highway estimate of 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres; substantially better than the Explorer Hybrid’s 9.6 estimate. Other compromises are few. The Toyota employs a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) prone to drone under hard acceleration, whereas the Explorer Hybrid uses a more conventional 10-speed automatic transmission.

Value is another crucial Highlander advantage, with the hybrid powertrain available starting at $45,490 CDN for the base LE trim. To better match the Ford regarding features, the $53,690 CDN Highlander Hybrid Limited trim adds features like leather seats (including heated/ventilated front seats), a premium sound system, wireless charging, and a hands-free power liftgate. 

While the 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid LE versions are solely 8-seaters, the $47,990 CDN XLE and Limited trims come with a pair of captain’s chairs in row two, reducing the occupant count to match the Explorer at seven. Still, the 8-seater configuration is available at no extra cost. Adults have plenty of space in the second row. The third row (not a traditional Highlander strength) has slightly more room than the previous generation but still less than the Explorer Hybrid. It remains best for kids.


Final Recommendation

While we expect to see more gas-electric hybrids and pure-electric 3-row mid-size SUVs enter the market shortly, the 2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid and Toyota Highlander Hybrid are currently unique. 

The 2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid shines bright in many ways. It’s roomy, relatively fuel-efficient (compared to its gas-powered siblings), offers plenty of power to tow, and delivers loads of passenger and cargo interior room. 

But if you’re buying a hybrid SUV to save fuel, we think the 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid offers the least number of compromises. The Toyota is available over a more comprehensive price range, offers car-like fuel economy, plus room for up to eight passengers.


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