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Chances are you have a lot on your vehicle wish list if you’re in the market for a three-row SUV. You have kids to entertain and loved ones to protect. You’ll likely want some premium amenities you can enjoy yourself, as well. It can be challenging to attain all these things while adhering to a budget. However, wallet-friendly options, such as the 2021 Ford Explorer and the 2021 Toyota Highlander, might be the perfect family vehicle for you.

It’s often difficult to sift through the weeds to find the perfect model. It seems like just about every car on the road is pretty up to par these days. But as you’d expect, some perform better and offer more value than others.

Many families in the SUV market immediately think of the reliable 2021 Toyota Highlander. Others may consider a rugged, powerful 2021 Ford Explorer. But what you might not realize is that when choosing between the Explorer and Highlander, the better choice may come down to what you’re willing to spend.

What do these popular midsize SUVs have to offer, and which one is right for you? Let’s take an in-depth look at each vehicle’s features and performance so you can make a more informed buying decision.

What does the 2021 Ford Explorer do well?

A white 2021 Ford Explorer on display with a boardwalk and blue sky in the background
The 2021 Ford Explorer on display | Photo via Ford

Americans do one thing exceptionally well when it comes to engineering – creating powerful machines. Ford is no different, even with its more family-oriented models. However, these fun-to-drive SUVs will come at a steep price.

The 2021 Ford Explorer’s standard 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is suitable for most drivers. It makes 300 hp and can tow up to 5,300 lbs, making it slightly more potent than the 2021 Toyota Highlander. Plus, it achieves an EPA-estimated 24 MPG city/highway combined. But it won’t truly excite.

The performance-focused ST trim ($52,605 MSRP) and luxurious Platinum trim ($54,480 MSRP) feature twin-turbo V6 engines. This powerplant delivers 365 hp in Platinum models, while the ST is tuned to kick out 400 hp.

Enjoyment isn’t limited to performance, as the 2021 Ford Explorer can be exceptionally well-appointed. It comes standard with an eight-inch infotainment touchscreen display compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Plus, the Explorer is a pretty safe SUV, as it comes standard with a suite of driver-assistance technologies.

Premium models offer upgrades like a 10.1-inch touchscreen, tri-zone automatic climate control, a twin-panel moonroof, and a rear-seat entertainment system.

How does the 2021 Toyota Highlander stack up against its rival?

A silver 2021 Toyota Highlander parked between two trees
The 2021 Toyota Highlander on display | Photo via Toyota

The Highlander is a little more family-friendly than its American counterpart. While the 2021 Ford Explorer seats either six or seven passengers, depending on the trim level, the 2021 Toyota Highlander seats up to eight.

Meanwhile, the Highlander’s 295-hp V6 engine isn’t anything to write home about, as it also gets an EPA-estimated 24 MPG combined. However, the 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is incredibly fuel-efficient. It utilizes a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and two electric motors to produce a total of 243 hp and earn an EPA-estimated 35 MPG combined. Best of all, the base hybrid model has a starting MSRP of just $38,410.

The entry-level Highlander is pretty similarly equipped as the 2021 Ford Explorer. But it does have one extra USB port, giving it a total of five. The most significant differences lie in the standard driver-assistance technologies. The Highlander has adaptive cruise control, lane trace assist, and traffic sign recognition in addition to common systems. Meanwhile, the Explorer features blind-spot monitoring, driver drowsiness monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert instead.

Which three-row SUV is the better choice?


2020 Toyota Highlander vs. 2020 Hyundai Santa Fe: 1 is Better for Families

Most families will feel more at home inside a 2021 Toyota Highlander. It has an affordable hybrid model that’ll help save you money in the long run, and it can carry more passengers.

However, if you’re looking for a few extra thrills and willing to spend a lot more money, then a premium 2021 Ford Explorer model might be right for you.