We drove a $49,000 Toyota Highlander and a $49,000 Honda Pilot to see which is the better family SUV - here's the verdict

Toyota Highlander HybridMatthew DeBord/BI

  • The Toyota Highlander and the Honda Pilot are two of the best selling mid-size family SUVs in the US.
  • The base Toyota Highlander LE starts at $31,330 while the top-of-the-line Hybrid Limited V6 Platinum AWD trim starts at $48,630.
  • The base Honda Pilot LX starts at $31,450 while the top-spec Elite trim starts at $48,020.
  • In the end, the Honda Pilot's smooth ride, punchier powertrain, and superior infotainment tipped the contest in its favor.

The minivan's reign over the American family has come to an end. Sales of the infinitely practical, but socially uncool family haulers are a mere fraction of what they were during their heyday. In 2000, automakers sold 1.25 million minivans in the US. According to data compiled by Kelley Blue Book, that figure fell to just 482,000 in 2018.

The new king of family transportation is the mid-size three-row crossover SUV. Last year, the Ford Explorer and the Toyota Highlander combined to outsell the entire minivan segment by about 24,000 units.

Read more: We drove a $42,000 and a $49,000 Toyota Highlander to see why it's one of the best family SUVs money can buy - here's what we discovered.

Thus, it's high time we take a closer look at the family SUV segment. The Ford Explorer is the sales leader. But Ford only recently unveiled the next generation Explorer. So we haven't had a chance to experience it in person.

However, we have experienced the second and third best sellers in the segment; the Toyota Highlander and the Honda Pilot.

The current third-generation Highlander arrived in 2014 and received a refreshed front fascia in 2016. Last year, Toyota lent us a pair of 2018 Highlanders for evaluation; a mid-grade SE V6 AWD in gray and a top-spec Hybrid Limited Platinum V6 AWD in brown. (The 2019 Highlander is virtually unchanged from the 2018 model.)

Read more: We drove a $49,000 Honda Pilot to see if the new 2019 model is ready to take on Toyota and Ford. Here's the verdict.

The current Pilot, also in its third iteration, has been around since 2016. For the 2019 model year, Honda gave its trusty SUV a mid-life refresh. Recently, we had the chance to spend a week with a fully-loaded 2019 Honda Pilot Elite.

Here's how the Toyota Highlander and the Honda Pilot stack up.
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First up is the Toyota Highlander.

First up is the Toyota Highlander.

The Toyota Highlander is available in more than a dozen different trim levels. The base four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive 2019 Highlander LE starts at $31,330 while the top-spec Hybrid Limited V6 Platinum AWD trim starts at $48,630.

Toyota lent us two new Highlanders for evaluation, in mid-grade SE V6 All-Wheel-Drive and the luxury-minded Hybrid Limited Platinum V6 AWD trim.

Our gry SE carried an as-tested price of $42,545, while the brown Hybrid Limited Platinum stickered for $49,499.

Aesthetically, the Highlander is rather unexceptional. While decently attractive, it's far from pretty. In 2016, Toyota updated the Highlander's large chrome front grille, to mixed reviews.

Aesthetically, the Highlander is rather unexceptional. While decently attractive, it's far from pretty. In 2016, Toyota updated the Highlander's large chrome front grille, to mixed reviews.

The Highlander's side profile is traditional crossover utility: boxy with rounded edges. It straddles the line between tall-wagon and SUV looks.

The Highlander's side profile is traditional crossover utility: boxy with rounded edges. It straddles the line between tall-wagon and SUV looks.

The rear end of the Highlander features an integrated roof spoiler and a traditional lift-up tailgate.

The rear end of the Highlander features an integrated roof spoiler and a traditional lift-up tailgate.

It's also one of the few remaining SUVs to have a separate lift-up window. It's great for loading small items.

It's also one of the few remaining SUVs to have a separate lift-up window. It's great for loading small items.

The interior, however, is where the Highlander really impresses.

The interior, however, is where the Highlander really impresses.

The cabin is a pleasant and friendly place to be. It's quiet and comfortable, and the interior ergonomics are pretty much spot on.

Material quality is very good, and everything you touch feels well put together. The Highlander's cabin simply exudes a reassuring sense of solidity.

Our Platinum Limited test car added brown leather and wood accents to the equation for a more premium feel.

Our Platinum Limited test car added brown leather and wood accents to the equation for a more premium feel.

The large glass roof was also a nice touch.

The large glass roof was also a nice touch.

The Highlander's interior is packed with USB ports and clever storage nooks, like this shelf that runs the length of the front dash. There's also a massive box under the center armrest, between the front seats.

The Highlander's interior is packed with USB ports and clever storage nooks, like this shelf that runs the length of the front dash. There's also a massive box under the center armrest, between the front seats.

In front of the driver is a 4.2-inch color information display flanked by two traditional analog gauges.

In front of the driver is a 4.2-inch color information display flanked by two traditional analog gauges.

The Highlander comes standard with the Toyota Safety Sense package, which includes collision warning, pedestrian warning, lane-departure warning, automatic high beams, and radar cruise control.

The Highlander comes standard with the Toyota Safety Sense package, which includes collision warning, pedestrian warning, lane-departure warning, automatic high beams, and radar cruise control.

Our test cars came with an 8-inch touchscreen running Toyota's Entune infotainment system. Base Highlanders get a 6.1-inch touchscreen.

Our test cars came with an 8-inch touchscreen running Toyota's Entune infotainment system. Base Highlanders get a 6.1-inch touchscreen.

Despite Toyota's work to improve the system's usability, Entune is not one of our favorites. It's perhaps the weakest part of the Highlander package.

Despite Toyota's work to improve the system's usability, Entune is not one of our favorites. It's perhaps the weakest part of the Highlander package.

The image quality is poor, and its overall presentation feels as if it's stuck in a previous decade.

The image quality is poor, and its overall presentation feels as if it's stuck in a previous decade.

The infotainment unit aboard our hybrid test car experienced a glitch that resulted in the system rebooting once every 60 seconds or so. This forced us to return it to Toyota for repairs.

Both Highlander test cars came equipped with optional second-row captain's chairs. A bench seat is standard.

Both Highlander test cars came equipped with optional second-row captain's chairs. A bench seat is standard.

The rear cabin is spacious and comfortable. The captain's chairs also allow for easy passage to the third row.

The rear cabin is spacious and comfortable. The captain's chairs also allow for easy passage to the third row.

A collapsible cupholder tray is between the second-row seats. It's quite handy for passengers — but the tray in our SE test car rattled over bumps and rough surfaces.

Frankly, it was really our only complaint with the Highlander's interior.

There are 13.8 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row.

There are 13.8 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row.

With the third row folded, cargo capacity goes up to 42.3 cubic feet. Fold down the second row, and the Highlander's cargo space nearly doubles, to 83.7 cubic feet.

With the third row folded, cargo capacity goes up to 42.3 cubic feet. Fold down the second row, and the Highlander's cargo space nearly doubles, to 83.7 cubic feet.

Under the hood of our Highlander SE is a 295-horsepower, 3.5-liter, naturally aspirated V6. The Hybrid model adds Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, boosting horsepower to 306. The base Highlander is powered by a somewhat diminutive 185-horsepower, 2.7-liter, naturally aspirated four-cylinder. The 3.5-liter V6, shared with the Toyota Camry and Avalon sedans, is silky smooth. No one does naturally aspirated V6 engines quite as well as Toyota, and it shows.

Under the hood of our Highlander SE is a 295-horsepower, 3.5-liter, naturally aspirated V6. The Hybrid model adds Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, boosting horsepower to 306. The base Highlander is powered by a somewhat diminutive 185-horsepower, 2.7-liter, naturally aspirated four-cylinder. The 3.5-liter V6, shared with the Toyota Camry and Avalon sedans, is silky smooth. No one does naturally aspirated V6 engines quite as well as Toyota, and it shows.

The four-cylinder is paired with a traditional six-speed automatic transmission, while the V6-powered cars get an eight-speed unit. The hybrid models are equipped with a continuously variable transmission.

The four-cylinder is paired with a traditional six-speed automatic transmission, while the V6-powered cars get an eight-speed unit. The hybrid models are equipped with a continuously variable transmission.

According to Toyota, V6-powered Highlanders can tow 5,000 pounds while hybrid models 3,500 pounds. Four-cylinder variants can tow just 1,500 pounds.

According to Toyota, V6-powered Highlanders can tow 5,000 pounds while hybrid models 3,500 pounds. Four-cylinder variants can tow just 1,500 pounds.

What's it like to drive?

What's it like to drive?

Here, the Highlander was unremarkable. It's far from surefooted in the corners, while its steering is rather numb and uncommunicative. It reminded me a bit too much of an old minivan. The SE's sport-tuned suspension doesn't make much of a difference.

The Toyota V6 is strong and eager to perform. As result, acceleration felt relatively brisk in both test cars. But the Highlander really makes you work for it. Our 4,400-pound SE's fuel-economy-minded eight-speed automatic felt lethargic under hard acceleration. And when it decided to change gears, the shifts were hardly smooth.

This is where the Highlander falls short. No one expects a Supra-esque experience, but Toyota should be able to give us something less dull than this.

Next up is the Honda Pilot.

Next up is the Honda Pilot.

The Honda Pilot is available in five different trim levels: the Pilot LX, Pilot EX, Pilot EX-L, Pilot Touring, and Pilot Elite.

The base Honda Pilot LX starts at $31,450 while the top-spec Elite trim starts at $48,020.

Our Pilot Elite AWD carried an as-tested price of $49,015.

Updates for 2019 includes a refreshed front end with new LED headlights along with a redesigned bumper and chrome grille.

Updates for 2019 includes a refreshed front end with new LED headlights along with a redesigned bumper and chrome grille.

The rear of the Pilot gets new taillights, bumper, and chrome accents. Even with the updates, the Pilot is far from being a real looker. In fact, I prefer the Highlander's styling over the Pilot's.

The rear of the Pilot gets new taillights, bumper, and chrome accents. Even with the updates, the Pilot is far from being a real looker. In fact, I prefer the Highlander's styling over the Pilot's.

Aesthetic updates aside, the overall dimensions of the of 16.4-foot-long Pilot remain unchanged. Thus, the Honda remains four inches longer, roughly three inches wider, and two inches taller than the Toyota.

Aesthetic updates aside, the overall dimensions of the of 16.4-foot-long Pilot remain unchanged. Thus, the Honda remains four inches longer, roughly three inches wider, and two inches taller than the Toyota.

Like Toyota, Honda usually brings their A-game when it comes to interior design. Cabin ergonomics are terrific. Everything is exactly where you'd expect it to be.

Like Toyota, Honda usually brings their A-game when it comes to interior design. Cabin ergonomics are terrific. Everything is exactly where you'd expect it to be.

The Pilot's interior is roomy, comfortable, and well put together. Overall material quality is superb. There wasn't a squeak or rattle to be detected. Even on the pothole-riddled roads of New York and New Jersey.

The Pilot's interior is roomy, comfortable, and well put together. Overall material quality is superb. There wasn't a squeak or rattle to be detected. Even on the pothole-riddled roads of New York and New Jersey.

In front of the driver is a digital instrument display. I don't think it looks very good, but it was easy to use and presented all of the pertinent information the driver needs.

In front of the driver is a digital instrument display. I don't think it looks very good, but it was easy to use and presented all of the pertinent information the driver needs.

As with all Pilot models, our test car came standard with the Honda Sensing driver's assistance tech package. This includes adaptive cruise control, collision mitigating braking, forward collision warning, road departure mitigation, lane keep assist. Outside of Honda sensing our test car came with blind spot awareness and rear cross traffic alert.

As with all Pilot models, our test car came standard with the Honda Sensing driver's assistance tech package. This includes adaptive cruise control, collision mitigating braking, forward collision warning, road departure mitigation, lane keep assist. Outside of Honda sensing our test car came with blind spot awareness and rear cross traffic alert.

The Pilot's cabin includes a bevy of storage options like this configurable center console.

The Pilot's cabin includes a bevy of storage options like this configurable center console.

There is also a handful of USB ports, power plugs, and a wireless charging pad.

There is also a handful of USB ports, power plugs, and a wireless charging pad.

All Pilots except the base LX trim are equipped with an eight-inch touchscreen running Honda's newest infotainment system. The Pilot LX gets a five-inch screen.

All Pilots except the base LX trim are equipped with an eight-inch touchscreen running Honda's newest infotainment system. The Pilot LX gets a five-inch screen.

The new system is a marked improvement over the previous version. It's highly responsive, clearly organized, and crisply rendered. Although we are happy to see the return of a volume knob in place of the touch panel, we would have also liked to see a tuner knob as well. With that said, the new Honda unit is vastly superior to the one found in the Highlander.

The new system is a marked improvement over the previous version. It's highly responsive, clearly organized, and crisply rendered. Although we are happy to see the return of a volume knob in place of the touch panel, we would have also liked to see a tuner knob as well. With that said, the new Honda unit is vastly superior to the one found in the Highlander.

The Pilot comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto Integration. According to Apple, CarPlay is available on several 2019 Toyota models including the Avalon, Camry, Sienna, Corolla Hatchback, RAV4, and C-HR. Unfortunately, the Highlander is not on the list.

The Pilot comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto Integration. According to Apple, CarPlay is available on several 2019 Toyota models including the Avalon, Camry, Sienna, Corolla Hatchback, RAV4, and C-HR. Unfortunately, the Highlander is not on the list.

One of our favorite features in the Pilot is Cabin Talk. It comes from the Honda Odyssey minivan and allows the driver and the rear cabin passengers to communicate using a series of microphones placed within the interior. That way, folks in the front won't have to yell at people sitting in the back and vice versa. It's also a handy way for parents to listen in on what their kids are doing in the back.

One of our favorite features in the Pilot is Cabin Talk. It comes from the Honda Odyssey minivan and allows the driver and the rear cabin passengers to communicate using a series of microphones placed within the interior. That way, folks in the front won't have to yell at people sitting in the back and vice versa. It's also a handy way for parents to listen in on what their kids are doing in the back.

Cabin Talk pairs perfectly with the panoramic mirror attached to the sun glasses holder.

Cabin Talk pairs perfectly with the panoramic mirror attached to the sun glasses holder.

The rear cabin can be optioned with either a second-row bench or captains chairs. With the bench seat, the Pilot can haul up to eight passengers.

The rear cabin can be optioned with either a second-row bench or captains chairs. With the bench seat, the Pilot can haul up to eight passengers.

The second row feels positively palatial. It is incredibly spacious with 38.4 inches of legroom; the same as the Highlander.

The second row feels positively palatial. It is incredibly spacious with 38.4 inches of legroom; the same as the Highlander.

The third row boasts a tight 31.9 inches of legroom. Yet, that's still three inches more space than the Highlander's third row.

The third row boasts a tight 31.9 inches of legroom. Yet, that's still three inches more space than the Highlander's third row.

Touring and Elite trim Pilots come with a 10.2-inch high definition rear seat entertainment system.

Touring and Elite trim Pilots come with a 10.2-inch high definition rear seat entertainment system.

Out back, the Pilot is equipped with a hands-free tailgate that will lift up automatically if the driver swings his or her foot under the rear bumper.

Out back, the Pilot is equipped with a hands-free tailgate that will lift up automatically if the driver swings his or her foot under the rear bumper.

Behind the third row, there is 16 cubic feet of cargo room.

Behind the third row, there is 16 cubic feet of cargo room.

With the rearmost seats folded down, cargo volume expands to 46 cubic feet. With the second row folded, that figure expands to 82 cubic feet.

With the rearmost seats folded down, cargo volume expands to 46 cubic feet. With the second row folded, that figure expands to 82 cubic feet.

Under the hood, all Pilots are powered by a 280 horsepower 3.5-liter, naturally aspirated VTEC V6 engine.

Under the hood, all Pilots are powered by a 280 horsepower 3.5-liter, naturally aspirated VTEC V6 engine.

The V6 is paired with either a six or nine-speed automatic transmission. Our test car came with the nine-speed.

The V6 is paired with either a six or nine-speed automatic transmission. Our test car came with the nine-speed.

With the exception of the Elite trim, all Pilots come standard in front-wheel-drive with all-wheel-drive available as an option. Our Elite trim tester came standard with all-wheel-drive. According to Honda, front-wheel-drive models can tow up to 3,500 pounds while AWD equipped Pilots can tow 5,000 pounds.

With the exception of the Elite trim, all Pilots come standard in front-wheel-drive with all-wheel-drive available as an option. Our Elite trim tester came standard with all-wheel-drive. According to Honda, front-wheel-drive models can tow up to 3,500 pounds while AWD equipped Pilots can tow 5,000 pounds.

So, what's like to drive?

So, what's like to drive?

The Honda Pilot isn't going to blow you away with its blistering performance nor will with annoy you with any glaring faults. It's designed to deliver competent acceleration, a smooth ride, and a quiet cabin. The Pilot delivers all of those.

The V6 engines proved to be smooth and powerful. One of the updates made for the 2019 model year is a retuned nine-speed automatic. It worked. The nine-speed delivered quick shifts that were virtually in perceptible.

Unfortunately, the Pilot's handling proved to be very vague while its softly sprung suspension made the SUV feel large and a bit cumbersome. Especially around the streets of New York City. With that said, the Pilot's ride quality was exceptional. It felt like you were riding on a bed of pillows.

The verdict.

The verdict.

The winner is the Honda Pilot.

With the Highlander, Toyota built one heck of the mid-size family SUV. The Highlander's silky smooth V6, impeccably designed cabin, and an impressive suite of standard safety features make it one of the best in the business.

Unfortunately, the Highlander also comes with some significant faults including a stone-age infotainment system and infuriatingly lackadaisical driving experience.

In addition, the five-year-old Highlander feels desperately in need of another refresh or even a new fourth-generation model.

Like the Highlander, the Honda Pilot also comes a legendary V6, a flawless cabin, and a laundry list of standard safety features. But it was able to bring more to the table. In the end, it was the Pilot's more refined ride, punchier driving dynamics, and vastly superior infotainment system that won us over.

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