|Cargo Space (cu.ft.)
If you're shopping for a three-row SUV, you need something that can handle anything and everything. There’s no room in your garage––or your budget––for a vehicle that just can’t get the job done. Two SUVs you can be certain will accomplish what you need from them are the Ford Explorer and the Toyota Highlander. They’re both excellent, well-tested vehicles with impressive track records. If you’re looking for something dependable and reliable, these two are the cream of the crop. But which will come out on top in a head-to-head matchup between the 2023 Ford Explorer vs 2023 Toyota Highlander? After all, as much as we’d love to have both, that’s unrealistic for most of us.
We give the 2023 Ford Explorer the victory here due to three key advantages. The first is that on the inside, the Explorer brings more to the table than the Highlander, with more comfortable seats and more flexible storage space. The second is the powertrain; the numbers on the Explorer’s side are just flat-out better, and it can tow 600 lbs more than the Highlander. Finally, while the closest matchup is how these SUVs perform when the going gets tough, we give the slight edge to the Explorer as well when it comes to driver-assist features. To us, it’s a clean sweep for the Ford Explorer.
Inside both the 2023 Toyota Highlander and the 2023 Ford Explorer is a host of technology to make your life as a driver more convenient and make every experience behind the wheel engaging and seamless. Even the seats themselves are working towards making your passengers love their time inside whichever SUV you choose.
Up front, there’s a tall 10.1-inch touchscreen that’s easy to use and comes standard on every trim. Higher trims add built-in navigation to compliment the standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility and include a 12.3-inch driver productivity display behind the steering wheel. The sound system can be upgraded from the base six-speaker setup to an available 14-speaker Bang and Olufsen sound system for an astonishingly clear concert-grade listening experience. There are also several configuration options for ambient lighting inside the cabin, so your road trips can have a little extra flair and color, even on dark nights.
You can bring along up to seven passengers, who will all enjoy the spacious interior of the Explorer. When you have fewer passengers with you, you can reconfigure the Explorer’s interior to fit your cargo. The available PowerFold third-row seats allow for smooth transitions between extra seating and extra trunk space. That way, you can prioritize passengers, luggage, or a mix of both on long trips. There are also additional cargo cubbies under the floor and on the sides of the trunk so that even when you’re transporting seven friends, you have enough space for all your things.
The Toyota Highlander is no slouch in this department, however. We love how, like the Explorer, you can enjoy fully digital dashboard gauges, making visibility no issue at all, no matter what the light level is like outside. The 2023 Highlander also comes with available Qi-compatible wireless charging for your smartphone; just stick your phone in the center console––no cables needed. The Highlander also has available heated and ventilated front seats so you can regulate the temperature inside to balance whatever is lurking outside. To top it all off, a beautiful panoramic moonroof gives your passengers the best view possible during your trips outdoors.
While both the 2023 Explorer and the 2023 Highlander have excellent interior offerings and share many features, we prefer the seats of the Ford Explorer. The Highlander offers an extra eighth seat, but it can become cramped, and Toyota's seats don’t have the massage capabilities found in the Explorer. That can make a world of difference on long road trips where your back or legs might otherwise stiffen up and cramp.
Even if you’re not an off-road enthusiast or a frequent track day participant, you still want an SUV with some serious horsepower under the hood for many reasons. Whether it's for emergencies, the occasional excursion off the beaten path, or just for extra speed and traction on the highway, your SUV’s engine should work for you however you need it to.
The 2023 Ford Explorer is a real workhorse, to say the least. There are two primary engine options: a 2.3L EcoBoost four-cylinder providing 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque and a 3.0L EcoBoost V6 with much more oomph, producing 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque. We recommend the 3.0L V6 engine for anyone looking for the ultimate power in a three-row SUV. In contrast, the 2023 Toyota Highlander’s main engine is a 2.4L turbocharged four-cylinder engine that only produces 265 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. All of these options are quite capable engines, but the Explorer simply has far more horsepower to bring to the table.
If you want to use your SUV to tow regularly or occasionally, the Explorer is even more of a clear victor. The 2023 Ford Explorer has a 600 lb advantage, with a maximum towing capacity of 5,600 lbs compared to 5,000 lbs for the 2023 Toyota Highlander. A 600 lb difference might not seem important, but there’s no denying that the Explorer can pull along more weight than the Highlander.
Part of the reason the Ford Explorer offers a higher towing capacity is that Ford provides its SUV with a 10-speed automatic transmission instead of the nine-speed gearbox in the Toyota Highlander. More gear ratios mean the vehicle can more easily put power to the ground and move heavy loads. Especially since the Ford transmission even comes with a Tow/Haul mode that adjusts transmission shift points when you have a trailer in tow.
An SUV is built to be more durable and reliable than the average car. Whether you’re taking it off-road or into thick traffic, you want to make sure it is up to the task. The driver-assist features and off-road capabilities of an SUV are more intertwined than you might think; both are designed to make sure the SUV continues to provide optimal performance even in unusual circumstances.
The Toyota Highlander has reassuring driver-assist systems in place to protect you during an accident but will also warn you of collisions and attempt to prevent them in the first place. The 2023 Highlander is able to detect a vehicle, pedestrian, or other obstruction in front of or behind it. In addition to providing both visual and audio warnings, the system can automatically apply the brakes in an emergency situation. There are more automatic features like Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist and Automatic High Beams that will help the Highlander adapt to your surroundings without you having to lift a finger.
The Ford Explorer counters with its own suite of driver-assist features. Ford’s Co-Pilot360 system includes a rearview backup camera and a Lane-Keeping System similar to that of the Highlander. The 2023 Explorer also has one of our favorite pieces of driver-assist technology: Active Park Assist 2.0. If you’re an anxious parallel parker, this is a great way to overcome a challenging parking spot. Your Explorer can do it all for you.
When going off-road or dealing with winter weather, the Ford Explorer has a Terrain Management System with modes like Trail, Deep Snow/Sand, Slippery, and more. The Highlander has its own Multi-Terrain Select system but only offers three modes to the Explorer's seven. There are also some other features unique to Ford. For instance, all models of the 2023 Explorer come equipped with Side-Wind Stabilization, giving it the handy ability to automatically adjust for crosswinds and reduce the amount of driver input needed on blustery days. If that isn’t performance under pressure, we’re not sure what is.