2021 Toyota Highlander Problems and Top Complaints – Is Your Car A Lemon?

Fuel system and brake issues are among the top complaints received by the NHTSA from vehicle owners

Updated on Author: Brian Jones | Reviewer: Sergei Lemberg

The fourth-generation 2021 Toyota Highlander showcases a bold, distinctive design and aerodynamic efficiency. The automaker says it has been carefully crafted “to ensure a level of operating smoothness in all driving conditions, especially at everyday speeds.” But customers are finding some of the very same issues from the previous models, including a faulty fuel system and malfunctioning brakes. As a result, their experiences are less than smooth.

Click on other model year to view more problems: 2019   2020   2022

Most Common Problems

Introduced to the U.S. in 2001, the Toyota Highlander has been a favorite SUV for two decades. But it’s had ongoing problems as complaints to reliable sources, including Lemberg Law, reveal. Official complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that issues with the brakes and fuel/propulsion system are paramount, topping 47% of total.

Issues relating to the structure of the vehicle are also high in numbers. These include reports of sunroofs exploding that are listed as visibility, structure, and/or unknown or other problems. The other components and systems listed in complaints in order of volume include the engine, electrical system, tires, powertrain, forward collision-avoidance, lane departure, airbags, exterior lighting, back-over prevention, exterior lighting, seats and seat belts, steering, suspension, and wheels.

2021 Toyota Highlander Complaint Summary

Complaint CategoryNumber of Complaints
Service Brakes
Fuel/propulsion System
Unknown Or Other
Air Bags
Electrical System
Power Train
Vehicle Speed Control

Problems with the Powertrain

Lemberg Law has received numerous complaints from owners of the 2021 Highlander whose brakes are dangerously problematic. A primary issue is that the dual-stage braking system that shifts between hydraulic and regenerative brakes malfunctions.

Unnervingly, Toyota dealerships maintain that this is perfectly normal and not a cause of concern.

What NHTSA Complaints Say

An owner from Wisconsin states that “When slowing down with steady brake pressure, sometimes there is a short pause, 1-2 seconds where it feels like you just lost the brakes. Sometimes this happens when turning and braking too. It isn’t something I can recreate and Toyota opened a case, looked at the car, and said it is normal. (This is) not my 1st hybrid and this is not normal. This has happened many times over the last year and Toyota has looked at the brakes at least 3 or 4 times.”

A dealership in Texas told an owner the way the brakes work “is normal for hybrid cars.” The complaint states that at low and mid speeds (5-10 mph and 20-30 mph) it feels as if the brakes release after being applied. When they “let up it seems almost to accelerate the vehicle. So far we have been able to avoid a collision, but we are fearful that we may hit and injure someone as a pedestrian or in another vehicle. We have complained to Toyota twice now and had the car looked at. They can’t find anything wrong.”

An owner from Illinois states that it often feels as if the brakes don’t engage. “This causes the vehicle to surge forward like there are no brakes. Immediately you feel like the brakes failed, then you push them again, they work. It is very random with no reference to different speeds, inclines, never knowing when it may happen.”

There are many, many more complaints that follow the same theme. Some have experienced the problem more often than others, with an owner from Massachusetts saying it’s happened more than 20 times.

Another owner puts it succinctly: The “brakes temporarily fail at low speed when (the) regenerative brakes switch to hydraulic brakes.”

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Problems with the Fuel System

In previous years, the Highlander suffered from massive fuel pump failures, leaving customers furious. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like much has changed with the 2021 Toyota Highlander. A common scenario is that owners can’t fill their gas tanks, which means they get a much shorter range. But, like the brake malfunctions, many dealerships refuse to acknowledge there is a problem. Others shrug and say there simply isn’t a fix.

An owner from Connecticut states in an NHTSA complaint that it’s impossible to fill the 17+ gallon gas tank on the Highlander Hybrid. The tank takes 12-13 gallons at most and the gauge typically reads between ¾ and ⅞ full after filling up. “This issue has persisted since the vehicle was new. Multiple requests to the dealer to fix this problem are largely ignored with them telling me that they aren’t aware of any issues.”

An owner from Tennessee reports an inability to fill the fuel tank “due to poor venting in (the) gas tank, which could lead to spilled gas similar to overfill, causing a hazard. This vehicle has a 17.1 gallon fuel tank but we are only able to get 12-13 gallons upon fill-up at empty.” This owner has also experienced brake problems. “Both of these issues have been reported to our local Toyota dealership, with no resolution.”

After researching the problem, an owner from Texas states that this “is a very common issue among all owners of hybrid Highlanders, yet Toyota customer service won’t acknowledge this known and heavily reported issue.” Having bought the SUV because of its advertised 17.1-gallon tank size and range, he is seriously annoyed.

An owner from Maryland says the dealer acknowledged the problem but said there was “no repair available at this time.”

Exploding Sunroof Issues

A large number of 2021 Highlander owners have reported that the sunroofs of their vehicles have “spontaneously exploded.” 2020 model owners have had exactly the same problem. Dealership responses vary, with many saying they’ve heard of such a thing.

What Complaints Say

An owner from Maryland describes hearing “an extremely loud explosion” before discovering the panoramic sunroof had exploded. The dealership said “they’ve never heard of such a thing” but would ask the manufacturer if they could repair it under warranty. Toyota refused the request because they said the failure was caused by “outside influences.”

Another Maryland owner states that the moonroof “exploded on its own while parked. No alarm was set off and no objects were found inside the vehicle suggesting an impact. There was no debris around the car. There were no storms or the vehicle was not parked near trees or ball fields.” This dealer also denied knowledge of any similar issues and said it “must be from an impact” and wasn’t covered by warranty.

The wife of an owner from New Jersey was traveling at 65 mph when “she heard a loud abnormally horrific sound coming from the roof of the vehicle.” She pulled over and discovered the sunroof had spontaneously shattered. The dealer claimed the failure was due to “previous damage” and it wouldn’t be covered under warranty.

An owner from California was driving on the highway in August 2023 when “suddenly I heard a terrible sound like a shot. I thought that we were shot or had an accident. But the sunroof glass was broken.” There was no impact and the explosion was from the inside out, which is the pattern owners are reporting.

In keeping with this, a Florida dealer told an owner that failure was due to “pressure induced from the inside.”

Only one complaint states that the dealer confirmed “that the failure was not due to an impact to the sunroof.” The vehicle was repaired, but there is no indication whether Toyota allowed a warranty claim or not.

Think Your Highlander is a Lemon?

If your 2021 Toyota Highlander has recurring problems that affect your use of the SUV or its value, it may be a lemon. It may be a brake issue, a fuel-related problem, or an issue with the sunroof. It may be something completely different. Either way, Lemberg Law will assess your problem free of charge. The law makes Toyota  pay the legal fees for lemon law cases. And every year, auto manufacturers buy back, replace or pay cash settlements to thousands of ‘lemon’ owners. You might be one of them.

All you need to do is fill out a contact form or call our Helpline and we’ll see what we can do for you.

Brian Jones

About the Author:

Brian Jones spent more than 30 years working as an ASE Certified Master Tech and Parts Specialist at multiple dealerships. Brian has become an authority in the industry, traveling across the country to consult for car dealerships and contributing his expertise as a writer for several major automotive publications. In his spare time, Brian enjoys working on pickup trucks, muscle cars, Jeeps and anything related to motorsports.

See more posts from Brian Jones
  • Della R

    My 2021 Highlander Hybrid stalled out when I did a hard brake. Because they can not make it do this in their test drive, they are not taking this serious. They ran the tests and because it would not do a stall again. They do not want to pursue the problem. We did an internet research and found this was a known problem

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