Crusaders fly-half Dan Carter had an outstanding game, scoring 22 points which included a try after creating another.
The visitors outscored their hosts four tries to two, but all six were out of the top drawer with the Crusaders bagging the bonus point in the dying moments.
The results provisionally takes the Crusaders to fifth in the overall standings while the Highlanders are left rooted to the bottom of the table.
The Crusaders led 13-7 at the end of a closely-fought first half and the Highlanders were still in contention until Ma’a Nonu was shown a red card just before the hour mark.
A second-minute penalty from Carter opened the scoring but the Highlanders hit the front early on when Ben Smith crossed for the first try of the game thanks to an amazing offload from Tamati Ellison, who beat his man before brilliantly getting his pass away behind his back in the next tackle.
Colin Slade slotted the conversion to make it 7-3.
The Crusaders were unable to profit form a yellow card given to Jarrad Hoeata but regained the lead on the half-hour mark when Carter burst clear on a jinking solo run before offloading to George Whitelock, who crashed over.
Carter added the extras and a penalty on the stroke of half-time to give the Crusaders a six-point advantage at the interval
The visitors extended the lead soon after the restart when Tom Marshall sliced through the Highlanders defence to set up a try for Andy Ellis. Carter’s extras took the score to 20-7 which probably wasn’t a fair reflection of the game, but paid testament to their ability to cash in on their chances.
A fantastic try for 100-cap man Hosea Gear, who somehow managed to avoid the touchline to find the corner, got the hosts back in contention. But those hopes were extinguished just two minutes later as Nonu was sent off for a tip tackle on Marshall.
Carter split the uprights to give the Crusaders an 11-point lead going into the final quarter but Corey Flynn threw the Highlanders a life-line when he copped a yellow card for a reckless high tackle on Aaron Smith.
Carter added a penalty to give his side some breathing room before sealing the result with a solo try thanks to a clever step inside to exploit the channel left open by Nonu’s absence. The fly-half added the conversion to take the score out to 33-12.
Telusa Veainu secured the bonus point in the last minute, breaking from his own 22 – from Carter’s pass – before leaving Gear for dead and sprinting home.