I often like to refer to Toyota as a methodical giant in the automotive industry as they tend to make slow moves but those moves prove to give us some of the most reliable vehicles on the road today that serve as respected transportation appliances for a large portion of America. With that, the latest Toyota Highlander embodies a principle that hasn’t swayed far from its roots in giving families a reliable midsized crossover utility vehicle that can be had in many different flavors, including a sporty flavor in this week’s Highlander XSE AWD test vehicle.
The 2021 Toyota Highlander remains mostly unchanged for the model year except for the new XSE trim level which features a sport-tuned suspension system and a few add-ons to make it stand out a bit more than the rest of the vast trim lineup. The new Highlander XSE is a good choice for a new trim for those who enjoy being a little different – but I’m not so sure how different you can be in a Highlander considering they are still rather conservative on styling even in the sporty XSE trim level.
Powered by the same 3.5-liter V6 engine mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission, the new Highlander has a rather predictable power delivery making the best use of its 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. The Highlander XSE doesn’t add any additional power, but it does feature 20-inch wheels, a twin-tip exhaust, sport-tuned suspension, unique perforated leather seats with red accented colors and trim stitching throughout the cabin, and a unique sporty exterior appearance up front and out back with color-keyed rocker panels and chrome-finished lower trim. The unique differences of the Highlander XSE go the distance to make it a more attractive package for what is otherwise considered as “just another 3-row crossover” from a mainstream automaker. There’s a variety of drive modes to customize the all-wheel-drive system for challenging terrain, such as a mud/sand and rock/dirt, in addition to normal, sport, and eco drive modes, and a hill descent feature.
Ride quality from the sport-tuned suspension isn’t overly harsh. In fact, the ride is pretty good and seems to give you a better sense of stability out on the road over the other Highlander trim levels, especially when you select the optional all-wheel-drive system over the standard front-wheel-drive setup that tends to induce unwanted wheel spin. Still, the Highlander XSE never tricks you into thinking you’re driving something very sporty as it does feel rather numb for the steering feedback and it’s not exactly an athletic CUV as you tend to feel its heft and sometimes you must wind out the V6 to get things moving up to highway speeds.
The fuel economy is decent and surprisingly consistent, which is an area where the Highlander shines for its size. I saw a steady 26.1-mpg in mixed driving and was easily able to match the 21-mpg city and 29-mpg highway EPA estimates. Moreover, there is the availability of the Highlander Hybrid in a variety of trim levels that all get 36-mpg city and 35-mpg highway.
The interior accommodations are on par with mainstream crossovers in the Highlander XSE being a midsized 7-passenger 3-row crossover utility vehicle. The optional leather seats feature heated front seats but leave the second-row captain’s chairs without heating but provide a third climate zone for those rear passengers. The second-row seats have plentiful space with welcomed reclining and sliding adjustments. The third row is somewhat accommodating providing seating for three, but the space may be more desirable for three kids instead of adults. The cargo room behind the third row is also a bit shorter than I would like but folding down the third-row seatbacks opens a decent cargo space accessed from the handsfree power liftgate with an adjustable height.
There is a limited amount of soft-touch surfaces throughout the cabin and is otherwise rather plain-looking except for the accented red colors of the first and second-row seats along with the red-accented stitching. The controls and use of the infotainment system fed through the standard 8-inch touchscreen is straightforward. The new 2020 Highlander Platinum trim that I reviewed last year to introduce the newly redesigned model featured a few additional features, including a larger 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen that runs a different software interface. However, the unit found in my Highlander XSE test vehicle still includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration and several USB charging ports.
There’s a bevy of active safety features as part of Toyota’s latest Safety Sense system combining blind-spot monitors, rear cross-traffic alert with emergency braking, pre-collision alert and emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, and a full-speed dynamic radar cruise control system.
For its mainstream segment, the Toyota Highlander proves to be a respected competitor that falls directly in line with other new midsized three-row CUVs. Pricing starts at just $35,205 for the base Highlander L and can quickly climb to my Highlander XSE AWD’s price of $47,244 ($43,950 starting MSRP), which includes a delivery, processing, and handling fee of $1,175.