2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
We like the current Toyota Highlander. It is a very accommodating three-row SUV that bring families together. During these interesting times, we all need an escape together in a vehicle that accommodates you and your weekend bags.
However, Toyota has brought in a sporty addition to its Highlander lineup – the XSE model.
We first saw this at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show and wondered whether Toyota really needed a sporty Highlander. A year-and-a-half later, we had to know whether we were wrong about our initial thoughts on it.
The difference between a regular Highlander and the XSE is right in front of your face. The new front clip brings more three-dimensional design with the usual Toyota design cues. The grille is angled, flanked by equally angled LED headlamp units. Dominating the new front clip is a large lower grille, similar to what we have seen on the Sienna and the Camry. These elements showed us its sportiness right up front.
The rest of the Highlander XSE is shared with the rest of its lineup. That includes a sleek roofline with s sharp glass silhouette. The rear doors open wide for greater access to both the second and third row, as well as the wider liftgate making loading and uploading in the rear much easier. The 20-inch alloy wheels finish off the Highlander XSE’s overall exterior design.
Interior-wise, Toyota added red accents on the seats and throughout the cabin. Front- and second-row seats wear red-and-black SofTex upholstery to add to the boldness outside. They are comfortable overall with some support up front. The second row captain’s chairs can be adjusted for rake and recline with a lot of options for legroom. The third row is easily accessible with the sliding mechanism on the side of the second-row seat’s cushion.
The steering wheel is the right size and thickness, as was the gear lever. The instrument cluster has a large 7-inch information screen offering a lot of data for the driver. We liked the eight-inch screen with a Dynamic Navigation system where updates are done wirelessly.
Space behind the third row is just 16.1 cubic feet with rubberized floor and seatbacks protecting all types of items placed back there. Fold down the third row, and that space expands to 48.4 cubic feet of space behind the second row. If you drop the second and third rows of seats, you can stow a maximum of 84.3 cubic feet.
The only driveline available on the Highlander XSE is the 295-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine with an 8-speed automatic transmission. Our tester added all-wheel drive to this sporty model. Acceleration is smooth, as is this driveline at highway speeds. We like how it can change lanes and go up onramps with ease. As for fuel economy, we averaged 22.5 MPG.
The ride quality was good overall, absorbing everything along the way. While it is the sportier model, you can tell that the Highlander was engineered to keep families happy on the road. Handling is on the soft side, but the Highlander XSE felt controlled in evasive maneuvers. For a more secure feeling, our tester was equipped with Toyota’s driver assistance features keeping it safe and away from harm.
The steering system is solid, offering a good turning radius for a vehicle of its size. On-center feel tended to be on the soft side, yet it can be fixed by putting the Highlander XSE in Sport mode. The brakes worked quite well. Pedal feel is fine, and response to the wheels yielded good stops in normal and panic situations.
Pricing for the 2021 Toyota Highlander lineup starts at $35,085 for a front-drive L model with the V6. Our XSE AWD tester came with a sticker price of $46,528.
While the Toyota Highlander is competitive in its segment, there are only a few sporty models available that match with the XSE trim. Those models include the Chevrolet Traverse RS, Ford Explorer ST, and Dodge Durango GT, and Volkswagen Atlas SE or SEL R-Line. However, Highlander customers will continue to compare it with the Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Subaru Ascent, Nissan Pathfinder, Mazda CX-9, and Honda Pilot.
While the Toyota Highlander is a popular vehicle for families, as well as a strong contender in its class, the new XSE trim adds something special for the cool moms and dads out there. If you like the Highlander, check out the XSE model, too!
Story Credits: CarSoup Editors