- A new turbocharged four-cylinder engine under the hood
- Part of the fourth Highlander generation introduced for 2020
Driven: 2023 Toyota Highlander Gets Loud in Its Transition to Turbo Power
The turbo-four improves drivability but makes the cabin noisier
What is the Highlander?
For 2023, Toyota's ultra-popular three-row Highlander SUV gets a new turbocharged engine to replace the V6 that has powered the Highlander since 2008. The 2023 Toyota Highlander will use the same 2.4-liter four-cylinder that drives the Lexus NX 350; it delivers strong acceleration in the Lexus, and we expect it to feel similarly stout under the hood of the Highlander. But the powertrain isn't the only new addition for the 2023 Highlander; a host of newly available features and tech upgrades are sprinkled throughout the lineup. Here's everything in store for the refreshed Highlander.
How does the Highlander drive?
The new turbocharged 2.4-liter engine produces 265 horsepower and 309 lb-ft of torque. Compare this against the old V6's 295 hp and 263 lb-ft, and you'll see that the turbo-four makes less horsepower but more torque. While Toyota hasn't quoted acceleration times yet, we expect that the 2023 Highlander's 0-60 mph time won't be too far off the previous model's 7.5-second run.
Don't expect fuel economy to be significantly different either — the new powertrain gets an estimated 24 mpg combined with all-wheel drive (25 mpg combined with front-wheel drive). That's the same number that the current FWD Highlander achieves. Toyota says that the four-cylinder's NOx and CO2 emissions are reduced versus the old V6, but don't expect to see big savings at the pump.
Much like this engine does in its Lexus counterparts, it feels more substantial than you'd expect a smaller four-cylinder engine to in a vehicle this large. Power delivery is very smooth at all speeds thanks to the additional torque. From a stop, while accelerating to highway speeds, or when performing passing maneuvers on the highway, the engine and eight-speed automatic transmission work in harmony to respond quickly to throttle inputs and get the SUV up speed easily. It's not a leap forward in performance over the V6, but it is an overall improvement — except in one area: noise.
Turbo-fours don't really make pleasant noises and this one is no exception. While the buzziness at speed that you'd get from a CVT is somewhat tamed, the cabin gets very noisy under acceleration when the engine hits around 3,000 rpm. And on downhill grades, the transmission likes to hold the revs a bit higher so you don't have to lean on the brakes (and with the adaptive cruise control activated) but unfortunately that triggers the engine to start to whine again. I had to turn up a podcast to be able to hear it in those instances.
Otherwise, the Highlander drives well enough. In our review of the 2022 Highlander we wrote that "the Highlander makes daily driving a low-effort activity" and that rings exactly true for the 2023 model as well. Having a bit less weight out over the front wheels makes the handling feel a touch more lively, but these improvements are incremental and enough to keep the Highlander slightly above average compared to the rest of the class.
How's the Highlander's interior?
Since the Highlander hasn't changed dimensionally, the 2023 Highlander should have as much passenger and cargo space as last year's model. That means plenty of headroom and legroom in the front and second rows for adults of most sizes. However, the Highlander's third row is really only suitable for kids. Rivals like the Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade and Volkswagen Atlas are far more spacious in both the third row and the cargo area.
How's the Highlander's tech?
Changes to the 2023 Highlander aren't limited to just the powertrain, however. The digital information display on the Limited and Platinum trim levels grows from 7 inches to 12.3 inches, matching the size of the central touchscreen on those trims. The 12.3-inch touchscreen is now optional on the midtier XLE and XSE, allowing more price-conscious shoppers to still receive the benefits of the upgraded infotainment system. Those models also get the hands-free liftgate that used to come standard on more expensive levels. Finally, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come to the Highlander and are included as standard equipment.
The wireless charging pad that's standard on the XLE and above is perfectly executed. Oftentimes these pads are put in spaces that could double as storage for other things, or below USB ports so if you have wires they get in the way. But in this application, it puts the phone right below the screen in an easy-to-reach spot that keeps the center console free for other items. And you don't have to reach into the center storage bin, which gets cumbersome over time.
The 2023 Highlander is improved over last year's model, with a smoother driving experience and better technology in the cabin. But if engine noise is something that bothers you, it could be a deal-breaker.