2021 Toyota Highlander
- Fall 2020
What to expect
- Legitimate suspension changes to improve handling
- Sportier appearance inside and out
- Part of the fourth Highlander generation introduced for 2020
What is it?
Over the last two decades, Toyota has largely abandoned the idea of sporty performance and driving engagement. More recently, the automaker's shown growing interest in these principles by collaborating with Subaru and BMW on the 86 and Supra, respectively. There have also been sportier versions of the sedate Camry and Avalon sedans. The latest to get the treatment is the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE, which debuted at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show.
This sporty new XSE model is a first in the Highlander's 20-year history and sits midway through the lineup, between the XLE and the Limited trims. Visually, the XSE sets itself apart from the rest of the Highlander lineup with its unique front fascia styling. The grille is inverted and the air inlets enlarged to suggest more performance. New side rocker panels make the XSE look as though it rides slightly lower, while black accents replace chrome trim for a more sinister look.
The same 295-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 resides under the hood, and shoppers can still choose between front- and all-wheel-drive. Thankfully, the Highlander XSE amounts to more than just some styling tweaks. The suspension gets an upgrade with a stiffer specification for the springs and rear stabilizer bar, the dampers are retuned for less friction, and steering effort is weighted slightly heavier. According to Toyota, the Highlander XSE retains its smooth ride quality despite the added handling performance.
On the inside, the XSE spices things up with a two-tone red and black color combination over upholstery composed of SofTex simulated leather and cloth. Carbon-fiber trim, red stitching and unique interior ambient lighting round out the touches inside.
Why does it matter?
Compared to most rivals in their respective classes, Toyota has garnered a reputation for making reliable, albeit bland, vehicles. The XSE trim for the Highlander, Camry and Avalon help to add some much-needed excitement. We're not convinced the XSE will improve driving dynamics in a meaningful way, but we're at least glad that it amounts to more than just cosmetic enhancements.
What does it compete with?
The midsize three-row SUV class is very competitive. It's currently led by the top-ranked Kia Telluride, the related Hyundai Palisade, the spacious Honda Pilot and the sporty Mazda CX-9. Our initial impressions of the Toyota Highlander keep it from vying for the top spot for a number of reasons, but we should have a clearer picture of how it stacks up against the rest of the competition once we fully evaluate one.
We like the Toyota Highlander for its comfort, interior refinement, potent V6 engine, and comprehensive list of safety features. This new sporty XSE trim might help boost the scores too. Unfortunately, the latest redesign doesn't make improvements that are significant enough to keep up with rivals.