Road Test: 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE AWD

We’ve always been fans of the Highlander. It has the tech, utility, ride quality, and value proposition that make it one of the most useful crossovers on the market.

For 2021, it looks and drives even better thanks to a new XSE trim. It’s no Supra, but it makes the Highlander much more appealing. After a week behind the wheel of our tester, with quite a bit of highway driving, we got a much better feel for it than most other vehicles we evaluate.

Exterior

To make the XSE grade, Highlander received a bumper-to-bumper style makeover. The front fascia, grille, and lower spoiler are exclusive to this model and impart a more aggressive stance. The restyled upper grille joins a much larger lower air intake integrated into the new bumper, with a spoiler below that. The LED headlamps are unique to the XSE and feature black accents and light-strip DRLs.

The headlights offer superior illumination at night, with broad and intense light distribution. The auto-high beams are a boon to anyone who doesn’t enjoy the exercise of flicking the lever on and off hundreds of times on a long drive.

Finishing off the XSE upgrades are sportier rocker panels which add an edgy accent to the Highlander’s sculpted lines. At the rear are the first-ever twin-tip exhaust on a Highlander. Black roof rails, mirror caps, and window moldings dial up the subtle cool factor.

Interior

Inside, the Highlander XSE is like no Highlander before it. We’re talking bright red leather with black accents, something you see in sports cars costing hundreds of thousands and as of late, the Camry.

Carbon fiber trim rounds out the sporty feel while ambient lighting sets the mood at night.

The seats are incredibly comfortable and the elbow room is endless. Our passenger had to work on a laptop using the WiFi hotspot and the room made is especially easy. We really understand why people prefer larger crossovers for long trips!

Space and comfort aside, the number of cubbies and storage spaces, charging ports, and soft touch surfaces really impressed us. The center console, while sliding to reveal a huge storage space, has buttery cushioning.

Second row captains chairs are comfortable and spacious, and the third row was amazingly roomy as well.

Powertrain

The 295-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is the epitome of smoothness. Its Toyota-innovated D-4S Injection system combines direct fuel injection with port fuel injectors to help optimize efficiency, power and emissions in all conditions. Dual Variable Valve Timing with intelligence likewise helps ensure ideal response and efficiency at all engine speeds.

That translates into 295 horsepower and 263 lb.-ft. of torque, which further translates into exemplary everyday performance and generous towing capability. The 8-speed automatic transmission maximizes Highlander’s acceleration and highway merging capability while operating seamlessly and transparently. We had all the confidence in the world on our long highway trip, passing when needed.

The available towing package enables a 5,000-pound towing capacity. The package includes a heavy-duty radiator with engine oil cooler. Trailer Sway Control (TSC) uses the Vehicle Stability Control to help control unwanted trailer movement.

Highlander’s standard Stop and Start Engine System allows the engine to shut off when the vehicle comes to a complete stop, and then instantly restarts when the driver’s foot lifts from the brake pedal. This technology helps reduce fuel consumption and cuts emissions, and we found it works perfectly each and every time.

Infotainment

All grades come standard with Apple Car Play, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa compatibility, SiriusXM All Access and Wi-Fi connectivity. Car Play was intuitive and looked great on the large screen, with full touch controls while driving.

Toyota Safety Connect telematics services are included too with a one-year trial.

The JBL Premium Audio System on our XSE rocks music of all genres with 1,200 watts of power playing through 11 speakers in nine locations. Clari-Fi technology breathes life into compressed digital music formats with the result like a mobile concert. The system will not, however, settle arguments over which music to play.

Safety

Safety remains a top priority for Highlander, regardless of who’s inside. 

For 2021, the Toyota Highlander is upgraded with standard  Toyota Safety Sense (TSS 2.5+), a comprehensive suite of active safety systems that includes pre-collision System with Pedestrian Detection with enhanced intersection support, emergency steering assist, road sign assist, full speed dynamic radar cruise control, and lane departure alert with steering assist, lane tracing assist, and sway warning.

We found the radar cruise system worked well on the highway and even around town, with the steering assist especially effective. We’re so happy that it’s standard on the Highlander.

Summary

Starting at $41,405 for the FWD variant, the Highlander XSE combines a much bolder exterior with more agile driving reflexes. We found the magnetic gray metallic paint to compliment the beautiful red leather interior, and it wowed all who saw it.

Summary Scorecard (1-10)
Ride and Handling9
Braking9
Powertrain and Fuel Economy9
Noise8
Headlights10
Interior Fit and Finish9
Seating9
Visibility8
Gauges and Controls10
Infotainment10
Crash-Avoidance10
Total Score92

Make: Toyota
Model: Highlander
Trim Level: XSE
Engine: 3.5L V6
Transmission: 8-Speed Automatic
Options: JBL audio

Base Price: $43,455
As-Tested Price: $46,310

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