2021 Toyota Highlander XSE is a better-looking Highlander
The XSE trim is new, bringing much improved looks to the popular SUV. Full review and photos of the Toyota Highlander XSE by The Road Beat.
The XSE trim Highlander should not exist. Let me be more clear: Maybe, rather, it shouldn't have to exist, and that's because the core XSE values and differences should be standard on every Highlander. In its many generations of moving clumps of consumers from one place to the next in undramatic fashion, the Highlander has been the opposite of exciting. But, bringing a new, 'sporty' XSE trim option should quell that history, no? While it doesn't do anything for driving dynamics, this XSE is the best looking Highlander now available and ought to be the standard body on all Highlanders.
I don’t think the Highlander (even in this XSE trim) is the best looking mid-size SUV available right now; that right is reserved to the Mazda CX-9. However, I do think the main selling point of this XSE trim are the newly sharpened looks. From the wide mouth that forgoes the awkward silver band that ‘holds’ the Toyota logo in place on other Highlanders, plus black exterior trim and attractive wheels, the XSE benefits greatly from this newfound style.
XSE trim removed, the usual Highlander strengths remain, meaning a well-made and practical product designed to last a family for years and years. It’s incredibly well-equipped, even in its base form, with all the desired acronyms for safety systems. Its V6 engine is smooth and makes decent enough power up top when revved out and merging onto busy freeways while also netting impressive mileage for a vehicle of this class - I saw 23 MPG overall and 29 MPG on the highway. A Highlander Hybrid will increase that number substantially further to 33 MPG overall from my prior experience with one. From what I know, there isn’t an option to combine the XSE trim with the Hybrid model unfortunately.
Space is huge in the front and second rows for optimal comfort for those first four occupants. A third row is present, but is best reserved for emergencies or small children. I also found the front driver’s seat comfortable (these seats are not leather fyi) over the course of a 400-mile day, and also enjoyed the general quietness of the cabin. For those daring types, an option for a red interior is available. It’s very easy to command on the freeway, with the Highlander tracking arrow-straight and resisting any wandering along with a controlled and comfortable ride. Handling is competent without being fun nor engaging, but for sure has a breadth of capability that most casual drivers will never exceed.
I think what I dislike the most about the Highlander XSE is that there is no change to the fundamental driving experience; Those wanting a a Toyota family SUV with some added sriracha will be disappointed. I also don’t like that you can’t get the XSE paired with the much nicer luxury interior of the Limited and Platinum models. And it's not like this is a cheap model either, with the sticker being over 46 grand. That's a lot. I feel this package would be best served as an option rather than its own trim level so you can better mix and match, or just make this the standard body for every Highlander. In the middle of the cabin, the Toyota Entune center screen is hilariously outdated in looks/presentation. The larger unit in Limited/Platinums earns big ‘wow’ points in comparison.
The V6 engine, while not short on absolute power at 295 horsepower, lacks grunt and is paired to a nervous transmission. I like the fact that the transmission can be truly manually controlled with no kickdown override (like the maddening programming that neuters the TRD Camry), but it does expose how little (none) punch is available in taller gears. On flat freeway with eighth gear selected manually, putting your foot down results in…nothing. Downshift it to seventh and still…nothing. Using cruise control at just over 70, I regularly found the Highlander running seventh gear rather than its top gear, eighth, to maintain speed. Leave it as an automatic and bury your right foot, and then the power comes through as this V6 needs revs to labor. I’m all about naturally aspirated engines, but man would a turbocharged unit be welcome in this application and role. Mazda’s CX-9 Turbo isn’t much quicker overall in acceleration testing (6.5 vs 7.1 seconds 0-60 MPH), but the added flexibility is immense with usable horsepower available basically everywhere.
So, it’s no good then?
On the contrary, it’s an extremely well-rounded option in the SUV space. Owners will likely highly enjoy their ownership of a new Highlander like this XSE. There is a big ‘but,’ though. Competitors like that same Mazda CX-9 offer more performance and actually playful (sporting) handling characteristics that makes it more fun to drive. And the next level up, the Highlander Limited, bestows considerable more luxury and quality to the interior, albeit at a several thousand dollar price increase. The XSE doesn’t entirely represent the best of value when you consider the all-conquering Kia Telluride costs the same fully-loaded. If for sure choosing the Toyota, though, I would want a Highlander as a Limited for that lovely interior, but combined with the XSE’s looks, which is unfortunately incompatible. So, don’t buy the Highlander XSE because it’s a more sporty Highlander. Rather, buy it because you want the best looking Highlander right now.
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE V6 AWD
Price as-tested: $46,806
Pros: XSE trim brings a welcome aesthetic upgrade; space
Cons: 'Sporty' XSE drives no different; not luxurious enough for the price
Verdict: An oddball pick of the range with too much give and take