2023 Toyota Highlander turbo review: the Hybrid is better
The Highlander now comes with a 2.4L turbocharged four-cylinder, and it's not the best Highlander out there
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
2023 Toyota Highlander 2.4 review with The Road Beat
What is it?
The Toyota Highlander, a three-row SUV aimed at the masses, and costs $50,210 as equipped for this higher-reaching Limited AWD model. The big development is the venerable 3.5L V6 having been thrown out in favor of a 2.4L turbocharged inline-four. Following the Tundra and Sequoia pickup, it's another modern Toyota to receive downsizing and turbocharging, such is the current trend in vehicles on a global scale. Horsepower might be down, but efficiency should be up, in theory at least. After being available for three years now, how does the Highlander hold up on the whole and with its brand new engine?
What's it like?
The Highlander is one of those ubiqutious certainties in the world, and one usually made from mundanity. But, there's a little excitement to be had here because of the introduction of the Cypress paint foliage shown here, as well as a turbo engine. Turbo you heard? Yeah, this thing's got a turbo. Best not to mistake this for a Supra with a 2JZ GTE, as it's not that kind of turbocharged rocket. Compared to the enduring naturally aspirated V6, this new engine loses two cylinders as part of the downsizing process, but adds a turbocharging to gain back some grunt. With two fewer combustion chambers, though, 30 total horsepower are sacrificed with this new mill, which disappoints on paper. On that contrary, torque is up by almost 50 pounds-feet, and that should inject some improved everyday drivability.
On the stopwatch, the new turbo does lag behind the old V6 version, needing a full second extra during 0-60 MPH sprints, clocked now at eight seconds. When pressed and squeezed, the four-banger also emits noises that are not as pleasant nor as smooth as its V6 forefather, but this is at least somewhat further refined than the trash compactors fours in other Toyotas and from many other makes. Midrange performance sees a nice bump, however, which makes for easier driving and accelerating in normal conditions. The net result is one that functions better in the real world, because how often are you wringing your Highlander out to the redline? Still, I miss the velvety and dependable V6.
Where the real misfire lies is in a lack of significant fuel economy improvement. Despite displacing over a whole liter less, and pumping two less pistons, my MPG over a week was a soft 23, only a solitary one higher than I last experienced in a V6 Highlander Platinum three years ago. In theory, downsizing is supposed to use less gasoline, but this is another example where it fails to convert, making for what is also likely a more expensive - not to mention more complex - engine that yields few worthwhile dividends. A reason for a lack of gains can be simplified in that the small little engine is just having to work too hard to motivate a vehicle of this size. Forced induction can be thought as artificial displacement, and when the engine is asked to work and produce power, it's shoving in extra air with fuel to match because of a need to maintain fuel/air mixture ratios. For a 2.4L, this new motor is just frankly too weak to deal; I'd rather have the old V6 instead.
Here's a top tip If you want a new Highlander, skip this model with the new 2.4L and go for the Hybrid instead. The Hybrid is barely any slower, is also a four-cylinder, but can average an amazing 32 MPG when I previously tested a Hybrid Platinum. End of review? I'll keep going, as it applies to other Highlanders, too, like the Hybrid.
Inside there's a well-garnished cabin that has aged well, but perhaps comes up a little short against a Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade when it comes to overall quality and packaging, not to mention the luxurious, but pinched-for-space Mazda CX-9. Still, this is a nice car, with comfortable chairs, a pretty and big screen in the center that is easy enough to learn (even if the volume knob is waaayy over in right field stupidly), and has all the features you could think of wanting in a new vehicle. There's also a really nifty storage shelf for wirelessly charging your phone below the HVAC controls. I actually would say this interior is basically on par with the vastly expensive and disappointing Sequoia Capstone I tested recently in terms of luxury and raw materials used and definitely has fewer flimsy elements. Space in the Highlander's first two rows is abundant, with room and hospitality that can last for hours with ease. The third-row is a different story, with that best left for emergencies, but they do fold flat to get out of your way to take advantage of the big cargo space at the stern (a Sequoia cannot fold flat lol). If you want the most convenience and interior volume, nothing beats a minivan like the Sienna, which has a third row that I endured for eight hours with only minor complaints on a trip to Joshua Tree last month. Yeah, it's a minivan, but it can't be bettered for maximizing interior capacity.
Back to the Highlander, I do find this SUV to be one of the best driving new Toyotas, with good steering that is helped by the finely leather-wrapped wheel that provides perfect thickness and placement in your hands. The Highlander responds well to inputs, following your command as you go, and even has some surprising perkiness when you're in a hurry on some back roads; No new benchmarks are set for the class, but the current iteration does shame prior Highlanders. The ride quality can be choppy over uneven surfaces, but works most of the time to keep you and occupants in order. Contributing to overall comfort is reasonably low wind noise that makes for a soothing environment during morning rush hour. For the record, Mazda still reigns supreme for handling and dynamics with the fab CX-9. It might be on the thirstier side, but if you like driving, it's a beauty that has a portfolio of talents.
I like new Highlanders for the most part, as they drive nice enough and the interiors are pretty good on the Limited and Platinum models, but my biggest takeaway here is that you'd be mad to not choose the Hybrid model instead for an additional $1,500. With performance that's close enough, 50% better MPG is an increase that cannot be ignored and makes for a huge talking point when compared to any rival. While I prefer the Telluride and Mazda CX-9 overall for being more enjoyable vehicles to drive and be in, they're thirsty by comparison, which might be the deciding factor for many prospective buyers. Depending what your priorities are, the gas savings of the Hybrid might swing a Highlander as your choice. What must also be considered here are the rising prices of Highlanders and other vehicles in this class: This Limited model costs a whopping $50,210, and that seems like a lot for an everyday Toyota family-hauler. You'd be right to think so, but then again, all breach 50-large as well when equipped to match.
What can't be denied, though, is that this is maybe the worst Highlander currently available now, simply due to the presence of the superior Hybrid variant. The interesting green certainly helps the Highlander, but it's still not an attractive vehicle from the outside with its wayward and haphazard styling and proportions. At least it does have nice interior furnishings and drives among the best Toyotas ever. It's a safe choice that makes for few surprises, but perhaps the only surprise is by how much the Hybrid wins over this model, and at just the slight price premium of about $1,500. In fact, unless it's due to production and battery supply limitations, I'm not sure why the Highlander Hybrid isn't the only Highlander to choose from.
2023 Toyota Highlander 2.4L Limited
As-tested price: $50,210
Pros: Solid and spacious transportation; cool green paint
Cons: Negligible MPG gains from new engine; the Hybrid is better