2023 Toyota Sequoia Capstone Review: Improved, overpriced
This new range-topping trim of the redesigned Sequoia is overpriced and lacks the outright luxury quality it aspires to
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
2023 Toyota Sequoia Capstone review with The Road Beat
Toyota finally did it, twice! Not only did they release an all-new Tundra pickup this past year, but they also replaced the aging Sequoia SUV. Both existing models had been in service since before the housing and financial crisis, which is to say a long time. For younger people to relate to just how vast that amount of time is, the previous generation had been on sale since before the MCU even existed; Think about that for a second and it ages the siblings dramatically. Needless to say, a redo was needed desperately and here we have the all-new Sequoia. Toyota would like to say that it’s improved in almost every way, and they'd be correct. However, that’s not good enough.
The Capstone is a new trim level for both Tundra and the closely-related Sequoia, now acting as the de facto top-of-the-line model; If you want the best, you choose Capstone, and it's been priced accordingly. Very accordingly. All Sequoias comes standard with Toyota's 3.4L twin-turbo V6 hybrid power unit, dubbed the iForce MAX (and emblazoned on the hood for all to see that you're a MAX kind of person). Whereas the Tundra can come with a nonhybrid 3.4L twin-turbo V6, all Sequoias are the hybrid MAX configuration. Numbers are impressive on the specification sheet, with horsepower rated at 414 along with a healthy 573 pounds-feet of torque. The reason for the downsizing from the old 5.7L V8 found in past iterations follows a familiar theme among new cars: as a quest to use less fuel while providing similar if not improved performance, allegedly.
Styling is brand new, and looks muscular and purposeful from the outside with a modern interior that brings the big three-row SUV into the correct decade. With revised electronics, the center display screen no longer has the graphics from a PlayStation 2, with sharp resolution and a large 14” touchscreen. It’s as big as ever, too, with three rows of seating and roomy second row of seats. If you need to tow, most models can haul about 9,000 pounds, too, which is highly impressive. The biggest criticism against the exterior styling is the ridiculous Sequoia badging on the rear. The letters are spaced so far apart, and in capitals, that it comes across more like an acronym. In person, the badge looks even larger and more outlandish somehow.
Now, this might all sound quite promising apart from that badge, but I’m not afraid to tell you how disappointed I was with the Sequoia Capstone after living with it for a week. There are positive aspects, but there are no areas where the Sequoia beats its competition and many attributes where it falls short. An improvement over the outgoing Sequoia, sure, but it hasn’t caught up all the way to the competition, and the Capstone itself is a hard sell considering the eye-watering $80,000 sticker price that makes no case for itself.
Though priced like a luxury item, there is little here that gives the impression and context of a premium product apart from some fancy leather seat covers. Why do I say this? It’s just not nice enough inside to justify the price. The leather is delightfully soft, and the dash has some nice padding to it, but that’s it. The steering wheel has sharp edges around the cheaply made plastics, the center console has a severely flimsy tray and has a release for it that not only is awkward to use, but it’s button also feels like it should be a switch on an easy-bake oven. The glovebox sags noticeably and will definitely be a source of future rattles, the leather-wrapped A-pillar handle to help you in has coarse stitching with sharp ends that are more akin of sinew, and lots of other parts are just cheap, scratchy plastic. Put simply, this is the interior of maybe a $60,000 SUV with some seat covers and a big screen, and there's no evident step up overall than a new and far cheaper Highlander Platinum even. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in rivals from GMC, and their Yukon Denali is notably more convincing of a luxurious environment and with a higher build-quality. Bleeding further, only the front doors have the touch-sensitive proximity access. This is known as the SmartKey on a Toyota, where, as long as the key is in your pocket or near you, you can simply grab the door handle to open it, or touch the marked indents to lock, never having to both fumbling with a physical key. However, the Sequoia has it only the front doors, which is a huge oversight and inconvenience. For example, to show why this is so disappointing, most all $40,000 crossovers, including Toyota’s own RAV4 in select trim levels, have this feature on all four doors. Did they actually forget to add it to the rear doors? Seriously, Toyota? Be sure to also investigate the photos of the the third row seats, which do not even come close to folding flat. This restricts crucial cargo space and might be a real concern for those that do big shopping hauls at certain supermarkets that sell in bulk. A Yukon has leagues more volume in the back and many rivals have had flat-folding third-row seats for over a decade.
I spent a few minutes looking at a Sequoia Limited recently, priced at a full $10,000 less, and there’s little to no difference in quality. The Limited might have faux leather seats, but they’re still quite nice; Upgrading to the Capstone does not seem worth it one bit. I wish I could say that at least the Sequoia was quiet and soothing, but I’d be lying because the normally very dependable Toyota build quality has let it down, too, with a loud whistling coming from the driver’s side window. Probably a bad seal, but come on, this is a Toyota here, a brand renowned for their quality and consistency. An LX600, another luxury SUV from their Lexus sister brand, suffered from a leaking and whistling sunroof when I tested it earlier last year. These are the only two vehicles I've tested in the past few years that have had whistling/air leaks, and they're two of the most expensive as well. There’s also the annoying implementation of a subscription-based navigation. If you want built-in navigation, that’ll be $12/month. I guess it could be worse, but seems like a slight when it’s a Toyota who seems to be taking more inspiration from BMW by the day.
The good news is the Sequoia Capstone is very well equipped with all the options you could want, including active safety systems, a panoramic sunroof and so on. There are power folding running boards, but they're at a awkward height and stick out too much as to just get in the way. I ended up turning them off after bashing my shin into one (something I also did with the Tundra Capstone). I also did enjoy the large flat shelf that makes up the top of the door panels. Awkward looking at first, it's wide enough and at the perfect height to make an unexpectedly great armrest for while driving.
At least the Sequoia drives mostly well, too, with the new frame providing accurate steering and decent handling and command for a big and heavy SUV in normal conditions and speeds.. No longer does the Sequoia feel like a lumbering geriatric in the corners, but now has some verve and honest composure to it when at a moderate pace. Upping the aggression induces a heavy case of the wallows, but that driving style isn't exactly applicable in a big SUV and how most will drive it. Though, you know what else has been improved recently? The GMC Yukon. I’m sorry if this is getting old, but while this is a far better driving and handling Sequoia than those of old, it’s still not as civilized as a Yukon when it comes to ride quality and outright cornering thanks to that model’s new independent rear suspension, which also bestows it with increased precious rear cargo volume and seat space to boot. The ride quality on the Sequoia is good at speed, but when at 20 MPH and below, it can be choppy and is not a fan of speedbumps; In a parking lot, the front suspension will gladly glide over a speedbump, but the live rear axle rear goes for a more pile-driver approach as it body slams it annoyingly.
You might be hoping the new motor is a win, but in the real world it comes up short. Even when driving smoothly and slowly, as if I had Charles III as my passenger, I averaged a dismal 16.5 MPG in the new Sequoia, failing to match its EPA estimate of 20 combined. This number is nigh-identical to that I achieve in the Tundra Capstone, too, but what’s so interesting (and bad) is the non-hybrid Tundra Limited I drove had averaged an extra 1 MPG over these two. The big Lexus LX600, which also has the same non-hybrid version, had averaged a comforting 20 MPG even. Basically, the hybrid powertrain component yields no gains in efficiency, and actually accounts for less MPG in practice.
So, what’s the point of engine downsizing and the hybrid again? Even with that towering torque figure, there was never moments of wow, with the 10-speed transmission too busy shuffling gears rather than trying to actually use that available torque and power afforded by the complex system. A great benefit of a hybrid is to help compensate for turbo lag, but it doesn't succeed. A good test and indicator of how the power unit and transmission work together is to drive at a steady speed of 50 MPH and do a passing test, that is, cruising in a high gear and spontaneously smashing the gas pedal to see how long it takes to react. In the new Sequoia, like the hybrid Tundra Capstone, there is a pause that lasts well over a full second before anything happens. Instead of the electric motor providing some instant thrust to keep things moving, you get next to nothing. It's not a slow SUV by any means, with 0-60 MPH taking 5.7 seconds when boostin' and goosin' the Sequoia from a standstill, but the lack of response when you need it negates the power that is hiding there somewhere. It’s such a bummer because I’ve driven hybridized and turbocharged sports cars, like the BMW i8, where this combo works to wonderful effect.
Perhaps the solution is to include a larger and more capable electric motor, as the electric unit here can only muster 48 horsepower; No wonder it does little to mask turbo lag as it's completely overwhelmed by the mass. Because the Sequoia weighs about 6,000 pounds, only one time did it ever leave a stop sign or stoplight in its automatically switching electric mode because basically anytime the throttle is pressed, the combustion engine is needed to make any kind of forward progress to move this mobile mountain. Spec sheets be damned, as no matter how impressive the numbers might sound, how it works in the real world is totally different. This would be a more affordable, simpler, and just better vehicle (possibly more efficient based on my Tundra tests) to have the hybrid system omitted.
I don’t want to dislike this car, because I’d much rather be happy than disappointed - Who doesn't want to be happy? Toyota has made great strides here in the Sequoia to bring it into the age of a new Administration, whilst a hybrid power unit could attract some buyers. Yet little of it works to make a case for itself, and though it is an improvement in lots of ways, the price for this Capstone is silly and rivals have moved on to another generation of refinement already. It seems then that the Sequoia is already on the backfoot and, after a week with one, does little to compel any prospects away from rivals SUVs. I think existing Sequoia/Toyota owners will be interested, but those considering other brands have few reasons to consider one.
If this was a value-laden prospect, meaning a top-line model that undercut key foes in price significantly enough, then it could be a different story. And in fact, the Sequoia Limited is definitely a more enticing prospect and more in line with a Yukon SLT. But, priced to match, this just doesn’t cut it for 80 grand. A Yukon Denali with some desirable options will cost more, same with a top-shelf Expedition or even an entry-level Escalade, but they're on another level of build and luxury, which is what you want when you're spending this many Benjamins. If you don't plan on ever towing anything, you might be better off in a Highlander Platinum even, which has a similar quality and isn't that far off in interior space. Let me mention another vehicle I haven't yet, that rules the roost for luxury big SUVs between $70,000 and $80,000: The Wagoneer. Never heard of it? Confused if it's a Jeep or not? Doesn't matter, just try one. The interior (especially on at least the series II) will make you a believer and is probably the best value right now among this class. If you want a Sequoia, then great, it's the best one yet, but do yourself a favor and at least skip the Capstone in favor of the Limited.
2023 Toyota Sequoia Capstone
As-tested price: $80,481
Pros: Modernized big Toyota SUV (finally)
Cons: Capstone comes at an unjustified price