What Is It?
Since its debut 20 years ago, the midsize Highlander crossover has become one of Toyota’s top-selling models behind the RAV4, Corolla and Camry in the automaker’s lineup. For 2021 Toyota adds the Highlander XSE as a sporty variation positioned between the XLE and Limited trims. The new XSE has a standard V6 engine, sport-tuned suspension, 20-inch wheels and unique exterior styling. With unibody construction and four-wheel independent suspension delivering carlike ride and handling, the 2021 Toyota Highlander persists as one of the best-selling SUVs in America.
In August Toyota provided us with a 2021 Highlander XSE V6 AWD to drive while in California for the Monterey Motoring Week leading up to the 2021 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Our test vehicle was finished in Magnetic Gray metallic with a SofTex-trimmed interior and 7-passenger seating. At a base MSRP of $43,355 the test vehicle also included Premium Audio with JBL, all-weather floormats and a few other options for a total price as tested of $46,802 including a delivery, processing and handling fee of $1,175.
When Toyota redesigned Highlander for the 2020 model year, designers updated the exterior styling with a bolder look than the outgoing model. Those tweaks include a raised hood, wider fenders, a black grille and standard LED headlights on all trim levels. The front fascia is more aggressive, the side mirrors are repositioned to the doors from the A-pillars for better visibility and aerodynamics, while the bodysides feature more expressive character lines.
For 2021 the Highlander XSE has the model’s revised front fascia, a restyled grille and a larger lower air intake that integrates with the bumper and spoiler below. The XSE headlights feature black accents and light-strip DRLs. Machine-faced 20-inch wheels with black accents are standard as well as unique rocker panels, black roof rails, black mirror caps and black window moldings. At the rear is the first-ever twin-tip exhaust on a Highlander.
The Highlander interior also received an update for 2020, and the new XSE adds some sporty flair inside as well. The new design focuses on adding soft-touch materials and more convenience, featuring a multimedia touchscreen and HVAC controls in a large center stack that hovers in front of the dash as if held by an arm extended from the passenger side of the cabin. The lower portion of the split dash incorporates storage areas above the center console and in front of the passenger.
Highlander XSE Interior
Inside, the sporty new Highlander XSE features black SofTex-trimmed seats with fabric inserts, ambient lighting and carbon-fiber finish trim on the instrument panel. Our test vehicle did not have this option, although the Highlander XSE offers a two-tone red and black leather-trimmed interior with red stitching on the instrument panel. The tester did include the 1200-watt premium audio with an 11-speaker JBL sound system.
Under the Hood
The 2021 Highlander XSE is powered by a V6 gasoline engine that produces 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, combined with a Direct Shift 8-speed automatic transmission. Highlander XSE is offered with front-wheel drive, although our test vehicle came equipped with dynamic torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, which was previously available on Highlander Limited and Platinum trims.
Highlander XSE AWD
Dynamic torque-vectoring AWD is a sophisticated system that distributes torque between the front and rear axles, but also manages torque distribution between the rear wheels for improved performance. The system doesn’t wait for wheelslip to transfer torque, but utilizes information from the AWD integrated management system to optimize handling for road conditions. When AWD is not needed, such as during steady-speed highway driving, the driveline to the rear wheels disconnects for more efficiency. When AWD is needed again, the driveline instantly reconnects.
In addition to the sporty design elements and the standard V6 engine, Highlander XSE also features sport-tuned suspension with stiffer springs, a larger rear stabilizer bar and retuned shocks. The electric power steering has also been recalibrated for a sportier steering demeanor.
On the Road
We drove the 2021 Highlander XSE from San Jose to Monterey and all over the Monterey Peninsula during the Monterey Motoring Week. The new XSE definitely has a sportier look with the revised front fascia, 20-inch wheels and black trim, and it is more engaging to drive compared to other Highlanders we drove in 2020 when the new generation launched. When we first drove the 2020 Highlander we described it as comfortable and quiet, intended for a driver seeking a vehicle that is predictable, safe and easy to drive — not an enthusiast driver.
The Highlander XSE certainly turns things up a notch, and it is definitely a sportier version when compared with other trim levels thanks to the revised suspension, more precise steering and V6 power. Without a direct comparison to other versions, it’s difficult to discern a lot of difference, but the Highlander XSE functioned admirably as a support vehicle for our week in Monterey. With the third row folded, the Highlander has plenty of room for luggage, photo and video gear to cover five days of events.
Comfortable and Quiet
As with other Highlander versions, the XSE is comfortable and quiet on the road, and the recalibrated steering and suspension do give it a bit of brio. The torque-vectoring AWD and 20-inch wheels add confidence as well; discerning drivers can feel power going to the outside rear wheel when powering through a corner, although most drivers may not even notice the difference.
Right for You?
The 2021 Toyota Highlander continues to be what it has always been — a comfortable, safe, conservative vehicle that drives more like a car than a truck, although the 2021 Highlander XSE does add a sporty option. The exterior updates, interior styling and suspension revisions contribute to a vehicle more appealing to enthusiast drivers. Looking for comfort with a sporty flair? Highlander XSE could fit the bill.
Pros: Top-selling midsize crossover; XSE sport version now offered; V6 power; sophisticated AWD.
Cons: Not as engaging as we hoped; still more comfort than enthusiast.
Bottom Line: Toyota continues the Highlander formula with a sport version — more engaging yet still comfortable and easy to drive.
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