2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Review: Is This the Sweet Spot in the Highlander Lineup?

Is there such a thing as a sporty three-row crossover? Toyota thinks so because it has added a new member to its popular Highlander: the XSE. How do you know you’re looking at a Highlander XSE? The front fascia is way different from the standard model. Instead of looking like a Subaru Ascent, the Highlander XSE looks angry and in your face because it has a different lower front fascia with a mesh pattern grille. This time, the crossover’s appearance is now in line with the rest of the Toyota lineup thanks to the crossover’s fish-like maw.

Other changes included a sport-tuned suspension that promises tighter handling and 20-inch alloy wheels finished in black and silver. Luckily, ride comfort appears to have remained mostly intact even with the handling improvements. All XSE models also get dual exhaust tips to further give it a sporty flair. Under the hood is the same 3.5-liter V6 found in other non-electrified Highlander models. This engine makes 295 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque and is paired to an eight-speed automatic transmission. That means you won’t get any acceleration improvements versus other models using the same engine. You can also get the Highlander XSE with Toyota’s torque-vectoring AWD system if you need the extra traction for foul weather conditions. However, if you’d like the efficiency of the optional 243-hp hybrid powertrain, you may want to look elsewhere because the Highlander XSE is only available with the V6.

If you’re a tech lover or want a lot of creature comforts, the Highlander XSE will likely not be the trim for you because it’s not available with the cool gadgets found in the Limited and Platinum trims. That means you can’t get ventilated front seats, heated second-row seats, a head-up display, and the 12.3-inch touchscreen. The 11-speaker JBL audio system is available as a standalone option. If you’re after a two-tone black and red interior, though, the Highlander XSE is the only way to get it. So yeah, you can’t have your shockingly red interior with a high-end model. At least you still get all the practical features and the numerous storage cubbies that every Highlander has. That has to be worth something right? Right?!

Think of the Highlander XSE as the mid-level model with sporty looks and slightly tighter handling compared to its siblings. However, it’s not a full-blown performance model. This is mostly a cosmetic package with very mild tweaks to differentiate it. Yes, it handles better but keep in mind that the Highlander is still a family-oriented vehicle first. It’s not going to become a competitor to the Dodge Durango SRT or turn into a poor man’s Mercedes-AMG GLS 63 because its changes are not that extensive. If you’re looking for a tighter, more buttoned-down three-row crossover you now have another option beyond the Mazda CX-9, the standard-bearer in its class when it comes to sportiness.

Body Style: 4-door midsize crossover
Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6 — eight-speed automatic transmission
Output: 295 hp/263 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy Ratings: 20-21/27-29/23-24 mpg (city/highway/combined)
Seating: 7 to 8
0 to 60: 7.2 seconds
60 to 0: 118 feet
Cabin Noise: A; 71 dB

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