In a world that is being saturated with sport utility vehicles almost to the point of an invasion, it is pretty easy for a few to slip through the cracks. Sure, the big names and special editions get all the accolades — Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, Durango Hellcat, BMW X5, Mercedes G-Wagon, and even the venerable Ford Explorer are all clamoring for their share of the sales pie. But let us not forget some of the less race-ready, but far more practical examples of SUV that still provide a little sport to go along with all that utility. The 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE is just one such example.
Believe it or not, the Toyota Highlander is celebrating is twentieth birthday this year. Yup, we double checked too. In the realm of Toyota, the SUV poster children have been either the 4Runner for the more hardcore off-roaders, or the RAV4 which is much more city friendly. Even the limited edition FJ Cruiser has gotten quite a bit of notoriety in its brief production run. And though technically the Highlander should be thought of as the big brother of the Toyota SUV family, seen as how it is a true seven-passenger three-row hauler, it feels more like the middle child of the bunch, getting lost in the shuffle sometimes.
But the new XSE helps the Highlander stand out from the crowd just a bit better than any other trim. It is the sporty version, and though it is mostly cosmetic, we think it works. Starting with new 20-inch wheels, the Highlander looks a bit more dramatic. Add to that the black accents on those same wheels that also adorn the mirrors, window frames and you have a very serious looking SUV. The large dual grill setup looks less bombastic on the big SUV than it does on say, it’s platform relative, the Camry. The dual exhaust is a first for this model in its two decade run, and seem to complete the very understated, yet noticeably aggressive overall look the XSE brings to the table.
In terms of power, it becomes quickly apparent that the Toyota Highlander XSE is mostly for show, as the same corporate motor we see across the Toyota lineup makes its home in the Highlander. That engine is a 3.5-liter Atkinson-cycle DOHC V6 that pumps out a respectable 295-horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. That power is then routed through an 8-speed automatic transmission and then on to either just the front wheels (standard) or to all four corners (optional). In fairness, the Toyota engineers did give some mechanical upgrades — spring rates were raised almost 20 percent and the anti-roll bars were made much thicker. It is almost imperceptible to notice much difference in performance with the XSE versus the other trims, but it’s nice to know it’ there.
You won’t mistake the XSE for the aforementioned Hellcat, but for a big SUV that weighs in at 4,398 pounds (split 55/45% front/rear), it doesn’t embarrass itself either. 0-60 mph takes 6.8 seconds, while the quarter miles passes by in 15.4 seconds at 92.3 mph. Braking back down from 60-0 mph takes just 121 feet, and the XSE does manage an impressive 0.84g around the skidpad — probably due to those suspension tweaks and bigger wheels. Even out on the road, this big boy has a very tiny appetite, posting a wonderfully surprising 20/27/23 city/highway/combined MPG.
There is a bit of faux carbon-fiber trim inside, along with optional red leather seats that make the Highlander really look sportier, much in the way the A-Spec package has done for Acura’s MDX and RDX. An 8-inch touchscreen is the centerpiece of the infotainment center that is Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa friendly. There are also five USB ports littered around the cabin so everyone can stay preoccupied on those long rides home, while Toyota Safety Sense 2.5 offers up a litany of safety features to makes sure everyone gets home in tact.
With a base price of $42,680 the Toyota Highlander is, as you might expect from Toyota, a great value especially with the XSE trim. It is a functional, good-looking, seven passenger SUV that gets very respectable gas mileage and come with just about all the accoutrements you could ask for. So for its twentieth birthday, we are happy to see the Highlander stepping out and finally getting a little more of the spotlight it truly deserves.