With the demand for midsize, three-row SUVs growing so fast, manufacturers are scrambling to distinguish their models. Some companies have rolled out genuine high-performance versions, like the Dodge Durango Hellcat SRT with 720 horsepower.
Toyota has chosen a more moderate approach for 2021 with the new XSE version of its popular Highlander. It features bolder exterior styling and suspension upgrades, while retaining the same version of the proven 3.5-liter V6 available in all other models.
The decision is a smart one. Most affordable SUV buyers don't want a hot rod, although better looks and handling are appreciated. That's why Dodge offers the GT version of the Durango with its base 3.6-liter V6. Both appeal to those who want a little extra without going over the top.
The 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE fits that bill perfectly. With its lower front air dam, 20-inch alloy wheels and other exterior trim pieces, it looks much sportier than other versions. It also handles better, thanks to suspension and steering tweaks. And with 295 horsepower, the V6 pulls strongly off the line, especially in the Sport mode.
But the ride is not too stiff over broken pavement. And, even in the Sport mode, the engine is not so strong that it is difficult to drive on crowded downtown streets. One reviewer called it a "sheep in wolf's clothing," but that's not fair. There's no fake hood scoop promising zero-to-60 times it doesn't deliver. And the Sport mode delivers more than reasonable performance for such a large vehicle.
Toyota has been building the Highlander midsize SUV since 2001, and has always been a top seller. Unlike some competitors, including the Durango, the Highlander has always been a car-like crossover that comes standard with front-wheel-drive, not a truck-based SUV that starts with rear-wheel-drive. All-wheel-drive has always been available and, although the Highlander is not intended for hardcore off-road driving, it features modes for mud, rocks and snow.
The Highlander was completely redesigned in 2020 and is now built on a more rigid platform, improving its ride and handling over previous versions. Toyota also redesigned the interior for more flexibility. It is now 2.36 inches longer than the outgoing model, and the extra space was used to give more room in the second and third rows while maintaining a healthy amount of cargo space under the rear hatch. The XSE package includes special interior trim and available red and black leather seats.
The 2021 Toyota Highlander begins at $35,088, and ranges up to a $47,240 starting price for the top-of-the-line Platinum model. There's also a Highlander Hybrid whose starting prices range from $38,735 and $48,690. All feature the Toyota Safety Sense safety system.This suite of advanced safety and driver assistance features includes full-speed adaptive cruise control and lane tracing assist, pre-collision automatic braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure control, road sign recognition, and automatic high beams.
Toyota first popularized the XSE trim level on the 2012-2017 Camry and it has been offered on several other models since then. Introducing it on the Highlander this year was a smart decision. Dodge is ending production of the Durango and other affordable manufacturers are beginning to offer sportier versions of their family-oriented SUVs. Buyers looking for a little more in a three-row crossover that don't want to compromise ride quality or continuously risk speeding tickets should check it out.
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
Base price: $35,088 (base L)
Price as tested: $47,152
Type: Midsize three-row SUV
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (295 hp, 263 lbs-ft)
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
EPA estimated mileage: 20/27
Overall length: 195 inches
Curb weight: 4,450 pounds
Final assembly: Princeton, Indiana
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