Three-row SUVs are very popular these days since they provide tons of space and family appeal which is why Toyota is offering an XSE version for the first time. The big question is does it offer any sportiness that usually accompanies the XSE badge?

The short answer is kind of, only one engine option is available and that’s the same V-6 engine as the rest of the Highlander lineup. The sportiness is injected by a suspension and steering tune and some racy styling updates. The 3.5-liter V-6 makes 295 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque and is mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission.

But does it work?

In a word yes, since changing the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE’s styling, steering, and suspension tuning without losing its comfortable ride is a win-win for everyone. Let’s face it, it’s not competing with the Dodge Durango SRT so no one wants a super-stiff suspension set up that rattles your teeth followed by and a visit to a chiropractor.

Here the changes are more subtle, Toyota has simply expanded the anti-roll bar’s diameter by 1 mm, to 20 mm, and stiffened the spring rates by 18 percent, nothing earth-shattering here but as we find out later, it’s a very good drive.

From the outside the Highlander XSE looks the part, it’s definitely sporty looking in a first for a Highlander, twin tailpipes at the rear as well as a roof spoiler and black surrounds for the door mirrors and windows. At the front, the XSE gets a unique fascia, grille, and lower spoiler, as well as black air intakes integrated into the bumper and the front spoiler, it looks much more aggressive than the standard car.

The 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE also gets 20-inch wheels with black accents that look really cool and definitely help to fill out the fenders. On top black roof rails come standard, and on my tester included cargo crossbars that will cost you an additional $350.

How does it drive?

Well, it drives in a very similar manner to the other trim levels but it does feel a little sharper and controlled thanks to the updated suspension and those 20-inch wheels. The suspension controls the XSE well but it’s not a true sporty feeling which I don’t mind since it is supremely comfortable.

There’s enough shove from the V6 to enjoy some spirited driving, especially in Sport mode which makes the steering and throttle mapping a bit more energetic. At full chat, the exhaust sounds pretty good and the V6 never really sounds strained even when at max revs.

The suspension does a good job over the rough and ready roads we have here and it absorbs almost everything that gets thrown at it. This is a huge plus for overall passenger comfort. Floor the throttle and it picks up well despite being a tad short on torque and the 8-speed automatic does a great job of swapping cogs when it should.

There is a bit of suspension float but it remains composed and you can attack turns at decently high speeds without it feeling precarious. Apply the brakes and there is some dive as you would expect but surprisingly not as much body roll as I had expected.

Off-Road

Our XSE tester had AWD so of course, we headed out to see if we could find some mud, and lo and behold we did which is unusual in Southern California since it rarely rains. Obviously, we couldn’t test it on anything too steep or rugged since it was riding on 20-inch all-season tires so we set the dial to mud and sand and splashed around for a while. With all-terrain tires, there’s no doubt the Highlander could tackle tougher stuff.

Interior is mostly the same

Step inside and the interior matches the good-looking exterior. Overall interior quality is very good and you notice the smattering of faux carbon fiber that adds to the exterior sporty feeling. The Highlander’s cabin is attractive, well laid out, and reasonably luxurious in all the right places.

The XSE that we tested came with black leatherette seats but for no cost, you can have red leather seats, which is certainly what I would choose. You get a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat including power lumbar support and a 4-way power-adjustable front passenger seat.

The dashboard design is very stylish, with almost a floating look to it. The 12-inch infotainment touchscreen would be perfect on this car but is not available unless you get a Limited or Platinum model. Instead, the XSE has to make do with an 8.0-inch touchscreen. This is really one of the few gripes I have.

It does have Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa connectivity so that’s a plus. On the downside, the seemingly retrofitted wireless charger requires you to access the center console storage, by lifting up said charger to access the pretty good-sized compartment. I’m not sure why the charger couldn’t have been placed next to the USBs and 12-volt power supply in the front cubby in the center console.

Spacious Rear

The XSE only offers a seven-seat configuration so no bench seat for you, however, space is very generous, seats are comfortable and legroom is plentiful. Space in the 3rd row is good for kids or smaller adults and once laid flat the cargo capacity is a very generous 48.4 ft³ behind the second row and 84 cubic feet with all seats folded.

My XSE tester had a few options including the Premium JBL Audio ($1,680, All-Weather Floor Liners ($318), Door Edge Guards ($125), Rear bumper Cover ($69), Illuminated Door Sills ($299), Wheel Locks ($80) and Cargo Cross Bars ($350) taking the full price including destination to $47,451.

The Highlander XSE comes with Toyota’s standard Safety Sense 2.0 suite of driver’s aides, which include lane-departure warning and assist, adaptive cruise control, and forward-collision warning with automatic braking. My tester included Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and a fancy digital rear-view mirror.

Final Take

This was one car I really didn’t want to give back, just adding that little bit of sportiness has made this car really very good and I even like the color, Silver Metallica. The 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE does have some competition in the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride siblings as well as the Honda Pilot.

Don’t get confused and think that the XSE is a rival for an Explorer XT though because it isn’t, instead it’s a very comfortable and reliable way to get from A to B and have some fun doing it.

VIDEO REVIEW

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE AWD Numbers

BASE PRICE: $43,355
PRICE AS TESTED: $47,451
VEHICLE LAYOUT: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 7 passenger, 4-door SUV
ENGINE: 3.5 Liter Atkinson-cycle DOHC 24-valve V-6
POWER: 295 hp
TORQUE: 263 hp
TRANSMISSION: 8 speed automatic
0-60 MPH: 6.9 seconds
CURB WEIGHT: 4,400 lb
CARGO VOLUME: 16 ft³, 48.4 ft³, and 84.3ft³ with both rows folded
FUEL ECONOMY Combined/city/highway: 23/20/27 mpg
OUR OBSERVED: 15.9 mpg
PROS: Peppy performance, smooth and silky ride quality
CONS: No passenger seat height adjustment, needs 12-inch screen option.


Stay Connected

Join over 100,000 of your peers and receive our weekly newsletter which features the top trends, news and expert analysis to help keep you ahead of the curve