2021 Toyota Highlander XSE First Test: A Sheep in Sporty Clothing
Three-row SUVs are becoming so popular, automakers are adding new flavors to satisfy customer’s wants. The 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE is one such example, its XSE spec offering buyers the sportiest-looking version of Toyota’s three-row SUV. And while the XSE shares the same V-6 engine as the rest of the Highlander lineup, Toyota says it tunes the suspension and steering to deliver a sportier and more dynamic drive.
Make no mistake, this is no Ford Explorer ST fighter. And don’t even consider lining the Toyota up against the 475-hp Dodge Durango SRT (let alone the 710-hp Durango SRT Hellcat). The ST and Durango SRT models are true performance SUVs, while the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE simply changes its styling, steering, and suspension tuning without losing its comfortable ride.
The XSE is priced between the luxury focused XLE and Limited in the Highlander’s lineup. Despite Toyota offering a hybrid engine in other XSE models (like the smaller RAV4 Prime), the Highlander XSE is only available with the 3.5-liter V-6. Front-wheel drive is standard, while all-wheel drive is optional.
We spent a few days driving the updated Highlander XSE, and we even took it to the track to compare its performance.
The XSE Is In It for the Looks
This is the first time in its 20-year history the Highlander has worn an XSE badge or even tried for a sporty vibe. Starting with the face, the XSE gets a unique fascia, grille, and lower spoiler, and combined with the black air intakes integrated into the bumper and the front spoiler, you can quickly tell this Highlander is different. As always, some people will likely be huge fans of the design changes, while others will not.
Our Celestial Silver Metallic test model highlighted the changes, including the blackened headlights. From the profile view, the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE gets 20-inch wheels with black accents that deliver a more athletic stance, and they match with the black mirror caps and black window frames. The sporty treatment continues in the rear with the first-ever dual exhaust tips on a Highlander. The black roof rails come standard, but the cargo cross bars that our model featured cost an extra $350.
All in all, the Highlander XSE looks more aggressive, and effectively ditches the softly upscale design of the rest of the Highlander lineup.
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE: The Cabin
Inside, the aesthetic changes are not as dramatic. The Highlander we tested came with black leatherette seats, but buyers can also choose red leather seats at no extra cost, which give the cabin an arguably hipper vibe. The only other change in the cabin is the addition of faux carbon-fiber trim that surrounds the 8.0-inch touchscreen. This design feature starts at the front passenger’s air vent near the A-pillar and continues all the way to the center of the dash, where it encompasses the entire area of the infotainment screen, center air vents, and climate controls.
While top Limited and Platinum models get a 12.0-inch screen, the XSE makes do with an 8.0-inch touchscreen. They’re all compatible with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa, and the smaller screen is easy to use and quick to master, thanks to the side buttons.
Every other design feature in the Highlander’s cabin stays in the XSE. We like the spacious and useable trays on the center stack and along the bottom of the dashboard, but we’re not huge fans of the center-console storage, which uses the wireless charger as a second lid that must be lifted in order to access the deep-ish compartment.
Like the Limited and Platinum trims, the 2021 Highlander XSE is only available as a seven-passenger SUV, which means buyers can’t get a bench seat for the second row. The captain’s chairs found there are comfortable, and there’s tons of legroom and headroom, but those travelling in the third row won’t have the same luck. Getting all the way into the back is a difficult task; whether you’re trying to squeeze in between the captain’s chairs or move the second-row seats forward, it’s a complicated process. And once you’re sitting in the third row, legroom is tight-tight-tight. As a guy who stands 6-foot 1, there’s no way I could travel in the third row except during an emergency; children will be more comfortable.
In terms of technology, the Highlander XSE comes with five USB ports and a wireless charger. The bad news is, none of those USB ports live near the third-row passengers; two of said ports are in the second row, while the other three are in the front center console; way-back passengers should bring along a long cord. We also wish the second-row ports were located higher and closer to the seats, as they’re near the floor on the center console. These issues are not exclusive to the XSE, and it’s something we’ve complained about in the past. While it’s understandable Toyota wasn’t going to make changes after one model year, we hope the expected mid-cycle refresh brings a better solution.
Does the Highlander XSE’s Sporty Setup Match the Sporty Looks?
Although things remain the same under the hood as in the rest of the Highlander lineup, 2021 XSE models get unique suspension and steering setups. Some of the changes Toyota engineers made to the suspension include expanding the anti-roll bar’s diameter by 1 mm, to 20 mm, and stiffening the spring rates by 18 percent.
During our drive on the freeway and city streets, it was hard to notice any big differences between the XSE and XLE. The last time we drove a Highlander was back in August during our SUV of the Year program, and we hope to soon get the XSE and an XLE at the same time for a back-to-back comparison.
But on its own, we have mixed feelings about the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE. The 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque from the 3.5-liter V-6 engine feel adequate for an SUV of this size, and the eight-speed automatic transmission plays a bit with the gears to maximize fuel efficiency, but shifts are smooth. To our surprise, the XSE was a tad quicker on the skidpad and dragstrip than the XLE or Platinum trims. It took 6.8 seconds for the XSE to reach 60 mph (compared to 7.2 and 7.4 seconds for the XLE and Platinum, respectively) and 26.8 seconds at 0.64 g in the figure-eight test (in comparison to 27.4 at 0.63 g, and 27.7 seconds at 0.61 g). The XSE and XLE use the same model tires, except the XSE comes with 20-inch rims instead of 18s.
On the road, the suspension dissipates impacts quickly, but it falls short of delivering a sporty or spirited feeling. We know the Highlander is no Supra, and Toyota still wants the XSE to deliver a comfortable ride overall—and it does—but it lacks the spicy feeling we hoped to experience. Sport mode makes the steering and throttle mapping a bit more energetic, but—again—it was hard to notice any differences compared to the regular Highlander.
In our handling tests, road test editor Chris Walton noted dive and roll during braking and cornering.
So, Is the Toyota Highlander XSE Worth It?
All in all, it was hard to notice any big differences with the XSE’s ride and steering, but it’s a comfortable three-row SUV that families will appreciate. For those who think the Highlander’s design is a bit conservative but still want the reliability, value, and safety the overall lineup provides, the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE offers a great alternative.
Starting at $42,680 for the front-wheel-drive XSE (all-wheel drive is optional), the sporty-looking Highlander gives buyers good bang for their buck. And with the 2021 Highlander adding Toyota Safety Sense 2.5 (an involved suite of active safety features), drivers may feel less stressed about their surroundings.
We look forward to driving the Highlander XSE and XLE back-to-back in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Pros
- Distinctive exterior styling
- Standard captain’s chairs
- Comfortable ride
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Cons
- Lack of sporty feel
- Cramped third row
- No USB ports for third row
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