My Thoughts Exactly: 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE

The Pride Road Trip was one thing. Let’s talk about the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE that I drove for it. 

At the last Chicago Auto Show I attended in 2020, Toyota unveiled their sporty version of its three-row SUV. The Highlander XSE followed a trim level strategy for Toyota that would offer a “sports” lineup alongside its mainstream and luxury trim levels. If this sounds familiar, think Corolla, Camry, Avalon, and Sienna

The Highlander XSE adds a specific new front clip with a more rakish mesh upper grille and a larger lower grille that is integrated into the front spoiler. The aggressive exterior continues with sportier 20-inch alloy wheels and additional aerodynamic enhancements at the rear bumper. Most of the trim has been darkened, finishing up with a dual exhaust tips. 

I am pretty split about how I feel about the design of the Highlander XSE in contrast to the Hybrid Platinum I worked with last year. I understand the rationale for adding the XSE trim to the Highlander lineup, but I needed more exploration before I make any conclusions. 

That was when I stepped inside the Highlander XSE. The SofTex upholstered seats were in red. Red seats usually induce some excitement behind the wheel. Granted, they are comfortable overall offering some support up front. They were fine for the Pride Road Trip to La Crosse and back. 

You can adjust the second-row captain’s chairs for rake – inducing a lot of legroom, when pushed all the way back towards the third-row – and recline. The third row is easily accessible with the sliding mechanism on the side of the second-row seat’s cushion. Just make sure you pick the right lever. 

The analog-digital instrument cluster has a large customizable 7-inch information screen offering a lot of data for the driver. The steering wheel has a sporty thickness and everything pretty much falls in line with all other Highlanders in terms of controls and switchgear.

My XSE tester had an eight-inch screen with the Dynamic Navigation system. JBL provided 11 speakers of “premium” sound throughout the cabin.

Cargo space behind the third row is 16.1 cubic feet. You do extra protection with rubberized floor and seatbacks protecting all types of items placed in the cargo hold. Fold down the third row, and space will expand to 48.4 cubic feet of space. Once you drop the second and third rows of seats, there is a maximum of 84.3 cubic feet of cargo space with a mostly flat floor. 

Powering the Highlander XSE is the 295-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine with an 8-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. A solid driveline that exhibited smooth acceleration at highway speeds. It will hold its own while cruising, as well. In all, I averaged 22.5 MPG for fuel consumption. 

No matter where I drove the Highlander XSE, I found that the ride quality was good overall. This SUV did a good job absorbing everything along the way. Obviously, Toyota did not firm up the suspension set and beef up its driving dynamics overall. Therefore, I found that the handling tended towards the softer side. This is fine for a normal family mid-size three-row SUV. Perhaps I was expecting a bit more. After a while, I got used to it. Perhaps you will, too. 

The steering system is solid. It exhibited a good turning radius for a vehicle of its size, which is a good thing in my book. On-center feel felt on the soft side. A little flick on the drive mode toggle switch to Sport will help firm up the steering weight a bit. The brakes were pretty good. In comntrast to the Hybrid version I drove last year, the pedal feel was much more to my expectations. In turn, the Highlander XSE stopped very well in normal and panic situations. 

This 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE tester was priced at $46,528 as tested. The Highlander lineup starts off at $35,085 with various trim levels, two power sources, and a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. 

This Highlander XSE did the job of taking me to this year’s Pride Road Trip. It drove nicely along U.S. Highway 61 down towards La Crosse, and all the way back via U.S. Highway 52 via Rochester. You might say that the Highlander XSE was very suitable for the job. 

However, I must concentrate on the vehicle itself. And, why would anyone consider this particular Highlander trim?

This tester also showed me that Toyota was willing to expand its popular mid-size three-row SUV’s lineup to include something for practically everyone’s taste. If the XSE is what you’re looking for in a Highlander, perhaps a chat with your Toyota dealer is in order.

At its core, the Toyota Highlander is a fine mid-size three-row SUV. Add the sporty flair of the XSE, and you have a ride for the cool family. Or, the family that aspires to be cool. 

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Toyota Motor North America

All photos by Randy Stern

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