Toyota’s attractive, sensible, and well-made Highlander welcomed a new XSE trim for 2021, aiming to please drivers looking for some extra pizazz in their midsize SUV. It has sport-tuned suspension, 20-inch wheels, distinct exterior styling, and exclusive trim for the interior.
A substantial 3.5-liter V6 engine powers the Highlander XSE with 295 horsepower, 263 pound-feet of torque, and a seamless eight-speed automatic transmission as its partner. Front-wheel and all-wheel drive versions are available.
Seating for eight is provided in a three-row interior configuration gracing front and middle-row passengers with a lavish amount of room. Middle-row seats recline and slide backward and forward, providing comfort and versatility as well as easy access to the less opulent third row.
In seven-passenger setup, two captain’s chairs are used in place of a middle-row bench seat. The chairs are separated by a handy console with cupholders and other stowage locations.
As for cargo volume availability, you have 16 cubic feet of space behind the third row, 48.4 cubic feet with the third row folded, and 83.3 cubic feet behind the front row with middle seats also folded.
Stowage space for small items in the driver and front passenger area are plentiful, including horizontal trays creatively carved out of the lower dash, a large two-tiered bin in the center console, and wide door pockets.
Seats are trimmed with Toyota’s SofTex synthetic leather and have handsome fabric inserts. Ambient lighting and carbon-fiber finish for the instrument panel impart a luxury look.
Standard tech features on the XSE include an uncomplicated 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with premium audio, USB media port, 4 USB charge ports, Sirius XM satellite radio, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration, and a wireless cellphone charger.
A super-premium 1,200-watt JBL sound system with 11 speakers and navigation is available as an extra-cost option.
Highlander XSE’s structural upgrades deliver as promised to infuse sporty characteristics into the SUV’s behavior, without disturbing its comfortable ride.
Fuel economy ratings for a front-wheel drive XSE are 20 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, and 23 mpg combined. With AWD the numbers are 20/27/23 mpg.
Toyota offers the Highlander in a hybrid version with higher fuel economy ratings, but not in the XSE model. Available hybrid trims are LE, XLE, Limited and Platinum.
The XSE is slotted between Highlander’s XLE and Limited trims in the lineup, with 2022 pricing starting at $42,000 for a front-drive model and $43,900 for AWD.
2021 TOYOTA HIGHLANDER XSE AWD
Base price, including destination charge: $44,530
Price as driven: $47,152
Mary Lowry is a member of the Motor Press Guild and a member and past president of the Northwest Automotive Press Association. She lives in Snohomish County. Vehicles are provided by automotive manufacturers as a one-week loan for evaluation purposes only. Manufacturers do not control content of the reviews.