The Toyota Highlander is emblematic of the slow, methodical evolution of the Japanese automaker’s product line in the United States.
Having started out selling rather tinny small cars more than 50 year ago, it now sells large, substantial utility vehicles of which the Highlander is one of the most important and one of the most popular.
Overview: A Week With The 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE AWD
The 2021 Toyota Highlander is not flashy vehicle by any means, but as a midsized SUV with three rows of seats it offers the stability and versatility Americans demand in a family-oriented vehicles. It can be used for daily commuting as well as long trips or car-pooling for school and sports.
It also has plenty of room for ferrying cargo and the Highlander also is equipped with range of features enabling connectivity and entertainment as well as driver assistance technologies to help extend the senses of a drivers, who may not even know they have been distracted.
Toyota is easy to criticize for vehicle designs and the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE would seem to fit into nicely into the boring category, with its basic two-box shape. While the design of the exterior of the 2021 Highlander is certainly utilitarian, it is well executed, starting with the front fascia and grille.
The exterior is dressed up by the fixtures for the LED lights in the front and rear, the distinctive 20-inch wheels and rear lift gate, which can be raised with key fob. Overall, the Highlander is just unique enough to separate it from vehicles in the same segment, plus it offers a commanding presence whether sitting in driveway or out and about in traffic.
The one thing the 2021 Toyota Highland XSE offers is interior space — it has plenty. It’s easy to get into and out of the driver’s seat and the cockpit is comfortable on longer drives. While the cabin is not furnished lavishly by any means, the materials are of good quality and layout and overall design is very effective and quite efficient even if it rather plain. The controls are within easy reach even though the vehicle is rather wide.
The interior lighting scheme for nighttime driving also is very nicely done. The second-row seats, the prime space for passengers, also is roomy, but the third row seems rather cramped for all but the smallest children. Those third-row seats fold flat to produce a spacious area for carrying cargo, luggage or sporting gear.
The cabin is also outfitted with plenty of cubby holes for storage and the center console could be used to balance a top for taking notes or answering e-mail. Visibility from the driver’s seat and the gauge cluster behind the steering wheel carries a lot of information while the vehicle’s sound system also is very good.
The 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE is equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, an 8-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive with torque vectoring. The powertrain is capable of producing 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque.
The combined fuel economy rating from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 23 miles per gallon combined, which includes 20 mpg in the city and 27 on the highway is pretty much standard for vehicles in this class but the I found the vehicle has a long range and the hybrid version of the Highlander is certainly an option for long distance commuter concerned about fuel costs.
Safety and Technology
The Highlander is equipped with Toyota Safety Sense with pedestrian protection, eight separate airbags for frontal- and side-impact collisions as well as driver assistance features such as blind-spot and lane-departure alerts and rear-facing back up camera.
The 2021 Highlander also is equipped with satellite radio, a JBL Premium sound system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as Bluetooth with hands-free connection, wireless charging and USB ports and intermittent windshield wiper and steering wheel controls.
I found the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE delivered a comfortable ride over varied road surfaces. It also was easy to drive in rush hour traffic and had a very quiet cabin, easing the stress of sitting behind the wheel during a long commute.
The driving dynamics in the Highlander were very solid and the suspension was one of the vehicle’s best features. The steering and the brakes were very good. I also found the 2021 Toyota Highlander had ample power for passing on freeways and reacted quickly when more power as needed.
The shifts, even the downshifts, by the 8-speed transmission were practically invisible — clearly well calibrated or programmed for an urban-suburban driving and road conditions. All in all, it was a pleasant vehicle to drive and handle.
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE AWD specifications:
|L: 194.9 inches/W: 68.1 inches/H: 76 inches/Wheelbase: 112.2 inches
|3.5-liter DOHC V-6 engine; 8-speed automatic transmission w/AWD
|20 mpg city/27 mpg highway/23 mpg combined
|295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque
|Base price: $41,405; As tested: $46,988 including $1,175 destination charge
Toyota has built the Highlander for more than two decades, and anyone purchasing the vehicle gets the benefit of the accumulated knowledge of the company’s engineers, which in a company like Toyota is considerable. The accumulated knowledge produces a solid dependable vehicle with plenty of versatility.
Generally speaking, it is also built to last. Buyers pay for the accumulated knowledge since the 2021 Highlander is hardly a modestly priced vehicle. The price for the Highlander I drove at nearly $49,000 and pushed well into territory once reserved for luxury vehicles.
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE AWD — Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Toyota Highlander XSE package?
New to the line-up for 2021, the XSE trim sits just ahead of the XLE — and offers sporty interior and exterior upgrades like SofTex-trimmed/leather-trimmed front- and second-row seats, an aggressive mesh front grille, and a stylized front bumper and lower spoiler.
What problems do Toyota Highlanders have?
Owners have filed relatively few complaints about this Highlander generation. However, some owners note a moldy smell coming from the air conditioning system, issues with the power tailgate becoming stuck in the open or closed positions, and excessive wind noise at highway speeds.
Are all Highlanders AWD?
All models come standard with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, an 8-speed automatic transmission, and front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive (AWD) is optional in every trim.