2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE in Celestial Silver Metallic

Quick Spin, Consumer Guide Automotive

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE AWD

Class: Midsize Crossover

Miles driven: 558

Fuel used: 26.4 gallons

CG Report Card
Room and ComfortA-
Power and PerformanceB+
Fit and FinishA-
Fuel EconomyB
Report-card grades are derived from a consensus of test-driver evaluations. All grades are versus other vehicles in the same class. Value grade is for specific trim level evaluated, and may not reflect Consumer Guide's impressions of the entire model lineup.
Big & Tall Comfort
Big GuyA
Tall GuyA
Big & Tall comfort ratings are for front seats only. "Big" rating based on male tester weighing approximately 350 pounds, "Tall" rating based on 6'6"-tall male tester.
Engine Specs295-hp 3.5-liter
Engine TypeV6
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Drive WheelsAWD

Real-world fuel economy: 21.1 mpg

Driving mix: 60% city, 40% highway

EPA-estimated fuel economy: 20/27/23 (mpg city/highway/combined)

Fuel type: Regular gas

Base price: $43,355 (not including $1175 destination charge)

Options on test vehicle: Premium Audio with JBL ($1680), all-weather floor mats/cargo mat ($318)

Price as tested: $46,528


Quick Hits

The great: Long list of comfort and convenience features; classy cabin trim

The good: Pleasant driving manners; good cargo volume and passenger space in first and second rows; distinctive styling touches inside and out

The not so good: No engine upgrade over other Highlander models; sport suspension makes for a slightly stiffer ride

More Highlander price and availability information


CG Says:

What could the Toyota Highlander have been lacking when the 3-row midsize crossover SUV was completely redone for 2020? Maybe a “sporty” model? If that was your wish, it’s no longer an unmet desire.

The follow-up 2021 Highlander adds the XSE as a sixth gas-engine trim level. (There are four hybrids as well.) Available as either a front- or all-wheel-drive vehicle, it boasts a modified suspension and a few appearance touches for a subtly racier attitude.

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
The XSE trim level joins the Highlander lineup for 2021, offering an option for buyers who want a slightly sportier attitude. XSE features include more-aggressive body styling touches and a sport-tuned suspension.

Consumer Guide sampled an AWD Highlander XSE. Considering that it has the same powerteam—a 295-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and 8-speed automatic transmission—as all other current gas-engine Highlanders, its performance matched our positive experience with a plush ’20 Platinum. Its most important departure from the rest of the line is a sport-tuned take on the general MacPherson-strut/trailing-wishbone suspension. Toyota has retuned the shock absorbers, raised spring rates, and added a rear stabilizer bar (to complement the standard front bar) for a ride that’s firmer but not substantially harder than the base set-up. The alterations also tweak body control for better-than-average composure—by crossover SUV standards—around bends and in snappy lane changes.

Test Drive: 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
The XSE’s cabin gets a more dynamic look via lots of black trim, red contrast stitching, and available red upholstery accents. The steering is retuned for a sportier feel. Overall materials and assembly quality are excellent.

Toyota mentions a lower stance for the XSE, but its own published dimensions list the same overall height, road clearance, and ramp-breakover angle as any other Highlander. At 197.4 inches, the XSE is 2.5 inches longer than its kin, no doubt a factor in respective approach/departure angles of 16.9 and 21.1 degrees that are slightly tighter and less trail-friendly than on other Highlanders.

The XSE is priced just above the midpoint of the price range for gas-engine Highlanders. The test vehicle had a starting price, with delivery, of $44,530, which is $1950 costlier than the front-wheel-drive version.

Test Drive: 2021 Kia Sorento SX Prestige X-Line

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
The Highlander’s Qi wireless charging pad is located in the center console, underneath a roll-top cover. This keeps it nestled out of the way when charging, but also makes it less convenient to access the storage bin and tray beneath it.

Aside from the distinct suspension touches, XSEs have their own frontal appearance via a uniquely shaped upper grille with a wavelike black mesh, wide horizontal-bar lower grille built into the bumper, and front spoiler. In back is a chrome-trimmed gray-metallic-finish lower bumper through which a twin-tip exhaust outlet peeks. Color-keyed side rocker panels with chrome lower trim, black roof rails, black accents for the LED projector headlights, and specific machined-face 20-inch alloy wheels round out the package. The standard “SofTex” leatherette upholstery on the front- and second-row seats can be swapped out for the optional red-leather facings and red accent stitching on the dash that made for a colorful cabin environment in the test vehicle. In addition to these model-specific features, XSE is the trim level at which ambient interior lighting becomes standard equipment.

First Spin: 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
There’s generous passenger room in the Highlander’s second-row seats. The XSE’s available red upholstery accents certainly add flash, but they don’t extend to the third-row seats–which are a bit cramped for adult passengers.

The XSE is strictly a 7-passenger vehicle with second-row captain’s chairs and reclining 60/40-split third-row seats. The seats in the front two rows are quite comfortable, and the front buckets are heated and power adjustable—10 ways for the driver (including power lumbar support) and 4 ways for the passenger. The third-row seat is sized and shaped to hold a couple of average-sized adults—at least for a while. Enlarged body dimensions that came with the 2020 redesign boosted Highlander’s maximum cargo capacity by a little more than 7 percent to 84.3 cubic feet.

First Spin: 2022 Nissan Pathfinder

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
There’s 16 cubic feet of cargo space behind the Highlander’s third-row seats, which grows to 48.4 cubic feet when the third-row seats are folded, and 84.3 cubic feet when both the second and third rows are folded.

On the tech front, standard safety features include forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, lane-departure alert and lane-keep assist, lane-tracing assist, cyclist detection, adaptive cruise control, and road-sign assist, and automatic headlight high-beam assist. Wireless charging; tri-zone climate control; and an audio system with an 8-inch touchscreen, satellite radio, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto functionality, and Amazon Alexa compatibility are included as well—though the test truck was kitted out with an 11-speaker JBL sound system with navigation. Even this enhanced system is easy to grasp and program.

Quick Spin: 2021 Volkswagen Atlas Basecamp

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
The XSE doesn’t get any kind of powertrain upgrade–under the hood is the same 295-horsepower V6 used by other non-hybrid Highlanders. However, machined-face 20-inch alloy wheels are exclusive to the XSE.

CG has picked Highlander as one of its “Best Buys” on account of its fine passenger and cargo room, agreeable road manners, quiet cabin, abundant useful features and available hybrid power. The XSE just gives a few more people with slightly different tastes something to like about this Toyota SUV.

Test Drive: 2021 Hyundai Palisade Calligraphy

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
The XSE model brings a sportier look–and a slightly sportier driving feel–to Toyota’s popular midsize SUV.

Check out the Consumer Guide Car Stuff Podcast

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Gallery

(Click below for enlarged images)

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE

Test Drive: 2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE

Car Stuff Podcast

Share this: