2021 Toyota Highlander XSE gets an aggressive update

Toyota's newest three-row crossover now has added visual flair.

Craig Cole Former reviews editor
Craig brought 15 years of automotive journalism experience to the Cars team. A lifelong resident of Michigan, he's as happy with a wrench or welding gun in hand as he is in front of the camera or behind a keyboard. When not hosting videos or cranking out features and reviews, he's probably out in the garage working on one of his project cars. He's fully restored a 1936 Ford V8 sedan and then turned to resurrecting another flathead-powered relic, a '51 Ford Crestliner. Craig has been a proud member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).
Craig Cole
3 min read
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
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2021 Toyota Highlander XSE

Here's the sportiest Highlander you'll be able to buy.

Steven Pham/Roadshow

It seems like Toyota just introduced its redesigned, fourth-generation utility vehicle, but the automaker is wasting no time fleshing out the lineup. A sportier XSE model is set to join the family. It just debuted on the eve of the 2020 Chicago Auto Show's first media day, and here are some of its finer points.

Compared to a standard Highlander, this enhanced variant is dressed up with unique exterior styling, features an upgraded cabin and even benefits from a retuned chassis. It should be more engaging to drive and interesting to look at.

Toyota has built the Highlander for about 20 years, but this is the first time it's offered an XSE model. Differentiating it from mainstream variants is a new front fascia including a redesigned grille and a lower spoiler. Altogether, this gives the family-hauler a more planted and aggressive look. Unique headlight assemblies complete with black accents and striplike daytime-running lamps round out the vehicle's front end.

Further accentuating its looks is special rocker-panel trim and machine-faced 20-inch wheels. The roof rails, mirror caps and window moldings are all finished in black, and 'round back, the XSE model is fitted with chrome-plated dual-exhaust tips, another first for the Highlander.

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE

Those 20-inch wheels really give this vehicle a planted look.


Beneath all that styling, this SUV is fitted with stiffer springs and a starchier rear stabilizer bar. Working in conjunction with these components are retuned, lower-friction shock absorbers. Taking advantage of these suspension changes, the electrically assisted power steering has been retuned to feel more engaging.

The Highlander XSE is available with either front-wheel drive or a Dynamic Torque Vectoring all-wheel-drive system. This setup can send up to 50 percent of available torque to the rear wheels. From there, it can shuffle it from side to side depending on conditions or driver demands to deliver better handling.

As with other Highlanders, this one is built on the TNGA platform, which means it's sturdy, safe and should be Lexus-like in its refinement. Another thing that hasn't changed is the powertrain. XSE models feature a familiar 3.5-liter V6 engine matched to a responsive eight-speed automatic transmission. This engine delivers 295 horsepower and should dole out 263 pound-feet of torque.

Mechanical componentry aside, a few noteworthy enhancements have been made inside. The seats are wrapped in SofTex, an artificial leather, and further gussied up with fabric inserts. White ambient lighting sets the mood while a carbon-fiberlike finish on the instrument panel adds a bit of visual texture. For drivers that want something different, red-and-black leather is offered as well, complete with red contrast stitching on the dashboard. This either makes the Highlander look super sporty or like a bordello.

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE

This is quite a bold interior for a family-hauler!


Ensuring you're always connected, XSE models come with Android Auto , Apple CarPlay and even Amazon Alexa. Keeping the whole family's stable of electronic devices topped off with juice are five USB ports. An 11-speaker JBL audio system with 1,200 watts of power is available, so go ahead, crank up that Kidz Bop party hits album. Sung by children, Moves like Jagger never sounded better.

The 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE is slated to go on sale this fall. The automaker expects it to account for about 12 percent of this nameplate's overall sales. Pricing has not been released, but this model is intended to slot between the XLE and Limited grades, which means it will probably start around $42,000.

Toyota's sexed-up Highlander XSE debuts at the Chicago Auto Show

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Watch this: 2020 Toyota Highlander: The original gets completely revamped

Originally published Feb. 6.