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2023 Toyota Highlander Turbo First Drive Review: Small Tweaks for Big Families

A new, more efficient engine and better cabin tech make this already great family hauler a little more competitive.

2023 Toyota Highlander Turbo front 3/4 view
The Highlander's sales crown will likely stay put for a while, thanks to key updates for 2023.
Toyota

Since its inception at the turn of the century, the Toyota Highlander has tucked several versions of a V6 gas engine under its hood. But change comes for everyone, even a mass-market brand as generally conservative as Toyota. Now, with a downsized engine and a much-needed tech upgrade, the 2023 Highlander is better positioned to remain a segment go-to.

Powertrain: Doing more with less

The Toyota Highlander remains available with an optional hybrid powertrain, but the biggest change this year belongs to the base gas version. The old 3.5-liter V6 has been sent off into the sunset, replaced with a smaller 2.4-liter turbocharged I4. Output is now pegged at 265 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, and while it's down 30 horsepower, torque is up by 47 pound-feet, and it's that kind of low-down grunt that makes an impact in daily driving more than top-end power ever will.

After a brief drive loop outside Nashville, that is my biggest takeaway. At no point in my drive am I thinking the Highlander's 2.4-liter is coming up short. It provides more than enough motive force when puttering around town, and while the sound profile is a little different than a naturally aspirated V6, it's not buzzy or annoying by any stretch. An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard, and it's nice and inoffensive, firing off shifts without making a fuss about it.

This smaller-displacement turbo engine also brings a fuel economy benefit, but not a major one. Front-wheel-drive 2.4-liter Highlanders return an EPA-estimated 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined. Adding all-wheel drive shaves 1 mpg off each figure. That's only a 1-mpg improvement over the V6, which isn't a lot, but moving to a smaller turbo-four did reduce overall emissions by more than 50% compared to the V6, while also boosting torque. So, it's still a win-win, and the Highlander continues to be more efficient than V6 versions of the Chevy Traverse, Honda Pilot and Kia Telluride.

The Highlander's new turbo four is nice and inoffensive.

Toyota

Tech: Doing more with more

The 2023 Highlander's most important upgrade probably isn't what's under the hood, but what's slapped on the dashboard. Toyota added its Audio Multimedia System infotainment to the 2023 Highlander, after it made its appearance on the 2022 Tundra pickup and select Lexus models. It is a major improvement over the tired, sad Entune system that Japan mandated for so long. This new telematics upgrade was engineered in the US, and it shows, providing a number of great updates that make interacting with the car much smoother.

Base models make do with a 7-inch touchscreen, a huge boost over Entune's base 4.2-incher, but my tester packs the top-of-the-line 12.3-inch screen. I think it's a great system, with Google-based navigation, a straightforward layout, improved responsiveness and standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Toyota's new infotainment system is leaps and bounds better than the outgoing Entune setup, which looked like it was designed in 2006.

Toyota

The only major frustration here is that passengers can't adjust settings or fiddle with certain parts of the infotainment system when the vehicle is in motion, presumably to prevent the driver from being distracted and making friends with a guardrail. That said, simply tying that menu availability to the passenger-side seat sensor -- normally used for deactivating the airbag when the seat is empty -- is an easy way to get around that. Having to pull over just so the passenger can do something is a little silly.

Limited and Platinum trims also get a second 12.3-inch display in place of the standard gauge cluster. With multiple visual themes on offer and plenty of adjustability through on-screen menus accessed via steering wheel buttons, it's a nice perk for higher trims. Other models make do with a just-fine 7-inch TFT display nestled between physical gauges.

One of my favorite changes for 2023 has to be the Qi wireless device charger. Instead of taking up space on the center console, Toyota moved it to that small cubby underneath the infotainment screen, which keeps the device within eyeshot so it's less likely to be forgotten. If you prefer wired charging, there are two USB-C ports and a USB-A port in the front row, in addition to two USB-C ports for second-row occupants.

The Highlander's interior is still mighty practical.

Toyota

Down to brass tacks

Despite some big upgrades, the 2023 Toyota Highlander is relatively affordable, although with six trims on offer, there's plenty of opportunity to spend. A base Highlander L with front-wheel drive will set you back $37,755, including $1,335 for destination. Pricing tops out at $50,610 for a fully loaded Platinum FWD. Adding all-wheel drive to the lower three trims incurs a $1,600 bump, rising to $1,950 for the top three grades.

The core tenets of the 2023 Toyota Highlander have not changed -- it's a sensible three-row midsize SUV that will shuttle family and cargo all over hell's half-acre with more than enough comfort and style. A few key upgrades to its powertrain and cabin technology raise the bar in an appreciable way without deviating from the plot.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of CNET's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.