By on February 7, 2020

With the next-generation 2020 Toyota Highlander now riding atop a new platform, the manufacturer has decided to grow its sport-adjacent XSE trim level by throwing it into mix for the 2021 model year. The model took a bow at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday.

Settling between the XLE and Limited trims, XSE uses the same 3.5-liter V6 (295 horsepower, 263 lb-ft of torque) that’s now found in all non-hybrid Highlanders. The performance boost come by way of suspension upgrades and a few tweaks to the electrically assisted power steering unit. Everything else is cosmetic, but Toyota believes it will all come together to create a sportier driving experience.

The automaker says it’s giving the model the “XSE treatment,” adding it’s aimed at “people who need SUV practicality but really miss driving sport sedans.” While we’re not sure how much overlap exists between Highlander shoppers and sports-sedan enthusiasts, semi-sporting packages and trim lines are standard practice these days. They must hold some level of appeal, or manufacturers wouldn’t insist on dangling them in front of us. 

Power on the Highlander XSE is still sent through an eight-speed automatic transmission to the front wheels, but all-wheel drive remains an option. Toyota says the AWD system can send up to 50 percent of its output to the rear wheels and vector torque through the rear axle, delivering desirable handling characteristics and stability when the terrain gets lousy. Configurable drive modes will further help customers dial in the settings; however, the manufacturer has yet to elaborate further.

Suspension changes include re-tuned shocks, higher spring rates, and a new rear stabilizer bar.

While the Highlander looks like Toyota’s design team retains an unhealthy obsession with the defunct Matrix, XSE is a bit more aggressive looking than the rest. It’s not the boldest design we’ve seen from the brand of late — and it’s far less brutish than the old Highlander — but it is more curvaceous and interesting than the comparatively diminutive Matrix.

XSE further distinguishes itself from the rest of the lineup by way of a restyled front end with much larger openings (many of which are cosmetic). It also brings smokey headlamps with black accenting, black mirrors, some black cladding around the wheel wells, unique rocker panels, and a set of 20-inch machine-faced alloy wheels (again, with black accents).

Cloth seats are standard, though XSE allows you to empty your bank account with two-tone red and black leather upholstery with a red stitching. You can also splurge on an audio upgrade, resulting in the instillation of an 11-speaker JBL sound system. You should also be able to upgrade the infotainment system to 12.3 inches, as the default 8-inch touchscreen (which comes with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Alexa capabilities) appears to be standard.

Toyota expects about 12 percent of Highlander buyers to select the XSE. Pricing will be announced closer to launch. Based on its positioning, XSE should start somewhere around $42,000. Sales are anticipated to begin this fall.

[Images: Toyota]

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