A Bit More Brutal: 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Arrives in Chicago

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
a bit more brutal 2021 toyota highlander xse arrives in chicago

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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  • SuperCarEnthusiast SuperCarEnthusiast on Feb 09, 2020

    The front lower end is taken from the Avalon sedan. It looks ridiculous! Toyota and Lexus just keep doing these extremely ugly front ends and for some reason, people buy the cars but say it is ugly!

  • Mike-NB2 Mike-NB2 on Feb 10, 2020

    Yes, this has bizarre front end styling. I haven't see a Star Wars movie since the original came out but I see some Darth Vader in there. But... why complain? This is a Toyota. We won't have to endure the front all that much. We'll all be staring at the arse end as it lumbers along in the passing lane 10 mph below the limit. With a signal light on... for hours on end. I swear that if/when Toyota makes autonomous vehicles they'll just aim for the left lane and stay there.

  • Theflyersfan As a kid, a neighbor had one of these full-sized conversion vans with the TV and wet bar in the back. And it was so cool to go in - as a kid it was, driving it had to be terror at times with blind spots, iffy power and brakes, and the feeling that you're hauling your living room with you! Kids of the 1970s and 1980s had this experience. Afterwards with minivans and then CUV everything, not so much.And I'm crushed that a 1977 van doesn't have some kind of mural on the sides. Coyote howling at the moon, American flag, Confederate flag, bright stripes, something! You can't have a 1970's era van with plain sides! At least a "Don't Laugh. Your daughter's in here" bumper sticker on the back. I always get a Gacy or Bundy vibe with these vans...
  • Jeff S In the EV market Tesla is not a niche player it is the major player. According to the latest data of the California-based vehicle valuation and automotive research company  Kelley Blue Book, Tesla has the lion’s share with 75 percent market share in  the electric vehicle market in the first three months of 2022.Tesla has dominated the electric vehicle market for years in the United States. The electric vehicles manufactured by Tesla accounted for 79 percent of the new electric vehicles registered in the United States in 2020 and 69,95 percent in 2021. The decrease in the market share in 2021 might be explained by backlogs and the global chip shortage, but the company is ramping up its sales and has already increased its market share to 75 percent in the first quarter of the year. According to Kelley Blue Book, the top 10 EVs sold in the US in the first quarter of 2022 are;[list=1][*]Tesla Model Y[/*][*]Tesla Model 3[/*][*]Ford Mustang Mach-E[/*][*]Tesla Model X[/*][*]Hyundai Ioniq 5[/*][*]Kia EV6[/*][*]Tesla Model S[/*][*]Nissan Leaf[/*][*]Kia Niro[/*][*]Audi e-Tron[/*][/list=1]Tesla has delivered 310,048 vehicles in the first quarter of 2022, another first-quarter record. The success of Tesla is proven once again as the company has three electric cars in the top 10 most selling electric vehicles in the United States, while no other manufacturer has even two different models on the list.Tesla leads all others, selling slightly over 936,000 units in 2021. This gave the company a market share of nearly 14%.Mar 30, 2022https://interestingengineering.com/transportation/tesla-ev-market-75-percent-market-share
  • Jeff S I did not know Plymouth had a full size van prior to the mini vans. I did know about the Plymouth pickups and the Trail Duster.
  • Arthur Dailey When I grew tired of the T-Bird trying to kill me by refusing to start at the most inconvenient times/places, I replaced it with a '79 fullsized Dodge (Sportsman) van. Similar to this but with a different grille and rectangular headlights. The 4 'captains' chairs in my van were pretty much identical to the ones in this van. Mine certainly was not as nicely finished inside. And it was a handful to drive in snow/ice. One thing that strikes me about this van is that although a conversion it does not seem to have the requisite dark tint on the windows.
  • Jeff S I am not a fan of Tesla and they were niche vehicles but it seems that they have become more common. I doubt if I get an EV that it would be a Tesla. The electrical grid will have to be expanded because people over the long run are not going to accept the excuse of the grid can't handle people charging their EVs.
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