Toyota gives the Highlander a meaner mug and subtle performance gains

Toyota is bringing an armada of trucks and SUVs at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show, including the Highlander XSE that’s infused with enough sporty characteristics that make us wonder if Toyota’s deliberately trying to jolt some life into what otherwise is a family-oriented three-row crossover. To be clear, the Highlander XSE is not a special edition Highlander; it’s a new trim level that comes with significant visual and performance upgrades that you normally don’t see in a Highlander. If this is Toyota’s attempt to catch our attention with the 2021 Highlander, consider our attention’s caught. The Toyota Highlander XSE will go on sale in the fall of this year as a 2021 model. No pricing details have been revealed, but Toyota did say that the Highlander XSE will slot between the XLE and Limited trims. With the Highlander XLE starting at around $40,000 and the Highlander Limited starting at $44,000, expect the Highlander XSE to start at $42,000.

Don’t look so mean

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Exterior
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To be clear, the Toyota Highlander doesn’t look like a choir boy. Even in standard form, it’s already an appropriately fierce-looking three-row crossover. It has sharp-angled headlights complementing a robust front grille and a front bumper that has more cuts and creases than what you’d expect to come from what supposedly is a family-oriented crossover.

As far as aggressive styling goes, the Highlander has it in spades.
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Exterior
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But the Highlander XSE is different, in large part because it looks different than other versions of the crossover. The front grille, for example, is smaller and inverted. The air inlets on opposite ends of the front fascia are larger. The Highlander XSE is also the only version of the crossover that wears the same lower intake as the one that you can find in the Toyota Camry. Notice, too, the front lip spoiler underneath that mean-looking face? Only the Highlander XSE has that aero piece.

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Exterior
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Visually, there’s enough black trim throughout the Highlander XSE to make you wonder if it’s up for that goth lifestyle. You can find black trim around the headlights, on the roof rails, side mirror caps, window trim, and even in the grille and lower fascia. Rocker panels on the side, chrome exhaust tips at the rear, and an exclusive set of machine-faced 20-inch wheels with black accents are all part of the Highlander XSE’s exclusive touches.

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Exterior
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With Toyota apparently going to great lengths to give the Highlander XSE a completely different look from the rest of its kind, it’s going to be easy to differentiate this trim from the rest of the Highlander lineup.

2020 Toyota Highlander exterior dimensions
Overall Length 194.9 inches (+ 2.4 inches)
Overall Height 68.1 inches (est.)
Overall Width 75.8 inches (est.)
Wheelbase 112.2 inches (+ 2.4 inches)

An interior to impress

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Interior
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The Toyota Highlander XSE’s exclusive touches extend to the SUV’s interior.

Inside, you’ll find comfortable black Softex-trimmed seats with fabric inserts.

Ambient lighting comes standard on the Highlander XSE, as does the carbon fiber finish that’s neatly laid out on the instrument panel. These premium touches are complemented by a two-tone red and black leather trim that dominates most of the interior’s surface area. Throw in the red starting on the instrument panel and you’re looking at a crossover that’s definitely dressed to impress your fellow carpool parents.

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Interior
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Every other interior detail of the Highlander XSE, from the dashboard arrangement to the availability of Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa, comes standard on other versions of the crossover. Don’t sleep on the five USB ports, as well as the Premium Audio 1200-Watt, 11-speaker JBL sound system with dynamic navigation and the three-month, all-access trial of SiriusXM. They’re also available in the Highlander XSE.

Cargo space doesn’t change from other trims. The Highlander XSE also offers 16 cubic feet of space behind the third-row seats, 48.4 cubic feet behind the second row, and a total of 84.3 cubic feet with both rows folded down. These aren’t class-leading numbers, but they’re sufficient for an SUV of its size.

2020 Toyota Highlander versus competition
Model Passenger Room Cargo Room
2020 Toyota Highlander 142.2 cubic-feet 73.3 cubic-feet
Honda Pilot 151.7 cubic-feet 83.8 cubic feet
Chevrolet Traverse 157.3 cubic-feet 98.2 cubic-feet
Buick Enclave N/A 97.6 cubic-feet
Ford Explorer 151.7 cubic-feet 80.7 cubic-feet
Subaru Ascent N/A 86 cubic-feet

Affordable for most

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Exterior
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Toyota hasn’t announced pricing details for the Highlander XSE, opting instead to say that it will slot between the Highlander XLE and the Highlander Limited. This would establish the Highlander XSE as the second-highest trim of the mid-size crossover, upended only by the Highlander Limited.

From this information, we can glean that the Highlander will start at around $42,000 since the Highlander XLE starts at or close to $40,000 while the range-topping Highlander Limited will set you back at least $44,000.

It’s a fair price to pay for a Toyota Highlander that’s unlike its siblings in the lineup in more ways than one.

2020 Toyota Highlander prices
Gas FWD Gas AWD Hybrid FWD Hybrid AWD
L $34,600 $36,200 - -
LE $36,800 $38,400 $38,200 $39,800
XLE $39,600 $41,200 $41,000 $42,600
Limited $43,650 $45,600 $45,050 $47,000
Platinum $46,850 $48,800 $48,250 $50,200

Final Thoughts

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Interior
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The Toyota Highlander XSE is a Toyota Highlander, sure, but it also has an identity that separates itself from the rest of the family. Whereas most Highlander trims offer comfort and convenience before performance, the XSE flips that script completely. It’s the only one that looks different and it’s the most performance-oriented trim of the entire Highlander lineup. The Highlander XSE is like the stepchild of the Highlander family. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you consider that of all the choices that you can have in the crossover’s lineup, this is the only trim that speaks to your need for a sporty and aggressive crossover that can still double as a weekend family ride. The Toyota Highlander XSE answers those requirements.

2020 Toyota Highlander specifications
Engine 3.5-Liter V6 Dual Overhead Cam (DOHC) 2.5-Liter L4HV Double Overhead Cam (DOHC)
Horsepower 295 HP @ 6,600 RPM 240 HP @ 6,000 RPM
Torque 263 LB-FT @ 4,700 RPM 175 LB-FT @ 4,400 RPM
Transmission 8-speed auto 8-speed auto
Towing 5,000 lbs 3,500 lbs
  • Leave it
    • No power and performance upgrades
    • It’s not a special edition model
    • Plenty of competition from rivals in the segment
Kirby Garlitos
Automotive Aftermarket Expert - kirby@topspeed.com
Kirby’s first exposure into the world of automobiles happened when he caught Knight Rider on television as a five-year old boy. David Hasselhoff didn’t leave much of an impression on him (that happened later on in Baywatch), but KITT certainly did. To this day, Kirby remains convinced that he will one day own a car with the same ‘spirit’ as the original KITT (not the 2008 monstrosity). He doesn't know when that will be, but until then, he’s committed to expressing his love for KITT, and all cars for that matter, here at TopSpeed.  Read More
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