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2023 Toyota Highlander XSE, All you want to know & watch about a Great Car

 

2023 Toyota Highlander XSE First Test: Smaller Engine, Transformed Experience

Having replaced its V-6 engine with a new turbo four, this SUV gains everyday performance.

2023 Toyota Highlander 16
toyota highlander Full Overview

Pros

  • More torque than before
  • Available dual 12.3-inch screens
  • Lots of storage options

Cons

  • Cramped third row
  • Ride can be a bit bouncy
  • Panic braking performance could be better

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This isn’t the Highlander you remember. Sure, it looks the same as before, but the 2023 Toyota Highlander’s familiar sheetmetal hides an update that completely changes the driving experience. A new turbo four-cylinder engine replaces the popular three-row SUV’s V-6 this year, and although the test-track numbers might not tell a story drastically different from the old Highlander’s, the real-world performance improves big time.

2023 Toyota Highlander 9

Fewer Cylinders, More Torque

The new-to-Toyota turbocharged 2.4-liter I-4 produces 265 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, 30 fewer hp than the 2022 Highlander’s 3.5-liter V-6 but a notable 47 lb-ft more torque. You’d think those power peaks might cancel each other out, and they do—the 2023 Highlander XSE we tested underperformed at the track.

Reaching 60 mph in a respectable (for a three-row family SUV) 8.0 seconds, the Highlander trails competitors to the same speed; the Kia Telluride and Subaru Ascent both hit 60 mph in 6.9 seconds. And, critically, it lags behind the old six-cylinder Highlander. A 2021 Highlander XLE made it to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds in our testing, while a 2021 XSE model got there in 6.9.

“This turbocharged engine is a huge improvement over the outgoing V-6,” says associate editor Alex Leanse. “Finally, you don’t have to wring revs out of it to accelerate, instead simply riding on the newfound low- and midrange torque to get up to speed.”

The best part? You might actually notice the punch on a test drive, especially if you drove to the dealership with a V-6 model nearing the end of its lease. One caveat: The ’23 Highlander’s fuel economy tops out at 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, and 25 mpg combined (all-wheel-drive models like our test model drop 1 mpg across the board); those figures represent tiny bumps in the city and combined above last year’s V-6, which delivered up to 21 mpg city, the same 29 mpg highway, and 24 mpg combined.

If fuel efficiency is top of mind, we’d still highly recommend getting the more expensive Highlander Hybrid if your budget allows. The hybrid is only 0.4-second slower to 60 mph yet blows away the turbocharged Highlander in fuel economy and driving range, meaning you’ll go much farther before having to stop for gas.

Back to the non-hybrid 2023 Highlander, our XSE example—Toyota-speak for the sportiest trim-level, or at least the sportiest-looking—wasn’t a strong performer in our 60-0 mph panic braking test. Its 132-foot stopping distance extended beyond the 2021 Highlander XSE’s 116-foot stop, the ’21 XLE’s 122-foot stop, and the Subaru Ascent’s 114-foot best. The Kia Telluride bests them all, stopping in only 113 feet.

One quick comment: Our 2023 Highlander XSE tests were conducted in 107-degree weather. Even though we have a weather correction to ensure consistent testing data, the Highlander might perform better in more moderate conditions.

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When we drove a 2021 Highlander XSE back-to-back with an XLE model, we found that the former drove a little better but still fell short of what we’d call sporty or spirited. The same is true of the 2023 Highlander XSE, which gets steering and suspension tweaks that the XLE does not.

What you’ll find around town is exactly what you’d expect from the sport trim of a three-row SUV: competence but not dynamic excellence. The steering is precise but doesn’t offer much feel, and a couple of editors found the XSE’s ride a bit bouncy. One bright spot: Unlike many family vehicles’ transmissions, the Highlander’s eight-speed automatic doesn’t always resort to upshifting at every possible opportunity.

2023 Toyota Highlander 2

Beyond The New Engine

Otherwise, the 2023 Highlander is very similar to the 2022 model, except for the available 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster on Limited and Platinum trims. Beyond that, the Highlander offers the same set of pros and cons as before.

The pros start with the excellent storage options up front—both in the center console as well as on the dash itself. You’ll find the repositioned wireless phone charger up there, in a narrow but useful storage compartment like the one in front of the front passenger. It’s a detail you’ll come to appreciate over time even if it looks strange at first.

The second-row seats fold down without trouble, but the third row is just as cramped as it was before, with a floor that’s a bit too high. The Toyota also delivers very good though not class-leading safety test results.

The IIHS gives the 2022 model its 2022 Top Safety Pick+ award, and the NHTSA rates the 2022 Highlander with five stars overall. That’s fine, but it’s worth noting the 2022 Subaru Ascent does the same, but with a better frontal crash test rating from the NHTSA (five stars versus four for the Toyota).

2023 Toyota Highlander 18

It’s A Toyota, Remember?

Where the Toyota really makes up ground isn’t the newfound midrange torque but in its reputation for value. MotorTrend subsidiary IntelliChoice understands there’s more to value than simply the purchase price; you’ve also got to consider resale value, insurance costs, fuel costs, and more. And when you analyze the numbers, the Toyota has earned an overall Excellent value rating for the last four years.

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If the 2023 Highlander continues that trend, that peace of mind is worth more to some than having the quickest or most spacious SUV on the block. Expected long-term value, decent safety ratings, and more torque should keep the Highlander on the best-seller list for years to come. The hybrid is still our choice in the Highlander lineup, but if you’re going turbo, know that it will feel quicker in the real world than the numbers suggest.

2023 Toyota Highlander Starting at $37,755

8/10C/D RATING
2023 toyota highlander
  • HIGHS: Optional hybrid system’s impressive fuel economy, top models’ luxe interior trimmings, plentiful standard tech.
  • LOWS: Bland handling, limited third-row space, no fuel-economy improvement from the new four-cylinder.
  • VERDICT: The Highlander offers plenty of overall competence, a fuel-sipping hybrid model, and lots of features, but it’s still behind the leaders of the three-row family SUV class.

Overview

The Highlander has plenty to offer, but in a brutally competitive mid-size SUV segment of more than two dozen vehicles it’s only a mid-pack player. There are eleven trims to choose from. Hybrid or nonhybrid powertrains are available, front-wheel drive is standard, and all-wheel drive is optional. All trims provide competent handling and a smooth ride, but the Highlander’s driving demeanor could use a jolt of caffeine.

The interior is nicely equipped, even on the base L, with modern conveniences, easy-to-use infotainment, and a host of driver-assistance features standard. The Limited and Platinum models do a good impression of a Lexus, with handsome leather upholstery, a premium JBL stereo system, and additional tech features. Despite all that, rivals such as the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade deliver more luxury and third-row room, the Mazda CX-9 offers a nicer interior and better driving dynamics, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee L brings that brand’s off-road capability.

The Highlander, while thoroughly competent, is a less compelling alternative in comparison.

What’s New for 2023?

The Highlander’s standard V-6 has been replaced by a new turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder for 2023. The new engine makes 265 horsepower and 309 lb-ft of torque; Toyota says the combined fuel economy rating of 24 mpg is equal to that of the outgoing V-6, making us wonder why the switch to fewer cylinders was made.

A new 12.3-inch infotainment display is available and a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster now comes on Limited and Platinum trims. Those high-end models also gain power-folding exterior mirrors while the XLE and XSE trims add a hands-free power-operated rear liftgate.

 

Pricing and Which One to Buy

L
$37,755
LE
$40,155
Hybrid LE
$41,555
XLE
$43,155
Hybrid XLE
$44,555
XSE
$44,750
Hybrid XLE Bronze Edition
$47,115
Limited
$47,410
Hybrid Limited
$48,810
Platinum
$50,410
Hybrid Platinum
$51,810

In our view, the midrange XLE is the one to get. It has heated front seats, a wireless smartphone charging pad, and a power sunroof, among other niceties. We’d also spring for the Premium Audio with Dynamic Navigation package, which brings in-dash navigation and an upgraded stereo system.

Engine, Transmission, and Performance

The Highlander comes standard with a 265-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, which pairs with an eight-speed automatic transmission and either front- or all-wheel drive. We haven’t driven this version yet, but when we do we’ll be able to comment on its performance. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder and two electric motors team up for a combined 243 horsepower in the Highlander Hybrid. This model comes with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and a choice between front- and all-wheel drive.

Leveraging Toyota’s hybrid expertise, this powertrain provides buyers with something considerably more fuel efficient than the standard model without giving up much in terms of performance; at our test track, the last hybrid model we tested made it to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds. Handling is unexciting but stable, and the ride is perfectly suitable for family-chauffeur duty.

Potential buyers in this segment will perhaps know that the Ford Explorer comes in hybrid form, too. But pitting these utes against each other, the Toyota comes out on top in terms of fuel economy.

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Fuel Economy and Real-World MPG

So far, Toyota has only said that the new turbocharged engine is good for 24 mpg combined, so we don’t know what its city and highway ratings are. Hybrid models will undoubtedly carry higher ratings than the gasoline-only version, with front-wheel-drive variants earning 36 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. When the Highlander visits our office, we’ll be putting its fuel efficiency to the test on our 75-mph highway fuel economy test route and updating this story with results. For more information about the Highlander’s fuel economy, visit the EPA’s website.

Interior, Comfort, and Cargo

Base L and midrange LE models can seat eight passengers using bench seats in the second and third rows, but a seven-seat arrangement with second-row captain’s chairs is available on higher trims. Passenger space is more generous here than in the CX-9, but not as spacious as in the Chevrolet Traverse, especially in the third row, which is on the tight side for adults.

Materials throughout the cabin are much improved over those in the last-generation Highlander. Upscale Limited and Platinum models provide the most creature comforts, but compared with the features proffered by the Palisade or Telluride, they fall short. The cargo area behind the third row fit a mere four carry-on suitcases; the Traverse fit six.

2023 toyota highlander interior

Infotainment and Connectivity

An 8.0-inch infotainment system comes standard on most trims, but the Highlander Limited and Platinum get a 12.3-inch display with a secondary 12.3-inch screen serving as the gauge cluster. Mid-range XLE and XSE can be optioned with the larger 12.3-inch infotainment display but continue to use the analog gauges from lower-end models.

An 11-speaker JBL audio system is available. Toyota provides SiriusXM satellite radio, a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, and Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa integration for all models. A wireless smartphone charging pad is optional and is integrated into the dashboard below the infotainment display.

Safety and Driver-Assistance Features

As is the Toyota way, the Highlander offers a standard suite of driverassistance features. The package includes adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection, and automatic high-beam headlamps. For more information about the Highlander’s crash-test results, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) websites. Key safety features include:

  • Standard automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection
  • Standard blind-spot monitoring with rear-cross-traffic alert
  • Standard lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist

 

Warranty and Maintenance Coverage

Toyota’s warranty coverage adheres to the norm of the segment; however, buyers get two years of complimentary scheduled maintenance, which is a nice perk that most rivals don’t offer. The electrified Highlander comes with a separate hybrid-component warranty that provides eight years or 100,000 miles of coverage.

  • Limited warranty covers three years or 36,000 miles
  • Powertrain warranty covers five years or 60,000 miles
  • Hybrid-component warranty covers eight years or 100,000 miles
  • Complimentary maintenance is covered for two years or 25,000 miles

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Specifications

2020 Toyota Highlander Platinum AWD

VEHICLE TYPE
front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 7-passenger, 4-door wagon

PRICE AS TESTED
$51,068 (base price: $49,975)

POWERTRAIN
DOHC 16-valve Atkinson-cycle 2.5-liter inline -4, 186 hp, 175 lb-ft + 3 permanent-magnet synchronous AC motors; combined output, 243 hp

TRANSMISSION
continuously variable automatic

CHASSIS
Suspension (F/R): struts/multilink
Brakes (F/R): 13.3-in vented disc/13.3-in vented disc
Tires: Goodyear Eagle Touring, 235/55R-20 102V M+S

DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Length: 194.9 in
Width: 76.0 in
Height: 68.1 in
Passenger volume: 135 ft3
Cargo volume: 16 ft3
Curb weight: 4615 lb

C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.3 sec
100 mph: 21.9 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 7.8 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 3.9 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 5.2 sec
1/4 mile: 16.0 sec @ 87 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 118 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 176 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
Standing-start accel times omit 1-ft rollout of 0.3 sec.

C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 29 mpg

EPA FUEL ECONOMY
Combined/city/highway: 35/35/35 mpg

 

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