Jim Bray's Car & Tech rants - publishing online exclusively since 1995
Toyota Highlander

Toyota Highlander a nice three row SUV choice

By Jim Bray
March 18, 2021

With a new trim level and other upgrades for 2021, Toyota thinks its three row Highlander SUV/Crossover thingy is now an even more compelling buy than it was already.

And it probably is, though it's fighting in a tough arena these days, with excellent competing vehicles such as Kia's Telluride and the Mazda CX-9. And while it's probably the least interesting of these three vehicles to drive, it does offer all the usual Toyota goodness when it comes to build quality and features that are included in the price.

This is about midway through the current Highlander version, which came out in 2018, and this year Toyota has upped the creature features ante (no, there's no horror movie playing on the LCD screen…) with the new XSE trim level, which the company says adds sportier performance and style.

Click on the image to open a slideshow.

It could certainly use a sportiness upgrade – like a lot of Toyotas – but if you're comparing driving fun between the Highlander and the CX-9 (check out my recent review here), the Toyota is going down for the count compared with "Zoom-Zoom." And that's even though the Toyota still offers a lovely V6!

Of course, not everyone is looking for pedal to the metal thrills in a three-row crossover/SUV-type thingy – or even a Toyota that doesn't wear a Supra or 86 badge – so there's that, and judging by the number of Highlanders I see around here Toyota seems to know what it's doing. Not that that is a surprise…

Not just the XSE is new this year, though. The company says it has also added its Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ technology to all Highlanders, a bunch of active safety systems that are designed to keep you safe even if you have no business being behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle.

Time to sell all those shares you have in driving schools?

There is a total of 10 different Highlander iterations available, offering choices from front or all-wheel-drive, gas or hybrid, loaded or Spartan – you get it.

The XSE trim level, which is what Toyota Canada's sample wore, is the third from the top of the line (the Limited and Platinum versions beat it out for top "price") but it's equipped well and is a very nice vehicle in which to spend some time.

While you can get into a Highlander from $40,450 (L FWD), the XSE lists for $48,750. Toyota's sample also came with $255 worth of Ruby Flare Pearl paint that was pretty darn fetching.

The XSE comes only with Toyota's lovely 3.5 litre V6, which puts out "peak" horsepower of 295 – and that's plenty to motivate this largish vehicle. You can get a four-cylinder engine on lesser (and hybrid) versions.

The V6 is great, and it's coupled to an eight-speed automatic transmission that works well, but which has too many gears. Toyota, like many other manufacturers, is adding gears to subtract fuel consumption, but this means you're tooling along in a high gear and when you need to downshift (passing, merging, playing…) you need to go down more gears than you should have to.

Still, it could be worse: nine and 10 speed automatics are becoming common, too, among car makers.

Inside the Highlander, depending upon the model you choose, there's room for eight "adults" in the three rows (I put the scare quotes around "adults" because I've sat in the third row). The XSE trim level dumps the second-row bench, however, in favour of captain's chairs that are really nice. The second and third row seats fold away quite easily, too, and if you do have to pry yourself into Steerage, the big side doors and easy to move second row seats make getting there easier.

The XSE package, besides offering the V6 and all-wheel-drive, also ups the ante with a sport-tuned suspension, the aforementioned second-row captain's chairs, 20 inch alloy wheels, black roof rails and mirror caps, and a dual-tip exhaust. Toyota also tweaked the grille and both bumpers, put smoked surrounds on the front and rear lights, and they've added "sporty" ambient lighting to the interior.

Toyota's sample also came with a lovely power tilt/slide moonroof, Front and Rear Splash Guards, a Rear Bumper Protector, and a Colour-keyed rear spoiler.

Inside, the Highlander sports a Qi-compatible wireless charging tray, Power Door Locks, Smart ignition Key with push button start/stop, sunshades for the rear passenger doors, and an integrated Garage Door Opener.

Plenty of stuff, and this just scratches the surface of what's below the surface – stuff like four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, dynamic torque vectoring all-wheel-drive, variable intermittent windshield wipers and all the safety stuff Toyota crams into its vehicles, like:

  • Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert,
  • Backup Camera,
  • Front Seat Mounted Side Airbags,
  • Child Protector Rear Door Locks,
  • Driver Knee Airbag,
  • Front Passenger Seat Cushion Airbag,
  • Front and Rear Side Curtain Airbags,
  • Front Seatbelt Pre-Tensioners and Force Limiters,
  • ISOFIX Anchors for Child Safety Seats


And Toyota's Star Safety System:

  • Smart Stop Technology,
  • Vehicle Stability Control,
  • Anti-Lock Brakes,
  • Traction Control,
  • Electronic Brake Force Distribution,
  • Brake Assist
  • Engine Immobilizer Anti-Theft System


Despite the sporty pretensions, the Highlander isn't going to put a real smile on the face of the racer wannabe but, on the other hand, I had it for a week shortly after driving its "rich brother" the Lexus RX 350 and I liked driving the Highlander better. This is despite them having the same basic structure, the same engine, and the same transmission. Maybe it's that sport suspension on the Highlander XSE because, especially when you activate the "sport" selector on the centre console, it does seem to be a tighter and more interesting drive.

Of course, this requires the "it's still no Cayenne or X5 or CX-9" snark.

This particular Highlander didn't come with Toyota's fancy new video camera-based rear view mirror, but that's okay. I really like that feature (which I've seen so far on the new Venza and the Sienna) but I like it as much for its novelty and the lovely panoramic view it gives you of the world behind as because it's a good replacement for the traditional rear-view mirror (which I'm not yet convinced it is, coolness factor notwithstanding).

The Highlander is very comfortable and the interior is conceived and executed well. There's a touch screen instead of a stupid trackpad type of thing, and it's close enough to hand that I could reach it without issue (such isn't always the case). All the stuff on the centre stack (screen, HVAC, audio, etc.) works well and is simple to figure out.

There's plenty of interior storage, plenty of connectivity choices, and of course you get redundant controls on the steering wheel for stuff like the audio system and cruise control. The sample had adaptive cruise control, which I could do without (most vehicles these days come with similar systems, alas).

Regular readers of my columns know I'm a Toyota fan and over my driving life have owned five of them, including our current RAV4. The vehicles are top notch when it comes to design and execution and one can buy one with confidence (heck, I kept my second Toyota for 20 years, and still miss it).

If they lack anything, it's passion – the fun of the drive (or, as Mazda used to call it: "Zoom-Zoom"). The company appears to be trying to change that with more performance-oriented versions such as this Highlander and the Camry TRD and they are definitely more interesting than the more staid trim levels.

So, they have succeeded somewhat. I look forward to them succeeding even more in the future.

In the meantime, if you want a Highlander that's a little more interesting than the garden variety models, this one is worth checking out.

Copyright 2021 Jim Bray

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