CHICAGO — Toyota introduced the completely redesigned Highlander three-row crossover last year, but unlike many of Toyota's recent redesigned models, it lacked a "sporty" XSE trim level. That's going to be fixed with the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE making its debut at this year's Chicago Auto Show.
Right away, the XSE looks dramatically different from the regular Highlander models. It has an upswept upper grille, instead of the frowning one on other Highlanders, and it's matched with an extra wide lower grille similar to what you'll find on some Camrys and Avalons. Completing the look are a front splitter, lower side skirts and restyled rear bumper with chrome exhaust tips.
There are some mechanical updates under the flashy body. It has stiffer springs all around with matching shock absorbers. The rear anti-roll bar is also stiffer, and the steering tuning has been reworked to feel sporty, so it probably feels heavier than the regular model. The engine and transmission are unchanged, however, with the 3.5-liter V6 still making 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque and the transmission still packing eight cogs. The XSE can be had with either front-wheel drive or a torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, the latter of which is shared only with the Limited and Platinum trims. The all-wheel drive system can send up to 50% of torque to the rear, and the rearward propulsion can be shifted the left or right.
The interior gets some attention, too, with carbon fiber-style trim on the dashboard. The standard upholstery is plain black leatherette with black cloth inserts. Optional is a vivid red leather design. Toyota will also offer a 1,200-watt, 11-speaker sound system as another option.
The 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE goes on sale this fall. Pricing hasn't been announced yet, but will likely come later along with other 2021 model year information. Toyota did say it will be positioned between the XLE and Limited, so it should cost somewhere between $40,000 and $45,000.