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2021 Toyota Highlander: The Sport-Tuned XSE Is Our Favorite Trim Level

With Six Trim Packages to Choose From, You Have Options But Some are Better Than Others

2021 Toyota Highlander

The Toyota Highlander crossover debuted in 2001 to fill in the size gap between Toyota’s RAV4 and the 4Runner. Over the years, it has increased in size, growing by 2.4 inches in length and 2.4 inches in its wheelbase for the 2021 Toyota Highlander. And with six trim packages to choose from on the new Highlander, you might be wondering which one offers the best features and top value.

Highlander Trim Choices: The Best and the Rest

In total, Toyota offers the 2021 Highlander in six trim levels (L, LE, XLE, XSE, Limited, and Platinum) each powered by an ample 295 hp, 3.5L V6 making 263 lb.-ft. of twist.

Starting at $34,810 MSRP for the FWD version of the L trim and ranging up to $50,315 for a Highlander Hybrid Platinum with AWD, this SUV sits nicely against competitors like the Honda Pilot or Chevrolet Traverse.

However, choosing a trim level isn’t as easy as looking at the price, depending on how much leeway you have in your budget. Let’s explore some of the options. And I’ll tell you which trim I recommend and why.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid: Honorable Mention

For model year 2005, Toyota added a hybrid version of the Highlander, claiming the crown as the world’s first seven-seat hybrid SUV. A friend of mine, who bought her 2005 Highlander hybrid brand new, now has more than 180,000 miles on it, and the SUV is still running like a champ.

That’s enough endorsement for many of us who like to keep our cars for many years and let them run until they can’t take another mile. In my mind, Toyota and Lexus have done a stellar job creating hybrid vehicles for decades now; they know how to do it right.

With many of their vehicles, I’d choose the hybrid simply because the range and ride are outstanding. Take the hybrid version of the Lexus LC 500, for instance: 600 miles of range before you have to hit the gas pump. Toyota’s RAV4 Prime gets an EPA-estimated 42 miles of electric-only range, and then the 2.5L 4-cylinder engine picks up the slack for a similar 600 miles of range.

The 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid stacks up to the competition with nearly 600 miles of its own (fueleconomy.gov estimates 598 miles). The base LE hybrid comes with an 8-inch touchscreen, leather-trimmed shift knob and steering wheel, and Toyota’s driver-assist suite with blind-spot monitoring. The trail mode and electronic all-wheel drive are optional.

You have to step up to the top-trim Highlander Hybrid Limited to get the spectacular 11-speaker JBL audio system as well as the heated steering wheel, 20-inch chrome wheels, and more niceties.

It’s a great package, but it’s not the top one I’d choose. Having driven the hybrid and gas-powered versions at launch, I had a chance to compare them side by side, and I was surprised that I liked the drive of the gas-powered Highlander better.

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE Takes Top Honors

Toyota added the XSE trim for 2021, marking the first time the Highlander has received the sport-tuned treatment. It comes standard with everything from the base L trim, including the same fuel economy: an EPA-estimated 21 city/29 highway/24 combined. The Highlander comes standard with an 8-speed automatic transmission. The base model gets front-wheel drive; all-wheel-drive is an option.

The XSE has a more aggressive look and feel, starting with the twin-tip, chrome-plated exhaust. The front fascia, grille, and lower spoiler are exclusive to this model, featuring a lower spoiler and larger lower air intake integrated into the new bumper. Black accents and light-strip DRLs round out the sport trim’s personality.

My family and I took the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE on a 1,300-mile road trip from Austin, Texas, to Fort Myers, Florida, in December to visit my parents. Rolling across the swamps of Louisiana and onto the flatland highways of Mississippi and Alabama, the Highlander’s dynamic cruise control worked well, keeping us at a comfortable pace and preventing foot fatigue.

I could feel the difference the 20-inch wheels made, along with the higher-rate springs, rear stabilizer bar, and re-tuned shock absorbers. The hybrid may smooth out the ride overall, but when you need to pass a semi at 75 mph, the sport-tuned XSE has the edge. I also preferred the growl of the gas engine when I pressed the accelerator.

The one thing I’d change in the Highlander (all trims) if I had my way would be to swap out the firm, angular headrests for something cushier and more suited to the curve of a passenger’s head. Other than that, the seats were comfortable, and the seat heaters worked quickly and efficiently.

Just like in the XLE, the XSE sports features I appreciated were heated seats, captain’s chairs, roof rails, a sunroof, and a wireless charging pad. I found that the Apple CarPlay worked great on our trip and integrated into the touchscreen quite well. Two upgrades I’d highly recommend to improve upon the XSE trim package would be red leather-trimmed front- and second-row seats and the 11-speaker premium JBL audio package.

About Kristin Shaw

Kristin Shaw grew up attending classic car shows with her parents, and she has a soft spot in her heart for a 1957 Chevy Bel Air, preferably in turquoise. You can find her work at DriveModeShow.com, as well as The Drive, Traveling Mom, TrueCar, and A Girls Guide to Cars.