On the Road Review: Toyota Highlander XSE

All of our press cars arrive freshly cleaned, fully gassed and ready to rock and roll for a week. But if you live in Maine, especially rural Maine, you are keenly aware of the short interval for which your clean, shiny car lasts as more than weather conspires to sully your handiwork.

So, frequently our visiting vehicles, treated and (usually) driven just like my own fleet of four-wheelers, gets to visit with the hose and wash bucket. This exercise helps to find the subtle curves and shapes that the designers labor over to make their projects not only work better in the wind, but also to excite our senses and appeal to our inner desire for comely shapes and mechanical art. It is often said that pictures frequently don’t do the subject justice, and that holds true in the way that our various cars attach to buyers.

Toyota gave its full-size Highlander crossover a makeover last year. Freshened fascias and better light assemblies helped clean up the Highlander’s overall stance, while our Blueberry Blue (actually, Blueprint Blue) XSE-trimmed seven-passenger wagon looked radiant everywhere it went. Wearing a black and Rioja Red leather interior, it also had a certain Lexus panache to the cabin.

While the new stance has certainly increased appeal — the Highlander is the country’s top selling three-row, front-drive based, full-size crossover — the addition of an efficient hybrid powertrain option has certainly created more buyer interest as fuel prices continue to spike.

Available in no fewer than six trim levels, with front-drive L models starting at $37,070 stretching out to $52,700 for Platinum Hybrid AWD versions, our mid-level XSE with AWD stickered for $47,163. Base power is a 3.5-liter 295-hp V-6 engine, while the Hybrid system (the same as used in the Sienna Hybrid minivan) uses a 2.5-liter four-cylinder married to twin-electric motors and a self-charging battery that produces 243 hp. EPA ratings for our XSE are 20/27 mpg against a realized 25.5 mpg, while the hybrid system earns EPA estimates of 35/35 mpg.

Highlander strong points are numerous. The ride and handling are very poised, while steering feel and control is lighter than rivals, giving the Toyota a relatively athletic feel. The cabin is airy and comfortable in the first two rows — the third row is best used by children — with the controls and switchgear efficiently simple and well placed. The doors wrap around the threshold to ensure clean exit and entry through larger, conveniently sized portals, plus the level of standard amenities, as well as optional equipment, broadly suggest that buyers need not purchase a Lexus to get that same premium level of content and contentment.

On the wish list: no steering wheel heater at this price point, the seat warmers are only that, and it would be good if the rear wiper tucked up under the large rear valance, out of harm’s way — like Hyundai has moved to.

Like every crossover segment, the competition reshuffles the deck every time a new entry arrives. The Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade still cling to the top of this list, with Jeep’s new Grand Cherokee L elbowing past this Highlander for third place, while the new Nissan Pathfinder slips into fifth place behind the Toyota. These five are notably better than their rivals, with strong driving attributes, easy to enjoy cabins, plus value beyond the competition. That the Highlander has shot past previous class sales leaders to have a distinct advantage in these convoluted times says volumes of how buyers still perceive Toyota’s reliability advantage.

Yet those Korean twins and the Jeep are rapidly stealing sales from the rest of the pack. That parade will get jolted next year when Toyota hopes to debut its own longer version of the Highlander, named simply Grand Highlander. This version will offer more third-row seating space, plus a larger cargo hold, and should prevent the erosion of sales to upstart rivals as well as from Toyota’s own Lexus Division for the RX-L.

In other Toyota news, the compact class bZ4X electric crossover will debut later this year. A sibling to the new Subaru Soltera — they share assembly in a joint Toyota-Subie project — the bZ4X is roughly the same size as a RAV4 and comes with electric-only operation. A larger, midsize bZ5X electric crossover debuts early in 2023, which would give Toyota 10 crossovers to pick from — more than any other automaker.

Next week: Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.

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