Is the Toyota Highlander XSE a Ford Explorer ST Competitor?

Speed and handling are no longer the sole domain of luxury SUVs. Not everyone can afford a Range Rover SVR, Lamborghini Urus, Porsche Cayenne Turbo S hybrid, or G-Wagon. But more affordable options, like the Ford Explorer ST and Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, have joined the market. Soon the Dodge Durango Hellcat will join, too. And it seems Toyota, as it remembers its sporting history with vehicles like the new Supra, wants in, too. But will the Toyota Highlander XSE be a worthy competitor?

Toyota Highlander XSE

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE | Toyota

At the 2020 Chicago Auto Show, in addition to the Nightshade editions, Toyota also unveiled a new trim for its Highlander SUV. The Toyota Highlander XSE isn’t a full-on TRD model, like the Avalon or off-roading Sequoia and 4Runner. Like the Camry XSE before it, it has more in common with a Civic Si’s modifications than a Type R’s.

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE side
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE side | Toyota

The Toyota Highlander XSE’s engine doesn’t make any more power. Like the rest of the Highlander lineup, the 3.5-liter V6 makes 295 hp and 263 lb-ft. Also, like other Highlanders, the XSE has an 8-speed automatic and can be had with either front-wheel or all-wheel drive. But what sets the XSE apart is the changes made to its chassis and suspension.

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE wheels
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE wheels | Toyota

The suspension gets stiffer springs, and there’s a stiffer stabilizer bar in the rear. The shock absorbers have also been tweaked to move more smoothly. Toyota then retuned the electric power steering for a claimed “sportier steering feel.” The XSE will also come with trim-exclusive 20” machine-faced wheels.

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE front
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE front | Toyota

In addition, the Highlander XSE gets some exterior styling updates. The front fascia, grille, and lower spoiler are exclusive to this trim. That lower spoiler is joined by an enlarged air intake in the lower bumper. The new look is completed with dual chromed exhaust tips, as well as black roof rails and mirror caps.

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE interior front
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE interior front | Toyota

The interior also gets some trim-exclusive features. The seats get trimmed in Softex, which Roadshow reports is an artificial leather. For those craving more pizazz, there will also be an optional two-tone red and black leather-trimmed (real leather) interior. Finally, you can’t have a sporty trim without a carbon-fiber instrument finish.

Pricing and availability

The Toyota Highlander XSE will slot in between the XLE and Limited trims. Official pricing has not been announced as of this writing. In AWD form, the XLE starts at $41,200; the Limited starts at $45,600.

Toyota did reveal the Highlander XSE will be available sometime in fall 2020.

Toyota Highlander XSE vs. the competition

2020 Ford Explorer ST
2020 Ford Explorer ST | Ford

On the budget side, the Highlander XSE will be significantly cheaper than the Explorer ST. The Ford starts at $55,835. The Explorer ST also weighs more: Car and Driver weighed one at 4850 lbs, whereas the XSE will likely weigh about 4400. However, that extra $10,000 also buys you a 400-hp engine, as well as upgraded brake calipers and pads. Reliability aside, the Ford Explorer ST will probably be a higher-performance SUV than the Toyota Highlander XSE. And that seems worth the upcharge.

2020 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro
2020 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro | Toyota

But, there’s another way to look at this. The 4Runner TRD Pro starts at just under $50,000. It’s a reliable and impressive off-roader, but its Fox shocks and body-on-frame design make it lumber a bit on the pavement. But, if your off-roading is limited to gravel drives and the occasional snow day, a Highlander XSE would make for a good alternative as a sporty-handling 3-row SUV.

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