The 2021 Toyota Highlander Gets a Hot New Trim Package – Hot, Huh?

Nearly every model of every type of car or truck is trying to increase its sportiness. While this trend is fun and, in many cases, welcomed with open arms, it feels strange to apply it to something like the 2021 Toyota Highlander. 

The 2021 Toyota Highlander gets some bodywork

MotorTrend reports the Highlander is adding the XSE trim for the 2021 model. This is sporty trim that most notably dresses the Highlander in a more aggressive body kit. There’s more here than just a body kit as well it better had because the price for this trim is $42,480. 

The Highland XSE gets a fresh new grin

The front end looks a bit different with its big grin and low handing chin. From the front, the Toyota Highlander looks more Camry than a crossover SUV. The XSE is the only trim that is easily recognizable as different from the other trims. This low hanging “sporty” bodywork actually hurts the Highlander’s approach angle off-road. Its low-slung maw cuts the angle by 1.2 degrees. This is likely not a deal-breaker for most Highlander prospective buyers. 

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

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The XSE also gets new headlights

The 2021 Toyota Highlander is hooked up with projector-style LED headlights as standard across the board. These used to be an option but now replace the lower-trim L, LE, and XLE LED headlights. The Highlander XSE also comes with fog lamps like all trims except the base-model L. 

The bodywork continues down the Highlander’s sides

Check out these rocker panels. The 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE has some serious flares running down its sides. The side flares are surprisingly pronounced for such an un-flashy crossover. The XSE also comes with trim-specific 15-spoke black and silver wheels. Even though the XSE is poised to more sporty, Toyota still went with 20-in wheels for some reason.

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

Not that it really needs aggressive tires, but the middleweight all-seasons that come on the Highlander show that Toyota pulled up short on the “sport” aspect. Toyota also threw a few trim-specific splashes of black trim on the side-view mirrors, window trim, and roof rails. 

The 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE; second verse same as the first

Toyota also dressed up the back end of the Highlander to look more sporty. The back fascia is new and cool looking but not only does it also not add any performance, like the front, but it continues to worsen the off-road angles. The new departure angle is cut from 23 degrees to 21.1. Continuing the sporty look, the XSE allows for the Highlander to show off its exhaust tips. 

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE
2021 Toyota Highlander XSE | Toyota

Is this where things get Hot???

The other trims like the LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum all come with the option to have either the four-cylinder hybrid or the 3.5-liter V6. The base model and the XSE won’t have the four-cylinder as an option; it’s V6 or nothing. The 3.5-liter V6 makes 295 hp, which, I’ll be honest, is certainly more than I would have thought, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sports car.

As MotorTrend so eloquently puts it, “With its rather high power and torque peaks of 6,600 and 4,700 rpm, respectively, as well as the eight-speed automatic transmission’s relatively long ratios, the Highlander XSE often requires a good boot of the right pedal to accelerate with any haste.” Doesn’t sound so hot to me. 

The corners might a touch easier in the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE

Although Toyota didn’t give the Highlander any more power for the XSE, it did give it some suspension upgrades. The Toyota Highlander XSE has a set of higher-rate springs, retuned shocks, and a model-specific rear anti-roll bar. MotorTrend says the results are a stiffer riding highlander than we are used to, but it still “errs on the side of comfort.” 

Even though this is supposed to be the sporty model, the XSE actually weighs 10 pounds more than the XLE. If you clip on the AWD option, it not only adds about $2,000 but will add another 195 pounds. Not exactly sporting.