The Toyota Highlander started life as a smaller 5-passenger midsize crossover in 2000 and has since grown nearly ten inches in length and seven inches in width while maintaining its height. The current Highlander is the biggest ever and it is noticeable both inside and out. Like the previous generation, it continues to offer third row seating making it a 7 or 8-passenger midsize crossover. It received a major overhaul in 2020 and generally carries over into 2022 with only a few packaging changes. New to the lineup up is a Bronze Edition which will be offered in an exclusive Cement color along with Wind Chill Pearl (new for 2022), or Midnight black Metallic. Unique to this model are bronze-colored accents inside and out, 18" bronze wheels, bronze stitching, bronze door sills, SofTex-trimmed seats with unique inserts, and more. The Bronze Edition builds off the XSE trim level which we'll highlight below.
There are two engine offerings which include a 3.5L V6 DOHC gas engine that makes 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque or a 2.5L 4-cylinder hybrid engine that makes 186 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque. It is offered as either FWD or AWD The Highlander is available in seven trim levels known as L, LE, XLE, XSE, Bronze Edition (new for 2022), Limited, and Platinum. The hybrid engine is offered with the LE, XLE, Limited and Platinum models. Prices range from $35,205 for a base FWD Highlander L and can climb as high as $50,960 starting MSRP for a Platinum AWD Hybrid model.
Competition includes vehicles such as the Chevy Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade/Santa Fe, Kia Telluride/Sorento, Mazda CX-9, Subaru Ascent, and Volkswagen Atlas. The test model for this review was a 2022 Highlander XSE which first debuted at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show and carries over into 2022. After a week in the XSE, here's what stood out...
XSE Styling (+)
The XSE made its debut in the windy city to highlight the sporty side of the Highlander. XSE models feature unique exterior styling elements starting up front with a completely different fascia. The grille and lower spoiler are more open giving the Highlander a more aggressive look. The larger lower intake integrates into the new bumper wrapping around into the fenders with integrated fog lights. Unique headlights include black accents and light strip DRLs. The profile includes unique rocker panels that give it a lower profile. Black roof rails, mirror caps, window moldings and A-pillar are subtle changes that give it an overall cool vibe compared to the more sophisticated chrome found on the Platinum model. And around back the LED taillights are complemented with a twin-tip exhaust that sounds a tad beefier than the standard one. Overall, Toyota succeeds in giving the Highlander a more aggressive look that will stand out from the rest on the roads.
A crucial component to a sporty look is the wheels. Exclusive 20" machine-faced wheels with black accents look good on the Highlander and are easy to wipe clean. These wheels ride on 235/55/R20 Goodyear Eagle Touring tires that are best for the street and not for the trails.
Under the hood is the 295-horsepower 3.5L V6 available with either front or all-wheel drive and is mated to an 8-speed automatic. Acceleration felt slightly quicker thanks to the quick-shifting 8-speed. The shifts were smooth, and it's estimated to get a 0-60 time of around 6.8 seconds. It's not even close to the performance of other sport-oriented crossovers like the Explorer ST or Durango SRT, but it is nonetheless, a sportier version of Highlander. There are three drive modes called sport, norm, and eco that can be adjusted via a switch placed below the gear shifter. SPORT mode quickens the throttle response from the hybrid system for improved acceleration control. ECO mode gets maximum efficiency from the fuel and battery, while NORMAL mode is ideal for everyday driving.
AWD versions feature dynamic torque vectoring with an electronic on-demand system that will automatically supply power to the rear wheels when needed for added traction. In addition to being able to send up to 50% of torque to the rear wheels, this advanced AWD system can control the left/right torque distribution to the rear wheels for a more engaging driving experience. The Multi-Terrain Select feature, controlled by a dial on the center console, allows the driver to adjust drivetrain responses to various road and weather conditions. Also available is a snow mode button in the center console.
XSE models come with higher-rated springs and a rear stabilizer bar. Toyota also re-tuned the shock absorbers and electric power steering to give it a sportier feel. The overall ride is very comfortable, but it was hard to notice any significant (sportier) difference from other Highlanders I've driven. Steering is light to the touch but quick enough to give it decent agility. It is also noticeably quiet on the road thanks to sound-damping glass and soundproofing materials used in the build. Overall, the ride is soft and competent. It delivers a smooth ride, but not necessarily the athletic ride you might expect from a "sport" model.
Fuel Economy (+/-)
The XSE comes with a 17.1-gallon gas tank which will get you in the ballpark of 325 miles when full. It's rated at 20 MPG city, 27 MPG highway and 23 MPG combined. After a week of suburban driving, I averaged 21 MPG. It's an average rating and if fuel economy is important, the Highlander Hybrid will deliver among the best at an average of 35 MPG.
XSE Interior (+)
The XSE comes standard with seating for seven featuring captain's chairs in the second row. It comes with black SofTex-trimmed seats with fabric inserts, while ambient lighting and carbon-fiber finish on the instrument panel sets the sportier mood. An eye-popping two-tone red and black leather-trimmed interior with red-stitched instrument panel is available at no additional cost. The red is an unexpected touch that I think works with the overall design. While my test vehicle was equipped with the red seats in the first two rows, the third row remains black. The seats are extremely comfortable and are available both heated and ventilated. Heated second row seats are also an available option.
Interior Layout (+)
The layout for the front passengers is well thought out, comfortable, and includes high quality materials. Most prominent was the available 12.3-inch touchscreen display at the center of the dash which is easy to reach. Toyota's infotainment system now integrates with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and is also compatible with Amazon Alexa. The system is easy to use but only takes up about three quarters of the large screen when in use.
Below the large screen is a split level in-dash storage tray that provides the perfect place to set your mobile device or sunglasses. The design is functional and stretches across to the passenger side for added storage. I found this small touch convenient and something missing in many vehicles. Toyota also includes wi-fi connectivity and five USB ports throughout making it very functional for all passengers and their devices.
Wireless Charging (-)
Quite opposite to convenience is the placement of the wireless phone charging tray. Toyota has placed that in the center console under the arm rest. Placing your mobile phone in this spot will require a cord to stretch across the dash to utilize Apple CarPlay / Android Auto and it also blocks the deep storage bin below the phone. It seems that a more logical placement for the wireless tray would be in the storage shelf below the infotainment screen where I placed my phone every time I got in.
Third Row (-)
My biggest complaint is the third-row space. As a family of five, we were recently in the market for a three-row crossover and wanted to replace our Sienna with a crossover that offered similar passenger space. While comparing to a minivan isn't exactly fair, the Highlander still falls short to competitors like the Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade and Volkswagen Atlas which all have much more spacious third rows. As an average height adult (5'9"), my knees were at my chest in the third row and my feet were pointed sideways. The third row is closer to the floor (I assume to maximize cargo volume when folded flat) which doesn't leave much room. Even the kids complained that the third row felt a bit like the penalty box.
Toyota continues to offer Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ standard on all Highlanders. This includes features like the pre-collision system with low-light pedestrian detection that utilizes a camera and radar for maximum range paired with both audio and visual driver alerts. Other features include full-speed range dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, lane tracing assist, road sign assist and automatic high beams. Features like the available blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert and the front & rear parking assist with automatic braking will add to the overall safety package making you feel quite comfortable and safe behind the wheel. The standard backup camera features a projected path.
Toyota did a nice job when it updated the Highlander in 2020 that gives it the flexibility to dress up in the platinum trim and look athletic in the XSE. I think the combination of the unique front fascia, rocker panels, and 20" wheels suit this crossover well. While it's handling and performance aren't exactly sporty, it remains comfortable and confident on the road. The XSE accents inside compliment the high-quality materials, but that third row is still too small. Overall, the Highlander XSE is a nice add to the already diverse line-up.
First Impression Summary:
Test Vehicle: 2022 Toyota Highlander XSE AWD
Exterior Color: Magnetic Grey Metallic
Interior Color: Rioja Red
Notable Options: Premium Audio w/Navigation ($1,680), all-weather cargo liner ($318), cargo cross bars ($350)
Price as tested: $47,951 (with destination charge)