2023 Toyota Highlander XSE First Test: Smaller Engine, Transformed Experience (2023)

Having replaced its V-6 engine with a new turbo four, this SUV gains everyday performance.

Zach GaleWriter


  • More torque than before
  • Available dual 12.3-inch screens
  • Lots of storage options


  • Cramped third row
  • Ride can be a bit bouncy
  • Panic braking performance could be better

This isn't the Highlander you remember. Sure, it looks the same as before, but the 2023 Toyota Highlander's familiar sheetmetal hides an update that completely changes the driving experience. A new turbo four-cylinder engine replaces the popular three-row SUV's V-6 this year, and although the test-track numbers might not tell a story drastically different from the old Highlander's, the real-world performance improves big time.

Fewer Cylinders, More Torque

The new-to-Toyota turbocharged 2.4-liter I-4 produces 265 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, 30 fewer hp than the 2022 Highlander's 3.5-liter V-6 but a notable 47 lb-ft more torque. You'd think those power peaks might cancel each other out, and they do—the 2023 Highlander XSE we tested underperformed at the track. Reaching 60 mph in a respectable (for a three-row family SUV) 8.0 seconds, the Highlander trails competitors to the same speed; the Kia Telluride and Subaru Ascent both hit 60 mph in 6.9 seconds. And, critically, it lags behind the old six-cylinder Highlander. A 2021 Highlander XLE made it to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds in our testing, while a 2021 XSE model got there in 6.9.

Even though that doesn't paint a pretty picture, MotorTrend editors all agreed: We like the new I-4 better than the V-6 out in the real world.

"This turbocharged engine is a huge improvement over the outgoing V-6," says associate editor Alex Leanse. "Finally, you don't have to wring revs out of it to accelerate, instead simply riding on the newfound low- and midrange torque to get up to speed."

The best part? You might actually notice the punch on a test drive, especially if you drove to the dealership with a V-6 model nearing the end of its lease. One caveat: The '23 Highlander's fuel economy tops out at 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, and 25 mpg combined (all-wheel-drive models like our test model drop 1 mpg across the board); those figures represent tiny bumps in the city and combined above last year's V-6, which delivered up to 21 mpg city, the same 29 mpg highway, and 24 mpg combined. If fuel efficiency is top of mind, we'd still highly recommend getting the more expensive Highlander Hybrid if your budget allows. The hybrid is only 0.4-second slower to 60 mph yet blows away the turbocharged Highlander in fuel economy and driving range, meaning you'll go much farther before having to stop for gas.

Back to the non-hybrid 2023 Highlander, our XSE example—Toyota-speak for the sportiest trim-level, or at least the sportiest-looking—wasn't a strong performer in our 60-0 mph panic braking test. Its 132-foot stopping distance extended beyond the 2021 Highlander XSE's 116-foot stop, the '21 XLE's 122-foot stop, and the Subaru Ascent's 114-foot best. The Kia Telluride bests them all, stopping in only 113 feet. One quick comment: Our 2023 Highlander XSE tests were conducted in 107-degree weather. Even though we have a weather correction to ensure consistent testing data, the Highlander might perform better in more moderate conditions.

When we drove a 2021 Highlander XSE back-to-back with an XLE model, we found that the former drove a little better but still fell short of what we'd call sporty or spirited. The same is true of the 2023 Highlander XSE, which gets steering and suspension tweaks that the XLE does not. What you'll find around town is exactly what you'd expect from the sport trim of a three-row SUV: competence but not dynamic excellence. The steering is precise but doesn't offer much feel, and a couple of editors found the XSE's ride a bit bouncy. One bright spot: Unlike many family vehicles' transmissions, the Highlander's eight-speed automatic doesn't always resort to upshifting at every possible opportunity.

Beyond the New Engine

Otherwise, the 2023 Highlander is very similar to the 2022 model, except for the available 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster on Limited and Platinum trims. Beyond that, the Highlander offers the same set of pros and cons as before. The pros start with the excellent storage options up front—both in the center console as well as on the dash itself. You'll find the repositioned wireless phone charger up there, in a narrow but useful storage compartment like the one in front of the front passenger. It's a detail you'll come to appreciate over time even if it looks strange at first.

The second-row seats fold down without trouble, but the third row is just as cramped as it was before, with a floor that's a bit too high. The Toyota also delivers very good though not class-leading safety test results. The IIHS gives the 2022 model its 2022 Top Safety Pick+ award, and the NHTSA rates the 2022 Highlander with five stars overall. That's fine, but it's worth noting the 2022 Subaru Ascent does the same, but with a better frontal crash test rating from the NHTSA (five stars versus four for the Toyota).

It's a Toyota, Remember?

Where the Toyota really makes up ground isn't the newfound midrange torque but in its reputation for value. MotorTrend subsidiary IntelliChoice understands there's more to value than simply the purchase price; you've also got to consider resale value, insurance costs, fuel costs, and more. And when you analyze the numbers, the Toyota has earned an overall Excellent value rating for the last four years. If the 2023 Highlander continues that trend, that peace of mind is worth more to some than having the quickest or most spacious SUV on the block. Expected long-term value, decent safety ratings, and more torque should keep the Highlander on the best-seller list for years to come. The hybrid is still our choice in the Highlander lineup, but if you're going turbo, know that it will feel quicker in the real world than the numbers suggest.

2023 Toyota Highlander XSE AWD Specifications
VEHICLE LAYOUTFront-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE2.4L Turbo port- and direct-injected DOHC 16-valve I-4
POWER (SAE NET)265 hp @ 6,000 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET)310 lb-ft @ 1,700 rpm
TRANSMISSION8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)4,411 lb (55/45%)
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT197.4 x 76.0 x 68.1 in
0-60 MPH8.0 sec
QUARTER MILE16.1 sec @ 88.3 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH132 ft
MT FIGURE EIGHT27.5 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON21/28/24 mpg (mfr est)
EPA RANGE, COMB430 (est)
ON SALEFall 2022

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