Sun And Snow with the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE

When Toyota reached out to offer me a week behind the wheel of the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE AWD, I’m sure they didn’t think I would take it on two road trips, but that’s exactly what happened! First up was a few days in Breckenridge, Colorado, at 9,600 feet elevation and a strange mix of sun, warmth, and snow. What makes Breck a great drive from my home in Boulder is that the elevation gain is substantial: From a starting elevation of 5,328 feet, the highest point on the route is over 11,990 feet. In fact, Loveland Pass on I-70 is the highest point of elevation across the entire US highway system.

The average temp while we were in Breckenridge was about 20F and nights had swirling snow and slippery roads, as you might expect in a ski resort town. The Highlander handled it all with aplomb, however, even managing to look good in the orange light of a parking lot:

2021 toyota highlander xse - exterior night snow

It’s a bit hard to tell, but the exterior color is Magnetic Gray Metallic. Turns out that this is the first year that the Highlander is offered with the XSE trim package, and the luxury touches offered a nice layer atop the peppy 3.5L V6 engine with its 8-speed automatic. It was good fun driving up to Breckenridge and we easily stayed in the leftmost lane the entire grade. For those of you who haven’t driven this gorgeous highway, it’s quite steep in some spots. Heading east out of Breck towards the Eisenhower Tunnel challenges vehicles with an impressive 7% grade for 7 miles. It’s not at all uncommon to see cars and trucks pulled over, letting their engines cool, but the Highlander zipped along.

As always, Breck was a fun, relaxing place to stay and enjoy the beautiful Colorado Rockies. Highly recommended, even if you aren’t a skier, with its lovely downtown area – we had a great dinner at Downstairs at Eric’s – and proximity to Denver (about 90min drive to downtown, depending on traffic).


We returned home just long enough to do a load of laundry and socialize with our cats, then it was off to The Broadmoor, one of the nicest resorts in the entire state, courtesy of our now rather dirty 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE. Boulder to Colorado Springs is a pleasant two-hour drive with fairly little elevation change, but there’s always construction, so the drive’s still typified by a lot of speed changes. Yeah, I’m phrasing that like it’s fun, but going from 75mph to 30mph and then back up to full speed, again and again, is actually pretty annoying.

It was all totally worth it once we arrived at The Broadmoor, however. It even made the rather dirty Highlander look pretty darn swanky:

2021 toyota highlander xse - exterior broadmoor

If you’re curious, I’ve written up a separate piece about our fun weekend at The Broadmoor, so I’ll focus on the Toyota in this article.

One of the most important aspects of a vehicle used for a road trip is cargo space. How much capacity does the vehicle have, and how many passengers can squeeze in? Turns out, a lot in both cases, as you can see when we had half of the third-row seat folded down:

2021 toyota highlander xse - rear view split third row seats back cargo

It proved plenty of space to lay skis or a bike out, or, in our case, luggage, games, and more. With the third-row seat fully up, the vehicle will comfortably fit six passengers (the middle row is two individual seats, not a bench seat). The tough all-weather cargo mat is an optional upgrade, if you’re curious.

Moving to the front of the vehicle, the Highlander with the XSE trim set demonstrates years of incremental dashboard design refinement: Everything’s in a logical spot and it’s easy to manage environmental controls, entertainment, the collection of Toyota Safety Sense features, and much more, all while zooming down the highway:

2021 toyota highlander xse - front dashboard cockpit

It’s interesting to note the asymmetric of the infotainment area, which is obvious in the photo but seems entirely logical and appropriate when behind the wheel. Our vehicle had the JBL premium audio system and it was terrific, just what you need when you’re jammin’ the tunes and singing along as you head down the highway. Just as important nowadays, the Highlander also had a wireless Qi charging area in front of the cup holders, along with a USB-C and two USB-3.0 charging ports. Some of the more modern Toyota dashboard designs eschew buttons in favor of sleeker touch areas or the infotainment system itself (like the 2021 Toyota Venza), but I like having discrete buttons because I think it’s easier to work with, which is a safety consideration when you’re driving at high speed.

Looking a bit more closely at the main gauge area, you can see there’s nothing surprising, this is a classic Toyota layout:

2021 toyota highlander xse - main gauges

Tachometer with an automatic? Unsure what the benefit of that is, but I think car makers just don’t know what else to put on the left side to replace it since just about every current vehicle shows the same gauge in that spot. I’m not at all sure that the Highlander could manage 140mph, by the way, but then again I didn’t try. (Don’t worry, Toyota, I wouldn’t go that fast in a loaner!)

In terms of fuel efficiency, we saw an average of about 26mpg – EPA ratings are 20/27 – which was acceptable for a big three-row SUV with a V6 and 5,000 pounds of towing capacity. Years ago I had a Highlander Hybrid that offered similar mileage with a lot more engine complexity, so it’s a good indicator of the slow but steady progress of engine efficiency at Toyota.

Since engines are so reliable and there are so many automatic features, much of the experience of a modern car surrounds the amenities and entertainment system, and you can see the trade-offs in the center console:

2021 toyota highlander xse - center console

Snow, incline, sport/normal/eco drive mode, mud & sand/rock & dirt drive train options, and two big, deep cup holders next to a traditional inline gear shift. Alas, there wasn’t enough snow on the ground in Breckenridge to really try out any of the optional drive modes.

Back to the dashboard, though. Here’s the infotainment system and all the environmental controls:

2021 toyota highlander xse - infotainment and environmental controls dash dashboard

A bit of redesign could shrink the airbag indicator area, which would allow the right side to be shrunk down a bit to achieve symmetry, but maybe that’s just my bugaboo in terms of design! Certainly, it was very easy to work with the environmental controls and I appreciated the inclusion of “FRONT” and “REAR” to clarify which window was being defrosted (it’s surprising how many cars don’t include that so you’re left guessing).

Stepping out of the vehicle, you can see that there’s a lot of legroom for the rear passengers, which is a good thing for folk who don’t get to be in the front seat:

2021 toyota highlander xse - rear legroom seats

That’s with the front seat pushed back as far as possible too! Also, note the rugged floor mats. Part of the same optional upgrade that includes the rear cargo all-weather mats too.

Finally, one more exterior shot:

2021 toyota highlander xse - exterior rear

All in all, the 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE with AWD is a really solid option for a larger midrange SUV. If you don’t want to get into the “boats” like the Toyota Sequoia, Ford Expedition, or Chevy Suburban, the Highlander offers a more modest size while still offering lots of space with its flip-up third-row seat and plenty of cargo space too. I found the drive experience really solid too, with it easily handling the tough Loveland Pass elevation and the murderous I70 grade heading out of Frisco. If all three of my kids still lived with me, this would be on the shortlist of vehicles to consider with its solid combination of power, comfort, and amenities. Well done, Toyota.

CONFIGURATION: 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE V6 AWD in Magnetic Gray Metallic. Featuring a 3.5L V6 Engine, 8 Speed Automatic, and 5,000-pound towing capacity. MSRP: $43,355.00. Optional packages included: Premium Audio with JBL, All-Weather Floor Mats, Door Edge Guards, Rear Bumper Applique, Illuminated Door Sills, Wheel Locks, Cargo Cross Bars. AS DRIVEN: $47,451.00.

Disclosure: Toyota loaned me the Highlander XSE for eight days so I could write about my drive experience. Thanks, Toyota, much appreciated!

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