Drive: Toyota’s Highlander redesign features crisper handling for 2021 model

Midsize SUVs are the workhorses of many automotive fleets these days, having supplanted the sedans that once filled this role. Most in this highly competitive segment perform well. In the past year, we've driven midsize SUVs by Kia, Hyundai, BMW, Chevrolet, Volkswagen, Subaru, Lexus, Cadillac, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and a few others. Our favorites were the Kia Telluride, which slots between midsize and large, and the VW Atlas.

Then there's the tried and true Toyota Highlander, a model that's been around since 2000 and benefited from a full redesign last year. For the 2021 model, we got our hands on a new trim level, the XSE - featuring a sport-tuned suspension that brings it in line with the Atlas for crisp, predictable handling.

What's so special about midsize SUVs, that they're typically among the top sellers? First, they are tall enough to give drivers a good view of the road, and most handle fairly well. They are available with all-wheel drive, so they're reliable in all kinds of weather and can be taken off-road. Many have third-row seating suitable for children. They can be converted into cargo boxes, or four- or five-passenger people-movers, with plenty of room for luggage or groceries. They're not as roomy or versatile as minivans, but more stylish.

Our Highlander XSE, priced at $46,528, featured a Magnetic Gray Metallic paint job with a striking mix of black and Rioja Red inside. Assembled in Princeton, Ind., the Highlander has nice lines and a design that's both functional and attractive. The front and second-row seats are roomy and comfortable, soft yet supportive.

In front, there's plenty of space for small items and a fairly straightforward array of audio, climate and driving controls. Suggesting off-road capability, it has settings for mud/sand, rock and snow, as well as economy, normal and sport. The interior materials are of higher quality than we've come to expect in Toyotas, especially when compared with the exquisite Lexus experience, but there are a few panels that would be more at home in an economy car like the Yaris or Corolla.

The 295-horsepower V-6 engine, bolted to an 8-speed shiftable automatic transmission, motivates this heavy SUV with enthusiasm and competence. BMW isn't the only manufacturer that's figured out how to make a midsize SUV fun to drive.

2021 Toyota Highlander XSE V6 AWD

Price: $46,528

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 295 horsepower, 263 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 8-speed shiftable automatic

Drive: all-wheel

Ground clearance: 8 in.

Weight: 4,400 lb.

Suspension: sport-tuned MacPherson strut front, trailing wishbone rear

Wheels: 20-in. machined face alloy

Tires: P235/55R20 all-season

Seating capacity: 7

Luggage capacity: 16 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 84.3 cu. ft.

Maximum towing capacity: 5,000 lb.

Fuel capacity: 17.9 gal.

Fuel economy: 20 mpg city, 27 mpg highway

Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline

Fuel economy is rated at an impressive 20 mpg city, 27 highway, though we never came close to the higher number in mostly urban driving.

The base Highlander L, with front-wheel drive and seating for eight, starts at $34,810. The Highlander Hybrid LE, rated at 36 mpg city, 35 highway, starts at $38,410.

A weak spot of the Highlander, compared with some of its competitors, is luggage and cargo room. For example, the Atlas can swallow 12 cubic feet of cargo more than the Highlander can when the third- and second-row seats are lowered.

One of the Highlander's many strengths, in addition to its crisp handling and strong performance, is safety. It has been rated a Top Safety Pick Plus by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and received a five-star Overall Vehicle Score in government crash tests.

Steven Macoy (semacoy@gmail.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.