First Drive: 2023 Toyota Highlander
Toyota has given the Highlander midsize SUV a light refresh for 2023, focusing on changes under the skin to maintain competitive status in the market.
The big change for Toyota’s bread-and-butter family SUV in 2023 is the departure of the V-6 engine in favor of a turbo 4-cylinder. Time marches on, and fuel economy is king in the current market, even in a three-row SUV.
Toyota built and sold 264,128 Highlander SUVs in America last year. That’s more than several brands could manage with their entire line-ups. The Highlander is the sine qua non of suburban family life, and if you don’t own one personally, chances are you know someone who does. As a mainstay of the brand, Toyota moves carefully with the Highlander, keeping the model up to date and attractive.
In addition to the new engine package, the 2023 Highlander has been updated with larger infotainment and driver information screens and other interior and exterior amenities. But for the most part, the things that make the Highlander a touchstone for value and appeal remain the same.
The thing about the outside of the Highlander, for people of a certain age anyway, is that you can’t escape noticing the large lower front grille looks like the face of the original Cylons from the 1970s Battlestar Galactica TV series. When the Highlander is presented in white, there’s also a distinct Star Wars storm trooper vibe.
Now that we’ve planted that visual in your head, we’ll say the new Cypress Green color available for 2023 is lovely, and it bucks the trend of monochromatic SUVs that make our lives boring. It’s a nice medium green that doesn’t look garish, but reminds us that real life has color, and your car can be painted in something other than silver — honest!
The interior of the Highlander remains mostly the same. It’s comfortable, spacious and quiet on the road. The base L and LE trims offer cloth seat surfaces, while the mid-level XLE and XSE trims use SofTex “synthetic leather.” Limited trim comes with perforated leather while the top Platinum grade gets you embossed perforated leather.
In the back, the L and LE trims offer a second-row bench seat, yielding 8-passenger capacity. The XLE and Limited grades have Captain’s Chair buckets for 7-seat capability. Buyers can also choose a second-row bench seat in any trim but Platinum.
For cargo capacity, you get 16 cubic feet behind the third row, 48.4 cubes with the third row folded, and 84.3 cubic feet with all the rear seats down.
The biggest change for the 2023 Highlander is that after 20 years of service and development, the venerable GR-series 3.5-liter V-6 engine is disappearing from the option list. As with many other vehicles before it, the Highlander’s V-6 has been replaced by a turbocharged 4-cylinder. However, this does not represent a loss of power or drivability.
The new 2.4-liter engine delivers 265 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, which is a 17% increase compared with the V-6 engine’s torque rating. Plus, the new engine also improves fuel efficiency, returning up to 25 MPG in combined driving. The new engine is also cleaner, offering more than a 50% reduction in NOx and NMOG compared to the V-6. The turbo-4 will be standard on all Highlanders.
Power is passed to the wheels via an 8-speed automatic transmission, or a CVT if you buy the related Highlander Hybrid. Buyers have a choice of front-wheel drive or two different AWD systems, based on trim level. For the more basic L, LE and XLE models, the optional AWD system can send up to 50% of available torque to the rear wheels to help counter wheel slip when necessary.
The more expensive XSE, Limited and Platinum models offer an advanced AWD system with dynamic torque vectoring, drive mode select and driveline disconnect features. In addition to governing torque distribution between the front and rear wheels, the torque vectoring system will actively manage torque distribution between the left and right rear wheels. Then when AWD is not needed, such as during steady highway cruising, Driveline Disconnect automatically disengages drive to the rear wheels and stops the driveshaft’s rotation, helping to reduce fuel consumption.
Safety and Technology
The 2023 Highlander comes with Toyota Safety Sense 2.5, which is now a little downrev since version 3.0 is available on more thoroughly refreshed models like the Corolla. But it’s still a good system with adaptive cruise control and advanced driver assistance. TSS 2.5 is standard on all 2023 Highlanders.
However, dashboard tech has been significantly upgraded. If you buy one of the two top trims of the 2023 Highlander, you’ll be looking at a much bigger set of screens. In the Limited and Platinum trims the old 7-inch driver information display is out, replaced by a new 12.3-inch screen with four different visual modes. You can choose Casual, Smart, Tough or Sporty mode. The top trims also get an additional 12.3-inch screen for infotainment.
The 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen is optional on XLE and XSE trims, which have an 8-inch screen as standard. These two trims continue to use the 7-inch driver information screen. On the base L and LE grades, the 7-inch screen replaces the older 4.2-inch screen for enhanced usability.
If you get the Qi-compatible wireless charger, it has moved from the center console to a center dashboard shelf below the audio multimedia touchscreen. Our modern phone test, an iPhone 13 Pro Max with a protective case, was able to fit and charge with the system. Sadly, that is not the case with every new vehicle.
The thing about the Highlander is that it’s a family car. There’s no point in trying to scramble up a mountain trail or climb over a rock. Sure, it can probably do those things if you want to, but if that’s your jam, you’ll be looking at a 4Runner or a Tacoma. A reasonably smooth gravel trail to a campground is probably the most any Highlander will be asked to tackle in the real world.
As a family car, the Highlander is an excellent performer. It’s quiet on the road, predictable, and has enough power to pass a slow-moving vehicle without undue concern. The Highlander handles speed bumps, rough roads and the rhythmic pounding of ill-maintained highways with great aplomb; you can hardly feel it through the steering wheel.
Most importantly, the Highlander’s steering is predictable and reassuring. The brakes have plenty of power to get you stopped before the TSS 2.5 has to kick in. This is a vehicle you can trust to carry your kids, and their friends.
2023 Toyota Highland Specifications
|Dimension||L: 194.9 inches/W: 76 inches/H: 68.1 inches/Wheelbase: 112.2 inches|
|Powertrain||2.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine; 8-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive|
|Fuel Economy||21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 mpg combined|
|Performance Specs||265 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque|
|Price||Base price: $37,755; As tested: $40,155, including $1,335 destination charge.|
|On-Sale Date||Available now|
The 2023 Highlander will be arriving at Toyota dealers any day now, with a starting MSRP of $36,420 for the base L trim with front-wheel drive. The LE starts at $38,820, XLE at $41,820, and XSE at $43,415. At the top end, the Limited FWD starts at $46,075 and the Platinum at $49,075. If you want AWD, that will cost $1,600 more on L, LE, and XLE trims, and $1,950 more on XSE, Limited, and Platinum trims. Destination fees of $1,335 are applied to all standard prices.
Any Highlander that fits your budget is a good choice, but the extra tech in the Limited and Platinum trims will be important if you’re buying a vehicle to last 10 years or more. Between the two, we’d probably go with Limited, as the Platinum doesn’t add anything we can’t live without.
Given that by the time you configure a Limited, you’re pushing close to $50,000, that seems like a reasonable compromise. Or, it could be smart to choose the less expensive XLE or XSE trims, and use the option list to upgrade the tech.
2023 Toyota Highlander — Frequently Asked Questions
Which is bigger, Toyota 4Runner or Toyota Highlander?
The Highlander is bigger, with 4.7 inches more length and more interior space because of its unibody construction.
How long will a Toyota Highlander last?
Typically more than 300,000 miles. At 15,000 miles per year, that’s 20 years.
What is the towing capacity of a 2023 Toyota Highlander?
The 2023 Highlander will tow up to 5,000 pounds.