After swapping its V-6 engine for a new turbocharged four-cylinder, the SUV’s day-to-day performance has improved.
That’s not the Highlander you remember. Sure, it looks the same as before, but behind the 2023 Toyota Highlander’s familiar sheet metal is an update that completely changes the driving experience. A new turbocharged four-cylinder engine replaces the V-6 in this year’s popular three-row SUV, and while the numbers on the test track may not have quite the same story as the old Highlander, actual performance is significantly improved.
Fewer cylinders, more torque
New to Toyota, the 2.4-liter turbocharged I-4 makes 265 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, 30 hp less than the 2022 Highlander’s 3.5-liter V-6, but 47 lb-ft more torque. You’d think these power spikes might cancel each other out, and that’s true—the 2023 Highlander XSE we tested didn’t do well on the track. The Highlander hits 100 km/h in a respectable (for a three-row family SUV) 8.0 seconds, trailing the competition by the same pace; the Kia Telluride and Subaru Ascent both hit 60 mph in 6.9 seconds. Seriously, he was behind the old six-cylinder Highlander. In our testing, the 2021 Highlander XLE hit 60 mph in 6.8 seconds, while the 2021 XSE model hit that speed in 6.9 seconds.
While that doesn’t paint a pretty picture, all MotorTrend editors agree: We prefer the new I-4 to the real-world V-6.
“This supercharged engine is a huge improvement over the outgoing V-6,” said associate editor Alex Leanse. “Finally, you no longer have to squeeze out the revs to accelerate, but just drive your newfound torque in the low-to-mid rev range to get up to speed.”
The best part? You might actually notice the glitch on a test drive, especially if you’re heading to a dealership with an expiring V-6. One caveat: The ’23 Highlander’s fuel economy is 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, and 25 mpg combined (a 1 mpg drop across the board on a 4WD model like our test model); these numbers represent tiny bumps in the city and don’t Combined with last year’s V-6, it delivers up to 21 mpg city, the same 29 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined. If fuel efficiency is your top priority, we still highly recommend opting for the more expensive Highlander Hybrid if your budget allows. The Hybrid is only 0.4 seconds slower to 60 mph, but leaves the turbocharged Highlander in the dust in terms of fuel economy and range, which means you’ll go farther before you have to stop to refuel Far.
Going back to the non-hybrid 2023 Highlander, our example of the XSE — Toyota represents the sportiest trim level, or at least the sportiest — fared poorly in our 60-0-mile emergency braking test. His 132-foot stop surpassed the 2021 Highlander XSE’s 116-foot stop, the 21 Series XLE’s 122-foot stop and the Subaru Ascent’s 114-foot best stop. The Kia Telluride topped the list, staying at just 113 feet. Quick Review: Our 2023 Highlander XSE test was in 107-degree weather. Although we made weather corrections to ensure consistent test data, the Highlander could have done better in milder conditions.
When we rode the 2021 Highlander XSE back-to-back with the XLE models, we found the former to ride slightly better, but still not quite as good as what we’d call sporty or spiritual. The same goes for the 2023 Highlander XSE, which gets steering and suspension changes that the XLE doesn’t. What you’ll find in town is exactly what you’d expect from a three-row SUV’s sporty interior: capability, but not dynamic excellence. Steering is precise, but doesn’t feel great, and some editors found the XSE’s ride a little bouncy. One bright spot: Unlike many family vehicle transmissions, the Highlander’s eight-speed automatic doesn’t always upshift at every opportunity.
Beyond the new engine
Otherwise, the 2023 Highlander is very similar to the 2022 model, save for the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster available on Limited and Platinum trim levels. Additionally, the Highlander offers the same advantages and disadvantages as before. Professionals start with the excellent storage options up front – both in the center console and the dashboard itself. There, in a cramped but useful storage compartment, like the one in front of the passenger, you’ll find the relocated phone charger. It’s a detail that, even if it seems odd at first glance, has grown over time. You will gradually appreciate it.
The second-row seats fold up easily, but the third row is as cramped as before, and the floor is a little too high. Toyota also delivered very good, if not best-in-class results in safety testing. IIHS gave the 2022 model a Top Safety Pick+ rating for 2022, and NHTSA gave the 2022 Highlander an overall five-star rating. That’s fine, but it’s worth noting that the 2022 Subaru Ascent performs the same, but has a higher NHTSA frontal crash test rating (5 stars for Toyota vs 4 stars for Toyota).
It’s Toyota, remember?
Where Toyota has really made progress is not in its newfound mid-range torque, but in its reputation for value. MotorTrend subsidiary IntelliChoice knows it’s more than just price. You’ll also need to consider resale value, insurance costs, fuel costs, and more. If you analyze the numbers, Toyota has had an excellent overall rating for the past four years. If the 2023 Highlander continues this trend, for some, that reassurance is more valuable than having the fastest or most spacious SUV on the market. Expected long-term value, good safety ratings and more torque should keep the Highlander on the bestseller list for years to come. The Hybrid remains our pick in the Highlander range, but if you drive the Turbo, you know it feels quicker in the real world than the numbers suggest.
Connor Mason is a passionate automotive journalist and the author behind the popular website motonews.info. With years of experience in the automotive industry, Connor is well-versed in all things related to cars and motorcycles.