2023 Toyota Highlander First Drive Review: Improved Enough

First Drive / Comments

A new engine and new tech have done enough to keep the Highlander competitive.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. It's a rather obvious expression but one that's often ignored by automakers when it comes to mid-cycle product refreshes. Not so with the 2023 Toyota Highlander. Toyota took in customer feedback about the fourth-generation Highlander, updated only what it needed to, and called it a day. Some might call this approach lazy in a tight midsize SUV segment where the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade dominate proceedings, but when a company has as many loyal customers as Toyota, it's simply pragmatic.

The 2023 Highlander arrives looking the same on the outside but with some key technology improvements inside and a new engine under the hood. Toyota invited CarBuzz to sample the refreshed Highlander along with a few other new vehicles, and we are ready to tell you if the improvements for 2023 are worth trading in for.

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Familiar Styling

We wouldn't call it the prettiest or boldest three-row mid-size crossover, but there was nothing offensive or jarring about the Highlander's design that required a major overhaul. The 2023 model retains its familiar styling with key differentiation between certain trims like the XSE (pictured in white), which gets a unique front fascia and sporty black wheels. A new color, Cypress Green (pictured above), has been added to the palette, and we think it looks great on the Highlander. Toyota will also offer a Bronze Edition with cool bronze accents, though it's only available as a hybrid.

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Interior Tech Upgrades

Toyota spent the majority of its time updating the Highlander's cabin. The overall layout remains unchanged, but the technology is improved. An eight-inch touchscreen comes standard, now powered by Toyota's latest infotainment software that adds wireless Apple CarPlay, wireless Android Auto, and intelligent voice command. Higher trims upgrade to a 12.3-inch display, which can now project media on the entire screen rather than being forced to go split-screen. We'd call this a win, but in Toyota's infinite wisdom, there is no longer a split-screen option at all.

Stepping up to the Limited or Platinum trims adds a second 12.3-inch gauge cluster display with Casual, Smart, Tough, and Sporty modes. These trims project media through an 11-speaker JBL audio system. The Highlander seats up to eight passengers, while upper trims swap the second-row bench for captain's chairs, limiting the capacity to seven occupants.

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A New Engine From Lexus

The big story under the hood is the demise of Toyota's long-running 3.5-liter V6 engine. It's still around in the Camry and a few other vehicles, but its days are numbered. In its place, a 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine delivers 265 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. That's less than the 295 hp produced by the outgoing V6, but the torque is well up from the previous 263 lb-ft. Toyota says the turbo four-pot delivers smoother acceleration with better low-end response, and it helps the company meet stricter emissions targets.

Power goes out to a front-wheel drivetrain as standard or optional all-wheel drive through an eight-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is rated at 22/29/25 mpg city/highway/combined with FWD, and those numbers drop by one in each category with AWD. It's only a one mpg improvement over the V6, but a 50% reduction in NOx and NMOG is a worthy reason for the engine downsizing.

As before, the Highlander Hybrid uses a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine paired with electric motors to produce 243 hp. This combination delivers a 36-mpg combined average, besting every three-row crossover on the market.

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Drives Like A Highlander

Based on what's new in the 2023 Highlander, don't trade in your 2022 model expecting a vastly new driving experience. The new engine is the most notable difference, offering more readily available passing power that doesn't require as many downshifts from the transmission in most driving situations. That being said, when the low-end torque is insufficient, the Highlander emits a less-than-pleasant engine note during hard acceleration. It may be more suited to how the average crossover owner drives, but the V6 was more aurally pleasing. The turbo-four may have Lexus origins, but it feels less refined in this application due to the lack of sound deadening.

In all honesty, the new engine doesn't completely transform the Highlander. It's still pleasant to drive on the highway with some wind noise that typically plagues Toyota vehicles. On a back road, the Highlander isn't completely incompetent, managing its bulk fairly well. If you liked how the Highlander drove in the past, you'll enjoy the new one.

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Pricing And Trims

The Highlander is not the most affordable vehicle in its segment, but it's mostly in-line with the competition. Pricing starts at $36,420 (not including destination and handling) for the base L model with FWD. The gas-only Highlander comes in the following trim levels, each offering FWD or AWD: LE ($38,820), XLE ($41,820), XSE ($43,415), Limited ($46,075), Platinum ($49,275). Stepping up to AWD on any of these trims adds a $1,600 premium.

Opting for a Highlander Hybrid costs anywhere from $1,200 to $1,400 extra, depending on the trim level. Though it produces less power, we prefer the smooth acceleration offered by the hybrid's eCVT and the outstanding fuel economy that's unmatched by competitors. With no hybrid rivals on the market, the hybrid remains the Highlander's trump card and the number one reason why we'd recommend one over a comparable SUV.

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Verdict: Get A Hybrid

In a highly competitive three-row crossover segment, Toyota did just enough to keep the 2023 Highlander relevant. The tech upgrades are welcomed, and anyone coming off-lease will enjoy the improvement. We weren't blown away by the new turbocharged engine, though the outgoing V6 was not our powertrain of choice either. With more premium options like the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade available, it's still tough for us to recommend the gas Highlander. That being said, those vehicles only average 21 mpg, which is significantly lower than the Toyota.

If you want to buy a 2023 Toyota Highlander, we strongly encourage you to consider the hybrid. For just a small premium over the gas model, it delivers a whopping 44% fuel economy improvement. With those fuel savings, you can earn back the hybrid premium in under two years. The hybrid powertrain was (and still is) the number one reason to buy a Highlander.

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