2023 Toyota Highlander Turbo First Drive Review: The Family Ride Gets More Efficient, Less Refined

The Toyota Highlander is like plain oatmeal. It appeals to a ton of people, it’s affordable, and countless American households have it. But as with everything else that competes in the highly saturated midsize SUV market, it needs constant updates to stay competitive. For the 2023 Toyota Highlander, Toyota tried to add some fruit and honey to its oatmeal by giving it a new turbocharged engine. And while that does add a hint of flavor, the overall taste hasn’t changed much. Considering how important volume-sellers like the Highlander are to Toyota’s bottom line, this was most certainly by design.

Prior to this new engine upgrade, the non-hybrid Highlander used Toyota’s tried and true 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V6. It’s a fine engine that works well in cars like the Toyota Camry, but it always struggled a bit in the heavier Highlander. Because of that, its fuel economy and overall emissions suffered. So Toyota decided to give it the turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder to help improve both.

For the most part, the new engine does that job. In the minimal seat time I got, I can confirm this forced induction route was intended for better fuel economy and not so much for more exciting driving performance. But most Highlander buyers ought to be pleased with the (admittedly rather minor) returns at the pump. 

2023 Toyota Highlander 2.4T Review Specs

  • Base price (XSE AWD as tested): $37,615 ($48,618)
  • Powertrain: 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder | 8-speed automatic | all-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 265 @ 6,000 rpm
  • Torque: 310 lb-ft @ 1,700 rpm
  • Curb weight: 4,420 pounds
  • Seating capacity: 6 (7 optional)
  • Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
  • Cargo volume: 16 cubic feet (48.4 with third row down, 84.3 with second row down)
  • EPA fuel economy: 21 mpg city | 28 highway | 24 combined 
  • Quick take: The new engine helps but there are better, more interesting alternatives.
  • Score: 7/10

New Tech

But aside from the new engine, the Highlander also gets new tech. For 2023, Toyota offers a new 12.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system (standard on Platinum and Limited trims, optional on XLE and XSE trims) and it’s a big improvement over the 2022 model’s. 

It features a simple user interface, with a single, fixed column of icons on the left side of the screen which makes navigating menus easier. Graphics are crisp, the screen’s touch sensitivity is responsive, and it even comes with a new Siri-like virtual voice-activated assistant. Just say “Hey, Toyota” and it will wake up, awaiting commands. For the most part, it seemed to understand commands well enough, although it wasn’t always perfect. There was an instance where my driving partners and I were testing the system out, asking it to find the nearest Best Buy and it said it didn’t understand the command, despite repeated attempts. However, when I asked it to navigate me back to Toyota’s rendezvous point, it worked every time.

Its on-board navigation system also worked well. Normally, I just pair Apple CarPlay (which is wireless on the 2023 Highlander) and use Google Maps or Waze. But because our route back to the event was pre-programmed into the car’s nav, I got a chance to test it out. Its graphics are crisp, the map is clear and easy to read while driving, and the UI was fairly simple.

It’s also worth noting that Toyota upgraded the gauge cluster to an all-digital setup for Platinum and Limited models. 

Fewer Cylinders, More Usable Low-Down Power

On paper, its 265 horsepower might seem like a downgrade compared to the outgoing V6’s 295 ponies. However, the turbo-four’s 310 lb-ft of torque is punchier than the V6’s 265 lb-ft. More importantly, the turbo-four’s torque peaks at 1,700 rpm and lasts until 3,600 rpm, whereas V6 owners have to wait until 4,700 rpm to use its maximum torque.

To test the Highlander’s new engine, Toyota let us loose on some of Tennessee’s twistiest back roads. While a two-ton, four-cylinder family SUV isn’t exactly ideal for enjoying such roads, that didn’t stop us from trying.

No one is ever going to accuse the Toyota Highlander of being spirited to drive but the new turbocharged engine does make a difference in lower revs, even if it’s brief. It pulls harder off the line than the V6 and motivates the Highlander’s 4,400 pounds pretty easily from a standstill. However, because it has less peak horsepower than before, it feels like it runs out of steam as the revs climb. It’s clear the new engine was intended for gentler, more efficient driving. 

The 2.4-liter also doesn’t seem to enjoy full-throttle acceleration. It might be brand-spankin’ new to the Highlander—it’s found in the new Lexus RX and NX—but it can feel a bit crude at times. There’s a grumbly, gravelly noise under hard acceleration, almost like a bunch of marbles in a blender. To be fair, if you drive it like 99.9 percent of Highlanders owners will—smoothly and gently, barely cresting 3,000 rpm—you’ll barely notice. Press on, though, and you’ll feel a coarseness that feels less premium than the older, smoother V6. 

Then again, the 2.4-liter engine wasn’t implemented here for better performance or a more premium feel. Instead, it was developed for two things above all else—fuel efficiency and a reduction in emissions. 

With regard to the former, we’ll just have to take Toyota’s word for it; the automaker claims a 50-percent reduction in nitrous-oxide and NMOG (non-methane organic gasses) emissions. So while this new engine doesn’t drastically improve fuel economy, it does let Toyota cut down on those harmful gasses and help save polar bears, which is good. 

The test car I drove was staring at a sub-17 mpg figure before I even set off thanks to the flogging it received at the hands of the overly caffeinated car journalists before me. Although, I wasn’t much better. In my defense, I was driving on some of the best country roads I’ve ever seen in the United States, covered in gorgeous fall-colored foliage. I couldn’t help myself, don’t judge me. 

But I’ll also acknowledge that the short 40-or-so minutes I had with the Highlander and on those roads are not at all typical of normal Highlander driving conditions, which largely consist of commuting and running errands. I do believe customers will see better real-world mpg with the new engine, though, simply because it provides more low-end power. That will keep drivers off the throttle more, thus saving a bit more fuel. The EPA estimates that the turbocharged Highlander will get 24 combined mpg with all-wheel drive and 25 combined mpg with front-wheel drive (versus the V6’s 23 mpg combined figure) and that sounds pretty realistic after driving it.

The rest of the 2023 Toyota Highlander’s driving experience is pretty much the same as the 2022 Highlander’s. It performs all of its duties adequately. The Highlander rides well enough, its steering is light and accurate enough, and it has a bit of body roll, as you might expect from a tall SUV. However, it isn’t sloppy and it never really loses its composure (and not for my lack of trying). The Highlander is meant to be a spacious, practical, and reliable family vehicle and is all of those things.

Turbocharging the 2023 Toyota Highlander didn’t lead to something with a little more personality—something with a bit more flavor than just plain oatmeal—and I was a little surprised by how marginal the improvements in the estimated fuel economy were. But I think Toyota made the correct decision to add the new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine alongside the V6, though. With its more immediate low-end torque, it suits the nature of the Highlander better, and few, if any, customers will likely care about its less refined nature. Changes and improvements in mass-seller vehicles such as these are typically small and incremental (so buyers don’t get spooked) and this was a step in the right direction of finally modernizing one of Toyota’s best-sellers. 

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