Turbocharging has been the name of the game for nearly 15 years. But as vehicles as varied as the Ford F-150, Honda Civic, and Porsche 911 adopted forced induction, Toyota remained defiant. In fact, it’s fair to consider the Japanese brand one of the leading holdouts for natural aspiration.
But while the walls haven’t come tumbling down, the Tundra and Sequoia were the first cracks. And the latest comes with the 2023 Toyota Highlander, which does away completely with its naturally aspirated V6 in favor of a turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder. While I’ll miss the pleasant-sounding but otherwise uninteresting 3.5-liter V6, the 2.4-liter Highlander’s upgrades, both on paper and in the real world, are impossible to ignore.
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|Quick Stats||2023 Toyota Highlander Limited AWD|
|Engine:||Turbocharged 2.4-liter I4|
|Output:||265 Horsepower / 310 Pound-Feet|
|Efficiency:||21 City / 28 Highway / 24 Combined|
|Base Price:||$36,420 + $1,335 Destination|
Gallery: 2023 Toyota Highlander
Satisfying Both Sides
For those that haven’t been paying attention to the industry for, you know, the past decade, turbocharging has taken over because it allows smaller engines to match or exceed the torque and/or horsepower of larger engines while returning better fuel economy and/or producing fewer emissions. And that’s the start and finish of why Toyota is introducing it on the 2023 Highlander. The old 3.5-liter V6 packed 295 ponies and 263 pound-feet of torque while netting an EPA-estimated 20 miles per gallon city, 27 highway, and 23 combined with all-wheel drive. Those figures are pretty darn average across the board.
The turbocharged 2.4-liter doesn’t do the Highlander any favors with its output, which is down 30 hp on the 3.5-liter. The trade-off is its 310 lb-ft of torque, a 47-lb-ft improvement. Carrol Shelby said “Horsepower sells cars, torque wins races” but after driving the turbocharged Highlander around Franklin, Tennessee for a stretch, I’d bet my bottom dollar the torque increase will sell plenty of folks on these three-row Toyotas.
At the same time, fuel economy in all-wheel-drive models is up a point across the board, while front-drivers gain a point in the city and combined cycles on most trims. Emissions drop substantially, too, with Toyota claiming a 50-percent drop in NOx and nonmethane oxygenated emissions.
Simply put, the Highlander feels like a more modern product with its turbocharged 2.4-liter under hood. Toyota promises peak twist from 1,700 to 3,600 rpm, which is conveniently where three-row crossover engines spend a good chunk of their time in everyday driving, so acceleration is eager whether pulling away from a stoplight or climbing a grade. The twin-scroll turbocharger spools quickly, too, while the engine’s soundtrack comes in at a pleasant volume and is free of harsh notes – there’s little hiding the fact that this engine appeared in a Lexus first.
A semi-weak link in the powertrain, though, is the gearbox. Left on its own, upshifts are smooth and downshifts happen with a minimal amount of prodding. The eight-speed auto is quick to engage off the line, too. But like so many Toyota gearboxes, the 8AT takes manual inputs more as a suggestion than anything else. Yeah, most consumers won’t take hold of the wheel-mounted paddle shifters, but it shouldn’t take a full second between asking for a gear and its delivery.
Drive Modern, Look Modern
Beyond the new engine, the 2023 Highlander is subject to the same infotainment improvements found throughout the Toyota range, although only on certain trims. The range-topping Limited and Platinum models score a standard 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and a 12.3-inch touchscreen running the same software found in the Tundra and Lexus NX/RX. The latter item is optional on the XLE and XSE, which receives an 8.0-inch touchscreen standard with similar software and pairs it with a 7.0-inch display in the cluster.
The 12.3-inch touchscreen is as good here as in other Toyota/Lexus products, with quick response and crisp graphics that fit with the times . The left bank of icons makes the suite like a smartphone in landscape mode and may trip up fans of a traditional home screen, but the overall system is easy to learn. I can’t say quite as much about the 12.3-inch instrument cluster, which makes a poor use of space and is rather obtuse in its design. Still, its different modes should suit a wide range of consumers and, once laid out properly, the graphics are excellent.
More, But Not Much
Yep, we’ve reached the downside of extra torque and more modern technology. Prices are up, but not in a manner that feels unusual for a model year changeover. The bottom four Highlander trims – L, LE, XLE, and XSE – only see increases of $565 to $765, starting with the $37,755 base price (including a $1,335 destination charge). Even the $47,410 Limited and $50,610 Platinum, the top two trims in the Highlander lineup, don’t increase much beyond $1,000. In terms of what it was before, then, the 2023 Highlander is something of a bargain. You’re simply getting more – performance, technology, refinement, fuel economy – for your money.
Highlander Competitor Reviews:
- Chevrolet Traverse: 7.7 / 10
- Ford Explorer: Not Rated
- Honda Pilot: 8.7 / 10
- Hyundai Palisade: 9.3 / 10
- Jeep Grand Cherokee L: 9.3 / 10
- Kia Telluride: Not Rated
- Mazda CX-9: Not Rated
- Nissan Pathfinder: 9.2 / 10
- Subaru Ascent: Not Rated
- Volkswagen Atlas: 7.5 / 10
2023 Toyota Highlander Limited AWD