Turbocharging has been the name of the game for about 15 years. But because vehicles like the Ford F-150, Honda Civic, and Porsche 911 are different, Toyota opposes them. In fact, it’s fair to consider the Japanese brand a staple for natural cravings.
But while the walls don’t fall, Tundra and Sequoia were the first cracks. And the latest comes with the 2023 Toyota Highlander, which ditches its naturally aspirated V6 altogether 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 upgrade, both on paper and in the real world, is 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|
|Performance:||21 city / 28 highway / 24 combined|
|Base Price:||$36,420 + $1,335 destination|
Satisfy both sides
For those who haven’t been paying attention to the industry for the past decade, you know, turbocharging has taken over because it gives smaller engines better fuel economy than larger engines with more torque and/or horsepower. Lets equal or exceed. or producing less emissions. And that’s the beginning and end 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 getting an EPA-estimated 20 miles per gallon city, 27 highway, and 23 combined with all-wheel drive. These figures are fairly average across the board.
The turbocharged 2.4-liter does the Highlander no favors with its output, which is 30 hp down on the 3.5-liter. The tradeoff is its 310 lb-ft of torque, a 47-lb-ft improvement. Carroll Shelby said “horsepower sells cars, torque wins races” but after driving a turbocharged Highlander around Franklin, Tennessee, I’d bet the torque increase is huge on these three-row Toyotas. Will sell to all people.
At the same time, fuel economy is up one point across the board in all-wheel-drive models, while front-drivers gain one point in the city and combined cycle on most trims. Emissions have also been reduced significantly, with Toyota claiming a 50 percent reduction in NOx and non-methane oxygen emissions.
Simply put, the Highlander feels like a more modern product with its turbocharged 2.4-liter under the hood. Toyota promises peak torque from 1,700 to 3,600 rpm, which is conveniently where the inline-three crossover engine spends a good portion of its time in daily driving, so acceleration is restless even from a stop. Avoiding a light or climbing a grade. The twin-scroll turbocharger also spools up quickly, while the engine’s soundtrack comes in at a pleasant volume and is free of harsh notes – no need to hide the fact that this engine first appeared in a Lexus.
A semi-weak link in the powertrain, though, is the gearbox. On its own, upshifts are smooth and downshifts with a minimal amount of prodding. The eight-speed auto is also quick off the line. But like many Toyota gearboxes, the 8AT takes manual input more as a suggestion than anything else. Yes, most users won’t grab the paddle shifters on the wheel, but there shouldn’t be a full second between asking for a gear and its delivery.
Drive modern, look modern
Apart from the new engine, the 2023 Highlander is subject to infotainment improvements found across Toyota’s range, albeit only on certain trims. Range-topping Limited and Platinum models score a standard 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and 12.3-inch touchscreen that runs the same software found in the Tundra and Lexus NX/RX. The latter item is optional on the XLE and XSE, which gets 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 just as good here as in other Toyota/Lexus products, with quick responses and crisp graphics that fit the times. The left edge of the icons makes the suite look like a smartphone in landscape mode and may trip fans of traditional home screens, but the overall system is easy to learn. I can’t say much about the 12.3-inch instrument cluster, which makes poor use of space and is very clunky in design. Still, its different modes should suit a wide range of users and, once configured correctly, the graphics are excellent.
More, but not more.
Yes, we’ve reached the downside of extra torque and more advanced technology. Prices are going up, but not in a way that feels unusual for a model year change. The bottom four Highlander trims – L, LE, XLE, and XSE – see increases of just $565 to $765, starting at a $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 by more than $1,000. For what it used to be, then, the 2023 Highlander is something of a bargain. You’re just getting more for your money – performance, technology, refinement, fuel economy.