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2021 Toyota Highlander XLE vs. Highlander XSE: The Battle for the High Land

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  6. 2021 Toyota Highlander XLE vs. Highlander XSE: The Battle for the High Land

Is the XSE really that sporty? We drove both back-to-back.

Toyota Highlander Full Overview

The Toyota Highlander is known for being a reliable, good-looking three-row SUV, but among the list of adjectives used to describe it, sporty is not on our list. New for 2021 is the Highlander XSE, which swaps its elegant lines for a more dynamic appearance. With a unique grille, fascia, lower spoiler, wheels, and blackened details like the mirror caps and fake air vents, the XSE distinguishes itself from the rest of the Highlander lineup. But the XSE is more than a badge and an appearance package—Toyota engineers made changes under the skin to deliver a more connected driving experience. Among those trades are stiffer spring rates, a thicker anti-roll bar, and retuned shock absorbers, while the steering feel is more pronounced.

Earlier this year we tested a 2021 Highlander XSE but couldn’t notice any major differences between the regular three-row SUV and the new trim. To get a better perspective, we asked Toyota to lend us the XSE back along with an XLE—the most popular Highlander trim—for a back-to-back comparison.

How Sporty is Sporty?

Usually, we associate the word sporty with extra power and dynamic handling, but that’s not the case here. All Highlanders—regardless of the trim—are powered by a 295-hp, 263 lb-ft 3.5-liter V-6 mated to an eight-speed transmission. Our XSE and XLE both came with the optional all-wheel drive system, which can send up to 50 percent of the torque to the rear wheels. Besides the suspension and steering settings, the XSE comes with stickier tires and 20-inch wheels (instead of 18s).

Driving the Highlanders back-to-back exposed the difference we didn’t see earlier in the year. Compared to the XLE, the XSE’s steering felt a bit more weighted, but short of what we’d describe as sporty. The difference was like turning Sport mode on—the XSE felt more alert while the XLE seemed to be in comfort mode all the time. The response was a bit sharper and better balanced and provided a tad more feedback than the XLE. Still, it wasn’t a night and day difference, as the XSE’s steering is still tuned to on the comfort side of the spectrum.

The case is the same with the ride. On our test loop that mingles through curvy roads, broken pavement and highway portions, the Highlander XSE’s body felt a bit more controlled than the XLE. On the broken pavement, the XSE’s suspension felt like it was tuned to work in a one-and-done fashion versus trying to dissipate the vibrations in the cabin in a cushier way, like we felt in the XLE. On twisty roads, the XSE felt sharper, more controlled and a tad grippier—the latter mostly because of the Goodyear Eagle Touring tires compared to the XLE’s Michelin Premier LTX. Ride quality wasn’t impacted by the XSE’s bigger wheels.

At our track in Fontana, California, the pair felt pretty close to each other in our acceleration and handling tests. In the 0-60 mph run and the quarter mile, the XLE was 0.1 second faster, but on our braking test the XSE’s tires showed off, stopping in 116 ft compared to 122 ft for the XLE. “Similar feel to the XLE: Lots of front dive, softly sprung front suspension,” said associate road test editor Erick Ayapana after driving them back-to-back.

Things were minimally different on the skid pad as well, where road test editor Chris Walton managed to shave 0.2 second in the XSE for a time of 26.5-seconds at 0.65 g (the XLE took 26.7 seconds at 0.64 g). “Lots of body roll in the corners, and the steering seems heavy for heavy’s sake. The transmission wasn’t very intelligent on the skid pad, so I had to downshift manually,” said Walton on the XLE. His feelings were almost replicated in the XSE, noting the same foibles as in the XLE but less so. “There’s still quite a lot of dive and roll, but not as severe. The transmission behaves the same, and perhaps the tires are a little sportier, so it was easier to brake in the same spot consistently,” he added.

So, how sporty is sporty? The Highlander XSE falls short of what we’d call sporty or spirited. But like Walton said after driving the XSE on the skid pad, “this is how the regular Highlander should be.” The stiffer springs and weighted steering help it keep its body under control when driving aggressively, and still have that level of comfort that the three-row Toyota is known for.

Are the Interiors Different?

Similar to the exterior, the cabins are a bit different. The biggest change is the red leatherette in the XSE, which you can choose at no cost. (On a side note, the red leatherette only covers the first and second rows; the third row gets black seats.) If you prefer something more traditional, black leatherette seats are also standard, which is how our model came equipped. Faux carbon-fiber trim can be seen across the dashboard. The XLE, on the other hand, trades the red leatherette for a premium appeal, especially with the Harvest Beige interior, which combines beige and brown materials. And instead of getting the fake carbon-fiber, the XLE gets a shiny gray plastic.

The other minor difference inside is the design of the Multi-Terrain selector, which is controlled by a knob in the XSE instead of buttons like in the XLE. Both SUVs have the same three modes—Mud & Sand, Normal, and Rock & Dirt—only the way to select them is different.

Opting for the XLE allows you to choose between a seven- or eight-passenger interior at no cost; the XSE arrives with seven seats only.

Everything else is the same across the board. Both SUVs come with five USB ports (three in the front row, two in the second row) and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The XSE is available with navigation and a JBL premium audio system (a $1,680 option), while the XLE offers navigation and a premium audio option (no JBL speakers) for $1,040. Both systems sounded good; we didn’t notice any major difference between them.

Interior space is the same in both Highlanders, with the third row feeling cramped for adults. Recently, Toyota trademarked the “Grand Highlander” name, which means we might see a bigger three-row SUV soon, which could amplify interior space.

Which Highlander Should I Buy?

The XSE is positioned between the XLE and Limited grades, which means it starts at $42,680 while the XLE is priced at $41,085. All-wheel drive is an extra $1,950 for either model. Our XLE, which only added the navigation and audio package, crossed the checkout counter at $43,625. Our XSE added the JBL package and other accessories like the cargo cross bars on the roof, all-weather floor mats, and illuminated door sills (among others) that increased its price to $47,451.

In the end, it all comes down to the looks and practicality. If you think the Highlander’s design is boring, the XSE definitely brings more emotion. But if your budget is tighter, the XLE is a good option. The stiffer suspension and steering settings likely won’t affect your decision, as the experience behind the wheel is virtually the same when either Highlander is not pushed to its limits, something the vast majority of owners will stay away from.

If it were our money, we’d probably go with the XSE, as we prefer its handling on the road and its stickier tires. We’d rather have the XLE’s exterior design, but we’d get the red leatherette seats if we were buying the XSE. We can’t have the best of both worlds here, but we’re glad Toyota is giving customers more options to choose from.

Looks good! More details?

POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS 2021 Toyota Highlander XLE AWD 2021 Toyota Highlander XSE AWD
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD
ENGINE TYPE Atkinson-cycle 60-deg V-6, alum block/heads
VALVETRAIN DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
DISPLACEMENT 210.9 cu in/3,456 cc
COMPRESSION RATIO 11.8:1
POWER (SAE NET) 295 hp @ 6,600 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 263 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm
REDLINE 6,750 rpm
WEIGHT TO POWER 14.7 lb/hp 14.9 lb/hp
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO 3.00:1/2.02:1
SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
STEERING RATIO 14.2:1
TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK 2.8
BRAKES, F; R 13.3-in vented disc; 13.3-in disc, ABS
WHEELS 8.0 x 18-in cast aluminum 8.0 x 20-in cast aluminum
TIRES 235/65R18 106V Michelin Premier LTX (M+S) 235/55R20 102V Goodyear Eagle Touring (M+S)
DIMENSIONS
WHEELBASE 112.2 in
TRACK, F/R 65.3/65.4 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 194.9 x 76.0 x 68.1 in
GROUND CLEARANCE 8.0 in
APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE 17.9/23.0 deg
TURNING CIRCLE 37.4 ft
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4,341 lb (56/44%) 4,394 lb (55/45%)
TOWING CAPACITY 5,000 lb
SEATING CAPACITY 7 6
HEADROOM, F/M/R 38.4/39.4/36.1 in
LEGROOM, F/M/R 40.4/41.0/27.7 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/M/R 59.0/58.7/55.0 in
CARGO VOLUME, BEH F/M/R 84.3/48.4/16.0 cu ft
TEST DATA
ACCELERATION TO MPH
0-30 2.4 sec 2.4 sec
0-40 3.8 3.9
0-50 5.2 5.4
0-60 6.8 6.9
0-70 9.2 9.4
0-80 11.6 12.0
0-90 14.3 14.6
PASSING, 45-65 MPH 3.5 3.6
QUARTER MILE 15.3 sec @ 92.8 mph 15.4 sec @ 92.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 122 ft 116 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.82 g (avg) 0.86 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 26.7 sec @ 0.64 g (avg) 26.5 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)
TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH 1,500 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
BASE PRICE $42,860 $44,805
PRICE AS TESTED $43,900 $47,726
AIRBAGS 8: Dual front, front side, driver knee, front-pass thigh, f/m/r curtain
BASIC WARRANTY 3 yrs/36,000 miles
POWERTRAIN WARRANTY 5 yrs/60,000 miles
ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE 2 yrs/25,000 miles
FUEL CAPACITY 17.9 gal
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON 20/27/23 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 169/125 kWh/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.86 lb/mile
RECOMMENDED FUEL Unleaded regular

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2022 Volkswagen Taos Gets Basecamp Accessory Package for More Effective SUV Cosplay

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Volkswagen is introducing an outdoorsy accessory line for the all-new 2022 Taos. The accessories add a rugged look to the compact SUV and are available bundled together in a package or sold separately.

Inspired by the Basecamp line for the Atlas, the package includes custom plastic body cladding, front and rear fender flares with integrated splash guards, and lower side plates. The grille also gets a Basecamp badge. The Basecamp package gives the Taos a more aggressive appearance and creates a cohesive styling upgrade that extends from the nose to the rear.

In addition to the new Basecamp accessory line for Taos models, Volkswagen has a full suite of equipment options that bolster convenience and vehicle protection. Featured gear from the extensive catalog consists of Rubber MuddyBuddy and carpeted floor mats and Bumperdillo guards for the rear bumper that help prevent damage when loading and unloading cargo.

Aimed at folks with an adventurous lifestyle looking to boost functionality while adding distinctive styling, Volkswagen seeks to build on the vehicle’s dynamic exterior design. Except for the Basecamp badge, which is only a part of the complete package, the dealer-installed components are available individually. The Taos Basecamp bundle costs $999 and is on sale now.

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Tesla’s New AMD Graphics Chipset Should Have Sony PS5 Performance

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During Computex 2021 (aka Taipei International Information Technology Show), AMD disclosed it is providing APU- and RDNA2-based GPUs to Tesla to use in its new Model S and Model X’s infotainment systems. That explains Tesla’s bold claims, noted on its website, that “[u]p to 10 teraflops of processing power enables in-car gaming on-par with today’s newest consoles” in its Model S and Model X vehicles. Essentially, Tesla is putting a gaming computer on wheels, but more importantly, it shows the company is doubling down on a smart-connected vehicle future.

The Hardware

The current MCU2 (the second-generation media control unit) found in all Tesla models on sale today uses an Intel Atom processor, which is a lower-end product usually found in budget laptops. This new chipset from AMD—some Tesla fans have dubbed it “MC3″—should be a major upgrade, and Tesla claims it will be in vehicles this month. The APU (a CPU with an integrated, lower-performance GPU) generally handles the media system, using less power to handle simple tasks. The high-power dedicated GPU kicks in for high demand applications such as AAA games.

According to an earlier leak from developer Patrick Schur on Twitter, this high-power chip is based on AMD’s Navi 23 GPU, which should put it more or less on par with Sony’s PS5 gaming console in terms of raw computing power. Since the new Tesla infotainment screen has a 2200 x 1300 resolution, gaming performance should be at least equivalent to a PS5 hooked up to a 4K (3840 x 2160) TV.

Overall, this new chipset from AMD is a huge leap from the old Intel chip; think of it like going from a $400 netbook to a $2,000 gaming laptop. However, this change to a higher end chipset may put Tesla in a slight manufacturing disadvantage for a while, as the current global microchip shortage and strong demand from both gamers and crypto miners means GPUs are scarce. The demand is far bigger than supply, and manufacturing can’t scale up quickly to accommodate the demand, so don’t expect this new chipset to trickle down to higher volume Teslas such as the Model 3 and Model Y any time soon.

(Speaking of crypto-mining, the AMD GPU should provide 40-60 MH/s—millions of hashes per second—for mining Ethereum, but don’t buy a Model S as a mining rig. At the current rate, profit is roughly $4 a day, you will need 20,000 days to reach ROI, unless you “diamond hands” hold and ETH moons someday. And it’s not like Tesla would let you install any mining software, anyway.)

The Software and Future Potential

Nerdy hardware talk aside, what does this new chipset bring to the in-car experience? A smoother infotainment UI should be the most noticeable benefit. The Intel Atom chip from 2018 has started to show its age as Tesla added more functions throughout the years; the in-car browser can’t even scroll smoothly on this site, motortrend.com. And entertainment features such as Netflix and YouTube UI have started to feel sluggish. The new chip will almost certainly improve the UI experience.

Being able to run AAA games—big-budget blockbuster video games, in other words—is a gimmick that helps sell an expensive car, but it’s a gimmick no other brand has attempted. But there is more to it below the surface: This highly capable hardware paves a path for extra revenue for Tesla in the future, should it decide to sell games and apps on its own platform. The gaming industry is worth $150 billion; Apple’s AppStore made an estimated $64 billion in 2020.

Tesla has the ability to reach a user base of over a million owners, so selling software and subscription features is a potential revenue stream that is difficult to ignore. When driver-assistance technology becomes more mature in the coming years, and drivers don’t have to monitor the road at all times, the in-car infotainment system may become the major feature for car buyers.

It took Apple’s iOS 13 years to build up a customer base capable of generating $64 billion in one year. Since Tesla is intent on developing true self-driving systems in the future, it makes sense to start thinking about how to lock their customer base into their software ecosystem.

Game Time

To see how the current MCU stacks up, we booted up some AAA games for an unscientific test. It worked … with a few caveats.

As mentioned above, due to chip shortage, don’t expect to play AAA games in the Model 3 and Model Y anytime soon. But what if you really wanted to play high-end games while waiting in line for an available Supercharger in a parking lot (stationary, absolutely NOT driving on the road), and you didn’t have the latest Model S or Model X? Well, Tesla’s in-car browser is based on Google’s Chromium—the open-source code that underpins Chrome and many other browsers—and Google has a game streaming service named Stadia, so in theory you can play AAA titles through the in-car browser.

I plugged in my Stadia controller to an in-car USB slot, opened up the browser and logged into my Stadia account. And … it worked. I was able to play Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order on a Tesla Model 3’s screen.

But it didn’t work well. In fact, it was nigh-unplayable, due to frequent disconnects and numerous input lags. Game streaming requires a stable internet connection, and the car’s network module failed to provide that. Whether it was on full bar LTE cellular or a stable WIFI home internet, the MCU2 struggled to maintain a stable connection. Still, it works, in a technical sense, and the better internet module that will come with the MCU3 hardware improvements should bring Tesla’s dream of premium gameplay to a small screen near you.

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Obscure, Futuristic ’70s Mazda RX500 Concept Was Immortalized in Die-Cast Form

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  3. Obscure, Futuristic ’70s Mazda RX500 Concept Was Immortalized in Die-Cast Form

With a wild, eye-catching wedgy shape, it’s no wonder the RX500 inspired a Matchbox model that outlived it.

It’s late 1970. Mazda has been at the rotary engine game for almost a decade, developing the problematic Felix Wankel/NSU design into a formidable, powerful, and futuristic little powerplant. It was the highlight of the forward-looking production 1967 Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S. While beautiful, and interesting, the Cosmo Sport merely (albeit expertly) epitomized the now. The RX500 Concept, which took the stage at the 17th Tokyo Motor Show, envisioned a rotary-powered future straight out of a Syd Mead sketchbook.

The RX500’s aesthetic is pure ’70s sci-fi, with a wrap-around windshield that makes it look like a starfighter for the road. The ports on the engine cover and fenders look like exhausts for some sort of fusion reactor, the mirrors look like sensor pods, the large inlets just behind the windows could be jet intakes. Fair in the wheels, and it looks like it could hover, or fly. Pop up the butterfly doors and the impression is enhanced.

But the profile is the most striking. The high, nearly horizontal rear decklid streams backwards from the roof, terminating in a bluff rear flanked by a quadrangle-vented dark ring. Inset is a huge red-painted stripe emblazoned with the words “Powered by ROTARY.” Underneath, two prominent square exhaust outlets are painted red. There’s a loose thematic link with the Ferrari 250 GT SWB known as the “Breadvan,” but the RX500 is much busier in the details, yet arguably more elegant overall.

The shape came from Mazda’s design team, in particular Shigenori Fukuda, who later became head of the company’s design team. The designer admitted some influence from Italy in an interview with Pen, in particular Bertone’s work, but the design is on the whole original. And the spaceship influence is quite overt, directly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fukuda told the outlet.

It wasn’t enough to simply build a futuristic mid-engined supercar, albeit one with a modest (by today’s standards) 247 horsepower from a modified two-rotor 10A engine that revved to a stratospheric 15,000 RPM. As was the trend at the time, the RX500 explored safety concepts, with a taillight cluster that used colored indicators to show whether the car was accelerating, braking, or coasting. That particular concept didn’t catch on, but adaptive brake lights did, decades later.

What did endure was the shape, although not in a full-size vehicle. In 1971, Matchbox immortalized it with a die-cast model, which differed from the fantastic RX500 mainly in the re-imagined engine cover, which opened as one piece (as opposed to the gullwing engine bay doors on the RX500).

The RX500 speaks to a future that never was for Mazda, and one that arguably wouldn’t have worked out very well considering the oil crises that followed shortly after the concept’s debut. While Mazda never built a road car much like the RX500, its mid-engined race program eventually led to an overall win at Le Mans with the legendary 787B in 1991—after which rotary engines were banned from the series. The Autozam AZ-1, a mid-engined kei car with gullwing doors, is perhaps the closest thing to this RX500 to hit production, and it utilized a Suzuki I-3 engine.

Just one RX500 was made, and it was restored in 2008 to display at the Numaji Transportation Museum in Hiroshima, the home of Mazda. But the 1:59 scale Matchbox model remained on sale for over a decade, with a hiatus of several years in between, giving the RX500 a broad fanbase and a stronger legacy than it might have had otherwise.

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