This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Since the dawn of a new era, SUV’s have lost what made them so robust, conquers of the backlands. Now, they’ve been reduced to grocery getters and daycare drop offs. While the utility may have been forgotten, Toyota is at least trying to reclaim the sport in sport utility vehicle.

The Highlander over the years has grown up and out, like most parents – luckily the dad bod is all the rage these days and for the Highlander, well, Toyota has introduced a new trim to its 2017 model refresh to keep a spring in its get-a-long. The SE trim level is no stranger to Toyota’s lineup being featured in nearly every model including the Sienna minivan. Now, it’s the Highlanders turn. After being launched in 2014, the Highlander has received a mid-cycle refresh for 2017 gaining a new grille design, headlights, LED daytime’s and LED taillights as well as some minor performance enhancements.

The SE starts at $39,690 placing it right in the middle of the model lineup that now includes three new trim levels, LE Plus, SE (featured here) and a top tier Limited Platinum. The SE at nearly $40k however is no cheap scape when it comes to style and features – the SE incorporate a exclusive black grille, 19-inch wheels, blackout headlights and a distinctive leather striped seats. It also features Toyota Safety Sense that includes Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Keep Assist and Departure Alert, Forward Collision Mitigation, and Automatic High beams as a standard feature across all trim levels.

Performance was never really an issue in the previous model; however, Toyota has tinkered with the Highlanders 3.5-liter V-6 to now put out 295-horsepower over the previous 270. Its eight-speed automatic transmission is also new and feels livelier than ever expressing appropriate shift responses and a more fuel efficient demeanor being able to achieve 23 mpg combined with its new start/stop feature. Pedal to the metal the Highlanders new and improved engine is capable of achieving 60 mph in just under 7 seconds – an improvement over the previous 7.5 second recorded time.

The SE model brought us more sporting credentials having a sport tuned suspension and boosted electric steering. At the end of the day, all design to provide a more pleasurable driving experience. The ride is comfortable, and overall forgiving but the 19-inch wheels and firmer suspension did provide some unwanted harshness over course junctions in the road and while the boosted electric steering has a little more weight added, it still fairly vague in its motions. While our SE came in front-wheel drive – northerner’s will be happy to know that the Highlander has available all-wheel drive on all trim levels including the base LE.

Let us not forget however, this is a family hauling crossover, despite the sport badges on the back. The SE features second row captain’s chairs, rear window shades and an easy to access third row seat that can accommodate adults comfortably for all of 2 mins. Our tester also featured the $1810 Rear Seat Blue Ray DVD entertainment system to keep the kiddos happy while the parentals up front can remain content with the large 8-inch touch screen display with Toyota’s Entune software and Text Messaging Read Back.

After a few years now on the market, the Highlander is aging properly. The interior still upholds an attractive stance with soft touch materials and pleasant finishes with a large split cubby shelf in the middle. The Highlander is still one of the very last few SUV’s that offer a split pop-out rear window for hauling long items as well as a power lift tailgate.

With the addition of the SE model, Toyota has stepped up the Highlanders game against other crossovers like the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot. And while Honda doesn’t offer a sporty version of the Pilot and the Explorer’s Sport model costs $10-grand more. The Highlander SE offers a reasonable balance of attractive sport qualities with the proper fundamentals for any family essentials.

Vehicle Specifications:
2017 Toyota Highlander SE: $39,690
As Tested (including Options & Destination): $42,440
Performance Specs:
3.5-liter V-6 – 295-Horsepower, 8-Speed Automatic Transmission – 0-60MPH: ±7.0 seconds
EPA MPG: 21/27/23 (City/Highway/Combined) – SSB Average: 22 MPG’s – Fuel Range: ±300 Miles