If you want a true SUV then the Toyota 4Runner with its rugged character and luxury amenities is hard to beat. Just save some money for gas.
Welcome to the last of the Mohicans: the Toyota 4Runner.
Where other SUVs have shed their ladder frames and transfer cases to become essentially tall cars – or as the industry calls them, crossovers – the 4Runner soldiers on as the epitome of the breed, a rugged off-road capable vehicle that can handle a large family in comfort.
Unfortunately, the 4Runner also epitomizes some of the faults of the SUV family, but we will get to those later.
Old School, but Ivy League
For 2014, the venerable 4Runner gets a midlife refresh that includes some up-rated interior bits and pieces, new tail lights, and a boldly restyled front end that is … not for everyone. However, the basics remain unchanged.
Every 4Runner comes with a genuine truck frame – shared with the awesome but soon-to-be-departing FJ Cruiser – and a five-speed automatic and a 270-horsepower GR 4.0-liter V6.
This is more than enough to get you around, but don’t expect to drive the nearly 5,000 pounds of 4Runner at sports SUV speeds.
The Toyota GR engine has been around since 2002, and has undergone surprisingly few changes. Think of the 4.0-liter V6 as going to war with an M1 Garand, its tried and true, but not exactly high performance.
4Runner soldiers on as the epitome of the breed.
I wasn’t able to give the truck any real off-road challenges, given that it was a press demonstrator and I didn’t want to return it in pieces. But, it took a slippery dirt road – in Portlandia we have around 180 miles worth of severely unimproved roadways scattered around the city – without even a hint of complaint, and I have seen stock 4Runners handle much, much tougher.
The reason for the stock off-road prowess is the transfer case and low range gear box, which allows you to select between a number of different torque splits. This system is aided by electronic traction and stability control systems that help keep you out of trouble. The combination adds up to some of the most impressive stock performance you can find on something that doesn’t have a Land Rover badge.
On the inside, luxury and utility
The 4Runner is a perfect size for an SUV. If it were any bigger, it would be too unwieldy to use in city driving or for that matter off-road, any smaller and it couldn’t fit a third row of seating. Instead the 4Runner has ample space for large adults in the front and back, and reasonably large kids in the way back.
Unlike 4Runners of old, this utility is swathed in a fair number of luxury features. On my $48,000 Limited test model you got a surprisingly nice infotainment suite, soft touch leather, automatically opening running boards, and crotch cooling or heating front seats. Heck, you even got a roof covered in switches; I am always a sucker for those.
Up front, this all packaged in a masculine and utilitarian style, with big macho knobs and the door controls mounted high up – presumably so you can operate them while you shoot at insurgents out the window. All this combined with the incredibly vertical windshield and rough exhaust note makes you feel like an especially well heeled Blackwater mercenary. It’s pretty great.
Unfortunately, if you look closely, you can tell that this vehicle starts at a hell of a lot less than $48,000. Despite having less than 5,000 miles on it, my press demonstrator was already showing signs of wear and tear on the plastics. There were scratches on the instrument console, gear shifter, and even especially bad ones on the trunk lip. The key fob was similarly scuffed, and, worse still, it felt a bit loose as if it might start coming apart. It is completely possible that this particular truck had been abused, but it was still disappointing that this family vehicle was already showing some strain.
Once an SUV always an SUV
One of the things that I like most about the 4Runner is that it still drives like a truck. Unlike the distinctly bland feel of a lot of crossovers the 4Runner maintained its tough personality. However, it also shows just how refined a good set of engineers can make a truck feel these days. The steering was heavy but precise and the suspension managed to tell you what kind of road you were on without being uncomfortable.
Sadly, Toyota hasn’t figured out how to get past SUV gas mileage or carbon emissions. During my week with the 4Runner I got 13.6 mpg, admittedly this was mostly from city driving, but it’s not as if the EPA-rated 17 is anything to write home about. What is more, when I was testing the massive V8 powered Toyota Tundra under similar conditions, I managed 15 mpg. Personally, I think the 4Runner could really benefit from a more modern direct injected powerplant to prop up the gas mileage.
If you are the sort of person who needs (or wants, I’ll be fair) an SUV, then by all means get a 4Runner. It is a great truck and it will do everything you need it to do and go anywhere you could possibly want.
However, despite its awesome SUV cred, the 4Runner hasn’t managed to overcome the inherent problems of a truck-based SUV. It gets poor gas mileage and you will pay extra for the fact that you are buying a big vehicle with off-road components on it. I just wish that I were the sort of person who could justify this trade off.
- Great off-road ability
- Best version of Toyota’s Entune to date
- Perfect size for an SUV
- Refined but truck-like driving dynamics
- Worse than expected fuel economy
- Not very durable interior plastics
- Outdated drivetrain
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