It's clear which midsize Toyota SUV is better.
Toyota currently has two midsize SUVs for sale in the United States, those being the Highlander and the 4Runner. Whereas the current Highlander is a relatively fresh crossover that went on sale late in 2019, the 4Runner has been around in more or less the same form for over a decade - it's a proper SUV with sturdy truck underpinnings. So, although they're similar in size, the two vehicles target quite different customers.
Recently, Toyota upgraded the 2023 Highlander with, among other things, a new turbocharged four-cylinder engine. But before the 2023 Highlander goes on sale, we had the opportunity to sample the 2022 model in Miami and couldn't help but notice all the ways that this crossover was better than the 4Runner. These are some of the Highlander's advantages that, if implemented on the 4Runner, would make the latter a much better SUV.
The 2022 Highlander still has the familiar 3.5-liter V6 engine with 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. It's a proven and smooth enough engine, but the absence of turbocharging means it has to be pushed a bit harder to get the best out of it. For 2023, the Highlander comes with a new 2.4-liter turbo-four making 265 hp (a slight drop) but a healthy 309 lb-ft (a 17% increase). Despite the better torque output and less harmful emissions, the 2.4-liter has comparable fuel efficiency and the same 5,000-pound towing capacity. The 4Runner is saddled with a trusty but even lower-output 4.0-liter V6 with 270 hp and 278 lb-ft. Worse still, it uses a plodding five-speed automatic transmission.
With the Highlander's new turbo-four and far superior eight-speed automatic transmission, the 4Runner will be a much better SUV to drive. The four-pot should also improve on the 4Runner V6's dismal 17 mpg combined. We drove the much more efficient Highlander Hybrid with a 2.5-liter inline-four.
Although not complicated to use, the 4Runner's infotainment system is now well behind other modern SUVs. All models have a rather small eight-inch touchscreen interface, whereas the Highlander can be had with a much larger 12.3-inch touchscreen. The 2023 Highlander's 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster would also do nicely to improve the 4Runner's cabin. Both SUVs come with a rather ordinary six-speaker sound system as standard, so we'd strongly recommend spending more on the higher-quality JBL speakers that sound much better.
Car safety standards are improving all the time, which means that a lot has changed since the current 4Runner went on sale late in 2009. According to the IIHS, the 2022 4Runner only attained a Marginal score for the small overlap front crash test on the driver's side, as well as a Marginal rating for the LATCH system's ease of use. The 4Runner wasn't even evaluated for crash avoidance and mitigation at all. By comparison, the Highlander has Good crash scores in every category and there were no issues with the LATCH system. Over at the NHTSA, the Highlander has a five-star overall rating while the 4Runner is stuck on four stars.
These ratings are a reflection of the different ages of the SUVs as well as the additional safety equipment in the Highlander. Both vehicles have all the basic safety gear, but every Highlander also gets lane tracing assist, road sign assist, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert - these are either absent from the 4Runner entirely or only available on upper trims. Only the Highlander comes with the option of a convenient bird's-eye view camera.
Although both of these SUVs have an available third row, there isn't a lot of space back there. Still, the rearmost seats will be fine for smaller kids. Where the Highlander takes the lead is in its ability to be configured as either an eight-seater or a more comfortable seven-seater with second-row captain's chairs. No two families have exactly the same needs, so the 4Runner loses a few points here for not being able to seat eight and for not having optional captain's chairs. Besides that, the Highlander has more widely adjustable front seats so it's easier to get comfortable behind the wheel.
When Toyota eventually replaces the 4Runner, it should prioritize space utilization. Behind the third row, the 4Runner has only nine cubic feet of volume to work with. In the Highlander, that number rises to a much more useful 16 cubic feet which is equivalent to several sedans. With the third row folded, the Highlander also has a slightly more spacious cargo area. It's only when both the second and third rows are folded that the 4Runner takes the lead, but this will be the least used configuration.
With its tough body-on-frame construction, it would be unfair to expect the 4Runner to ride as comfortably as the Highlander, but the gap between the two vehicles in this area is wider than it should be. The Highlander is comparatively refined with excellent damping and enough composure to handle gravel roads with aplomb. By comparison, the 4Runner only really excels in more challenging off-road scenarios where its superior clearance can be put to good use. On the road, the older SUV has a choppy ride and lacks the composure of its unibody-based sibling. If you will be doing off-roading a lot, the 4Runner is obviously a better choice, but vehicles like the Ford Expedition and GMC Yukon are proof that truck-based SUVs can still ride comfortably.
Despite its age, Toyota 4Runner sales were still up by 12 percent last year at over 144,000 units. For many buyers seeking a dependable, rugged SUV, the 4Runner still ranks highly. There is no disputing that the 4Runner is a better off-roader, but it's not the best midsize SUV that Toyota sells. The Highlander - about 120,000 more units were sold than the 4Runner in the USA last year - ably shows the progress that has been made since the 4Runner launched over a decade ago. It's more efficient, has more cargo space, rides much more smoothly, and boasts superior technology. It doesn't hurt that the Highlander is over $2,000 cheaper, and while it's not the most exciting vehicle on the planet to drive, we understand why it's a top-ten seller in the USA. If Toyota can make the improvements covered here to the next 4Runner while maintaining its off-road prowess, it will be hard to beat.