Most Wrangler drivers would be better served by this Toyota
In this rapidly advancing technological world, some people still like vinyl records, analogue watches, shooting on film, or making their coffee in a good old-fashioned French press. And some people still want an SUV. No, not one of the myriad all-wheel-drive (and sometimes front-wheel-drive) family wagons with an extra inch or two of ground clearance we call crossovers and shamelessly use interchangeably with the term SUV. No, I’m talking about a genuine, body-on-frame Sport Utility Vehicle that can tow tackle rough trails.
I'm talking about the rig that will get you to your favorite fishing hole or take the family way off the beaten path—not just a rutted track to the cottage within view of paved or gravel roads, but out to rarely traveled corners of the wilderness. But, we’re also not talking about a tube-frame chassis and massively articulating suspension at each corner that can tackle the King of the Hammers (look it up, it’s insane!), just the ability to clear rocks and claw out of muddy ruts two-feet deep or ford small streams as deep as your wheels in a practical family vehicle that is also good for daily duty. There are only a handful of vehicles fitting this description remaining on the market. The Toyota 4Runner is one of them.
Believe it or not, Toyota has two more of them, and five total if you count their pickup trucks. Toyota has been building off-roaders for over half a century, and the 4Runner nameplate dates back to the 1980s, so it is no stranger to this segment. The current model is the fifth generation, originally arriving on the scene in 2009 as a 2010 model (though some would argue this was just a redesign, and not an all-new generation), with a facelift for 2014, but the powertrain remains the same trusty 4.0L V6 that has been in service since, well, the dawn of time. (Okay, it only dates back to 2002, but that is still pretty ancient in the automotive world. Heck, even the Tacoma has moved to a new-generation V6.)
At least Toyota added variable valve timing in 2014 to improve efficiency and power. With that kind of, um, pedigree, let’s call it, you might think the 4.0L V6 is unpleasant. If anything, it was the transmission that seemed to hold things up. The 4.0 makes a decent 270 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque, but both come on late in the rev band, and the five-speed automatic transmission has fairly wide gaps by necessity and is in no rush to swap cogs, so everyday driving is best approached with a relaxed attitude. While it may not be in any rush, it is sturdy enough to handle the 4Runner’s 5,000-lb tow rating, although the TRD Pro trim we tested probably would not be the ideal choice if towing is a primary function for your purposes.
The 4x4 system is also tried and true: a two-speed transfer case with a manually selected low-range gear on all trims except for the Limited, which has an electronically locking differential for its full-time variable 4WD system. All models feature a hill-holder system; SR5 and Limited models have hill-descent control. If your purpose is more along the line of off-roading excursions, then one of the Off-Road trims is obviously the way to go. Off-Road, Off-Road Premium, and TRD Pro models gain Toyota’s Crawl Control (CRAWL), Multi-Terrain Select system, and electronic-locking rear differential. CRAWL keeps a constant speed in slow off-road situations, allowing you to focus on steering when navigating tricky patches with a variety of obstacles.
It can even be set at five different speeds, and takes full advantage of the electronic-locking rear differential and active traction control to dole out torque to the wheels that have grip. The Multi-Terrain Select system varies the amount of slip allowed based on settings like sand, ‘moguls’, or rocks. The TRD Pro trim is the undisputed badass of the 4Runner family, exceeding even the Off-Road trims in terms of off-road equipment, adding a few basic trail-ready extras that might be your first steps toward customizing your truck for tougher trail conditions if you went your own way. The first upgraded part is your ultimate point of contact with the road or trail: Nitto Terra Grappler all-terrains.
Extra hardware in the form of a front skid plate, TRD-tuned front springs, and Bilstein high-performance shocks with rear remote reservoirs takes care of the rest. No matter the trim, the off-road specs are the same across the board for the 4WD 4Runner: 9.6 inches of ground clearance, 33º approach angle, and 26º departure angle so it can walk right over basketball-sized rocks and get in and out ruts, gullies and mud pits like it’s nobody’s business. In low-range gear, it offers complete confidence and steady progress. The suspension just soaks up anything and feels like a contortionist flexing up over obstacles while maintaining contact at all four corners. I would have no reservations about taking it off-roading.
However, our vehicle was equipped with winter tires for our Canadian weather, which are great for stopping distances on roads, but not as aggressive for traction off-road or as capable of evacuating the mud and dirt on trail. Without a buddy vehicle available to follow us (never off-road alone, folks!), we came nowhere near pushing the 4Runner’s ultimate limits, especially as we had a thaw on the week of our test. With all the snow we’ve had, our usual trail was too risky to explore on our own. Let me pause for a second to peg the type of driver the TRD Pro fits. If first thing you do when you buy a truck is start shopping Dana 44 axles, beadlock wheels, lift kits and rock sliders, this truck is probably already too built up with equipment you are likely to scrap.
The 4Runner fits in that niche where you want that next level of capability, but don’t have the time or inclination to build something up to suit your needs. The new Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon will walk away from the 4Runner, even in this TRD Pro trim, as it has 10.8 inches of ground clearance and approach and departure angles of 43 and 37 degrees for about the same price, and a thoroughly updated powertrain and package overall. However, the Toyota beats it when it comes to everyday practicality, with 46.3 cu-ft of cargo capacity in the trunk which opens up to 88.8 with the rear seats folded down, 31.7 and 72.4 for the Jeep.
If you don’t need quite the capability of the TRD Pro, you can get SR5 and Limited trims in three-row, seven-seat configurations so that you can take a couple extra passengers along on milder (and shorter) ventures. Pricing for the Toyota 4Runner starts at $36,485 for the SR5 and TRD Off-Road for $37,785, both of which can be bumped up with a Premium package for a couple thousand more. The TRD Pro is $42,875 and the top trim Limited runs $44,960, plus add a $995 destination fee no matter the trim. Thank goodness for the running boards or my kids would have had to travel with a step stool just to get in.
Another downside is its hatch is incredibly heavy and, despite a grab strap, would still be a challenge for shorter people to reach and muscle down. However, running boards are an option no matter what trim you step into, which seems like a petty cash grab by Toyota because there is no question in my mind those should be standard across the board on this beast of a vehicle. Once you’ve conquered the ascent into the cabin, it’s a pretty cushy place to be. The seats are deep, comfortable, and have good support where you need it. The cabin layout is conventional with Toyota’s familiar but dated infotainment system. (It looks pretty basic but gets the job done without fuss.)
It’s not just the seats that are comfortable either. Because the 4Runner is set up to handle genuine rugged terrain with its forgiving shocks and generous tire sidewalls, broken pavement, potholes and blasted city streets are a piece of cake. You don’t have to dance around those kinds of trivial road imperfections like to would in something with big 20-inch wheels and low-profile tires. The downside to this is that it pretty much wobbles all over the place. It leans around corners at any speeds greater than crawling, It wanders around a bit on the highway. The nose dives down when you need to brake. It’s quite a bit of fun if you like that sort of thing.
And finally, the fuel consumption. I wasn’t driving particularly aggressively and we had our fair share of highway trips, but at the end of the week we were stuck at 16 mpg. At least it has a huge fuel tank so you won’t have to stop any more often than most other cars. Officially the EPA rates it at 17 mpg in the city, 22 highway and 19 combined for 4WD models and just a touch better for 2WD. Although this may not sound like kind of vehicle most people are looking for or need, especially in TRD Pro setup like this, it still has a strong following and generous towing capacity, a practical interior, and a reputation for reliability and toughness.
That recipe has earned the 4Runner its best sales year in 2017 in over a decade—and it’s still in the top 10 of midsize SUVs. It’s a formula and a product that is finding more buyers as fewer and fewer brands compete for those that want a good old-fashioned SUV.