Once upon a time brawny SUVs were the specialty of American brands. Ford, GM and Jeep thrived in the 90’s as consumers ditched minivans and flocked to large sport utes that by and large were based on thirsty truck platforms. We all remember it, small car fans and Sierra Club members not so fondly.
A solid player in the day, Toyota’s new 4Runner remains true to its roots. Everything about it shouts full-on truck with a capital T in bold faced font. Toyota takes a traditional American approach here, the new generation is taller, longer, wider, and more powerful. This rig would have slayed the competition in those heady days of yore.
This is now.
A seismic shift is on. SUV owners have come to realize they don’t really need the extreme capability of a body-on-frame truck chassis. Add to that manufacturers are turning to more fuel efficient car-based crossovers and even rugged utes like Explorer are switching to unibody construction (Jeep Grand Cherokee always has been). There are power users around that still need stump pulling power. The important thing to remember? Choose the right tool for the job.
Tackling tough terrain or towing up to 5,000 pounds of toys doesn’t work so well with with a Highlander or RAV4. 4Runner makes short work of extreme conditions. If your commute includes boulders and fallen trees this might be your rig. I’ve seen 4Runners crawl along trails that look nearly impassable and there’s little doubt the new one is up to the job so long as the path is wide enough to accommodate the slightly wider body. 9.6-inches of ground clearance plus 25-degree approach angle and 24-degree departure angle keep the rugged fun happening.
New found power.
Base SR5 rear-wheel drive 4Runners get a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine making 157 horsepower and 178 lb-ft of torque. I’m driving the new 4.0-liter V6 with 270 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque at 4400 RPM. The new 4Runner’s fuel economy improves slightly to 17 city 22 highway when equipped with 4-wheel drive. The 4-cylinder 4X2 model adds just 1 MPG. These numbers strongly suggest the 6 is the way to go if your budget allows.
The transmission is a 5-speed unit. SR5 models have part time 4-wheel drive with high and low range. The selector is a bit balky. With this system it’s possible to shift into all-wheel drive high mode while on the move. Move up to a Limited model and there’s full-time, four-wheel-drive with a locking center differential using center console-mounted switch with three modes. There’s also hill decent control and hill start control that keeps 4Runner from rolling backwards when starting off on a steep grade.
This big rig can move. 4Runner’s 0-60 time of 7.3 seconds matches some sporty cars. On regular roads it’s quiet, smooth and comfortable and for the first few miles it would be easy to describe as car-like (albeit a car on stilts). Ultimately 4Runner reminds you it is indeed a truck. Ride quality is a bit bouncy on choppy pavement and its tall ride hight emphasizes body roll. Overall it’s a good compromise but those used to the more urbane dynamic of crossovers will find it, well, more on the trucky side. The steering is light and in Toyota tradition road feel is minimal. The brake pedal operation is on the soft side, control is about average in class.
Tech time for true off road fans.
This time around 4Runner’s rear differential is stronger using a gear ring that grows from 7.87 to 8.18 inches. A-TRAC system is now standard on 4x4 models. What’s A-TRAC? It sends power to any one wheel in contact with Mother Earth to keep momentum happening. There’s also a Trail Grade 4Runner with an electronic-locking rear diff. Trail has an optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) that disconnects the stabilizer bars for more axle travel in slow rock crawling situations.
There’s also Crawl Control (CRAWL) that’s standard on the Trail. CRAWL is an adjustable electro-mechanical system that can be tuned to match the terrain by selecting any of five speed levels. CRAWL controls the throttle and braking force and using one of the five low-speed settings makes it easier for the driver simply focus on steering when slogging over very nasty stuff. No need to modulate the throttle or brakes.
The Trail model also features a Multi-Terrain Select system. It allows the driver to dial in wheel slip control to match the surface conditions. In loose stuff like mud and sand, additional wheel slip is permitted, because in those conditions some amount of wheel spin is a good thing. Moguls and rocks? Wheel slip is minimized so M-TS acts more like a limited slip.
Still not finished. All 4Runner 4x4s get hill decent control which holds the sport ute to a steady speed with no driver input. V6 4Runners get standard Hill-start Assist that keep 4Runner from rolling backward when starting on a steep incline or slippery surface.
Design inspired by Picasso’s cubic phase.
Here are a few sentences from the 4Runner media kit- “The design strategy for the new 4Runner emphasizes a more rugged, powerful stance. In addition to its styling emphasis on ruggedness and outdoor adventure, the new design utilizes a combination of Toyota’s classic boxy form and progressive styling. The front ends square fender flares meld with a muscular profile that links with a beefy and square rear bumper and back door”.
Apparently this means deleting the French curve tool on the designer’s CAD system. 4Runner is very square and angular without the menace Hummer evoked. Head and tail lamps protrude out of the body. Looking into the side mirror, the rear units almost look like a car that’s following too close. Yes, they stick out that much. A surprise, Toyota claims aerodynamic drag is lower than last years model (currently a Cd of 0.365). Styling is subjective of course
The interior is also a square deal. Everything about it looks equipped by REI, controls and knobs are large and easy to grab. Heated leather chairs (both with power adjustment) are firm and comfortable. Hopefully buyers like the color orange because the interment cluster, radio head and general lighting are all done up in the primary spectrum of the secondary hue. It’s bright enough to make reading of the small font of the sound system display difficult. The console provides lots of storage and a standard AC electrical outlet. Nice touch.
There’s lots of silver painted plastic on the IP and across the board it is of the hard kind. Interior door releases are hollow, my fingers feel the open bottom every time they’re used. Fortunately, hands get a thick leather warped steering wheel and elbows get a soft places to rest rest. Phones and iPods are supported. Buttons have a silky feel, climate control is manual on SR5s, so are lights. Hiding away almost unseen, the “party mode” button beefs up the bass of the sound system.
4Runner is a truck so it’s a bit of a jump up for passengers to get into the cabin. Once inside 3 adults should be fine in the back seat. With a sunroof installed the roofline has a definite scallop to create headroom. There are places for drinks and pockets on the seatbacks so storage is fine. No power port for charging electronics though. Rear seats don’t slide fore and aft but passengers can relax with reclining backs.
A trunk with more features than some cars.
In the cargo hold there’s both AC and DC power ports. Storage cubbies are helpful, so are tie downs. The rear window rolls down and the center of the seat back folds low helping to haul long stuff. 4Runner can be had with a third row, an optional sliding floor makes loading stuff to the back a little easier. Good for tailgaters too. Lots of intrusions make the space look smaller so I only brought 12 packs of TP out to do the famed trunk test. Should have snagged 14, it’s not often that I’m fooled.
Starting at $28,300 for a 2-wheel drive 4-cylinder version, this SR5 stickers for $36,000. In short the big brawny 4Runner takes the old school SUV approach. Interesting that Toyota and Nissan have kept body on frame truck designs where the domestic brands seem to be headed toward unibody designs. Common wisdom is that unibody simply means lightweight crossovers like Equinox or Flex but Range Rover and Jeep Grand Cherokee proves that to be just plain wrong. At this writing it remains to be seen what the new unibody Ford Explorer can do when it comes to towing. There are plenty of lightweight crossovers in the market for families who don’t trek the Rubicon trail on a daily basis. For those squaring off with tough tasks, Toyota’s new 4Runner doesn’t back down.