The Toyota 4Runner is a throwback within the midsize SUV segment. Unlike the once-tough Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder that have morphed into three-row crossovers on unibody platforms, the 4Runner’s foundation remains rugged-first, with body-on-frame architecture. And while Ford and Nissan now offer an arsenal of media and safety technologies; by comparison, the aging Toyota can’t keep up.
Yet even with the 4Runner’s old-school makeup and frozen-in-time equipment list, Toyota still manages to move a fair number of them. Last month, 9,669 4Runners found new homes. That doesn’t match the 15,484 examples of the more family-friendly, three-row Toyota Highlander sold during the same period, but it’s respectable for a vehicle that’s eight years into its current model cycle, with bones far older than that.
Take a close look at the 4Runner and you’ll uncover the tried-and-true elements. Under the hood sits a 4.0-liter V6 making 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque — an engine that originally debuted in the 4Runner 15 years ago. With 8-, 9- and even 10-speed transmissions prominent in the auto industry today, the 4Runner still rocks a 5-speed automatic.
That said, this ancient powertrain is still plenty smooth. Throttle response is near instant at tip-in, power delivery is linear throughout the rev range and the gearbox fluidly performs well-timed up- and downshifts. Power is neither abundant nor in short supply, simply adequate for pulling away from stops in a brisk manner and getting up to speed for expressway merging.
Fuel economy shortfalls, meanwhile, can’t be masked. The EPA says the 4Runner with four-wheel drive is estimated to return just 17 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. Over the course of two fill-ups in my 2018 4Runner TRD Off-Road, I observed 16.7 mpg. In comparison, an all-wheel-drive Jeep Grand Cherokee with a V6 and eight-speed automatic is estimated to return 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.
Compared to a modern crossover, the 4Runner sacrifices some ride compliance given its body-on-frame architecture. It bounces over pockmarked roads for a more truck-like ride, though an optional adaptive suspension helps things stay reasonably smooth, keeping body roll in check. Responsive steering makes maneuvering around town easy enough and the brakes are strong, but grab hard halfway through the pedal stroke requiring a brief acclimation period.
Off-road, the upgraded suspension gives the ute some extra wheel travel that, along with a locking rear differential and low-speed Crawl Control cruise control system, better equip this TRD Off-Road model for trail duty.
Just the basics
From a visual standpoint, the 4Runner looks beefy and purposeful. In TRD Off-Road trim, the 4Runner only receives small tweaks, with model-specific C-pillar badges, silver bumper accents, a hood scoop and black-painted wheel inners to set it apart from other models.
For the interior, the Off-Road gets a TRD shift knob, floor mats and faux carbon fiber center console trim. Like the exterior, the design is straightforward, with huge control knobs and switches for the air conditioning system, and handy storage cubbies to stash all your stuff. Fabric seats are far from luxurious, but comfy with serviceable legroom for passengers in both the first and second rows.
In the trunk area, there’s an optional sliding cargo deck for quick and easy loading and unloading of items. You’ll be able to carry a lot of stuff, too, with 46.3 cubic-feet of space behind the rear seat — that’s more than the Grand Cherokee’s 36.3. If that’s not enough, folding the rear seats flat opens up 88.8 cubic-feet of real estate to swallow camping gear or the bounty from warehouse club shopping expeditions.
There is, however, a big helping of hard plastic surfaces in the 4Runner. Most of the dash is constructed from it and various controls feel hollow and cheap. In a midsize SUV with a price tag in the $ 30,000 range, this cheaper material is easier to accept, but in something with an as-tested price of $ 40,725, it’s a bit of a letdown.
Quarterbacking cabin infotainment is Toyota’sEntune system with a 6.1-inch touchscreen, navigation, Bluetooth, eight-speaker sound system and satellite radio making up the light technology offerings. Touchscreen response is swift and navigation route calculations happen quickly, but overall the system is subpar, lacking noteworthy features like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Pinpoint accuracy is also necessary when trying to hit the tiny icons on the small screen — you’ll find yourself hitting the wrong buttons more often than you’d like.
On the safety tech front, the list of features begins and ends with a backup camera. So if you want features like blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning with lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control and rear cross traffic alert, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.
Even though I’m not a serious off-roader, any 4Runner ending up in my garage would be a TRD Pro purely because of its looks with a unique grille, underbody skid plate and exclusivity factor. The high-performance Bilstein shocks and specific springs for a taller ride height are also cool, but likely would never be fully utilized. It would be painted Super White to contrast nicely with the black wheels. I would also equip it with running boards, to make getting in and out easier, and the sliding rear cargo deck. With all that, the price tag of my ideal 4Runner is $ 44,819.
Not for everyone
There are many shortcomings to the 4Runner with its veteran drivetrain, less-than-stellar fuel economy, lack of creature comforts and slim technology offerings, but there’s something still undeniably cool about it. When driving it, you don’t get lost in a sea of features. There’s beauty in the simplicity.
Driving a no-frills car like the 4Runner is refreshing. It’s a perfect SUV for people who subscribe to the less-is-more way of thinking. But if it’s modern accoutrements you seek, the 4Runner isn’t for you.