Mountain Wheels: Splashy 40th anniversary 4Runner celebrates the SUV’s heritage |

Mountain Wheels: Splashy 40th anniversary 4Runner celebrates the SUV’s heritage

Complete with ’80s racing stripes, gold/bronze wheels and loads of badging, Toyota celebrates four decades of 4Runners with a special edition.
Andy Stonehouse/Mountain Wheels

Let’s head into the new year (and, back to 1983) with the 40th anniversary edition of the popular Toyota 4Runner, as well as a few other Toyota SUV options.

Having sold more than 4 million since its debut, 4Runner superfans can get one of 4,040 special 2023 SR5 Premium models outfitted with old-school body and cabin graphics and badging, decidedly Subaru-styled gold/bronze 17-inch wheels, and the whole package of weather-capable performance people love. A power moonroof is also included.

Mine was actually No. 1 of the series, available in white, black or Barcelona red metallic — you can also get a two-wheel drive version, but I’ll leave that for our southern neighbors.

My $47,085 sample had the switch-on-the-go 4×4 contained in one of 4Runner’s series of oversized knobs and, even with ultra-summer all-seasons, it got me through one of those glaze-ice nightmare trips on U.S. Highway 285 where every second large truck had ended up in the ditch. It was also lots of fun to use like a snowmobile in Denver’s recent ridiculous spring-styled snowstorm.

While the design of the 4Runner is still fresh and contemporary, you do occasionally feel like you’re driving an older-generation machine when it comes to the five-speed automatic transmission and the often laborious acceleration of its 270-horsepower 4.0-liter V6 engine — good for a reliable 19 mpg. You can also hear the anti-lock braking system engaging as you hit slippery surfaces.

And you can, with a very long stretch of highway, wind the 4Runner up — as I see its owners all doing, everywhere they drive — but the high center of gravity, oversized tires and chunky shape is really made for more sedate cruising, or capable summertime off-roading adventures. It’s got front skid plates and 9.6 inches of clearance.

Turning a corner in town requires a full bus driver-styled crank or two of the wheel, and even getting aboard the 4Runner necessitated sort of a butt-plant and hike up to get myself situated.

The writing may be on the wall with the new Sequoia and other Lexus products, which have adapted the turbo engine from the Tundra pickup, but I kind of see 270 horsepower as being just about right, given 4Runner’s handling and overall scale.

There’s no pull-out deck as I’ve seen on some of the higher grades — 4Runner has seven of them — but you’ll appreciate the almost 90 cubic feet of storage available with the rear seats flattened.

Cabin finishings here are more upscale with glossy trim and those aforementioned, oversized heating, ventilation, and air conditioning knobs, an 8-inch touchscreen, and ceiling-mounted off-road controls. Or maybe you’ll just love it for the snazzy 1980s racing stripes.

Last year also got me seat time in a couple of Toyota’s other SUV options, including the popular Highlander and the small and all-new Corolla Cross. Both fall into the slightly more rounded and less muscular-chunky look of 4Runner and the pickup trucks — the $51,043 2022 Highlander Platinum was gifted with a 295-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and a more modern eight-speed transmission — and got me almost 25 mpg, too.

It’s definitely more of a family-oriented machine, with heated second-row captain’s chairs and a smaller third row that can be completely hidden away under the heavy-duty cargo mats. There’s remarkably ample room in that second row, plus gigantic side windows and tilt-and-slide access to the third row.

It doesn’t feel quite as ponderously three-row SUV-like as other competitors, with power easy to access at any occasion and a size perfectly suited for both city and highway driving.

Its recent updates have included a three-way display setup and a 12.3-inch touchscreen, a sliding console box with a flip-up phone charger tray and lots of woodgrain trim.

The mud-sand/rocks-dirt terrain settings, sport mode and hill descent control switches all suggest more capability and agility than you’d guess.

Meanwhile, the very affordable new Toyota Corolla Cross offers a taste of its bigger siblings’ agility and abilities, starting at just over $23,000. I had a slightly more upscale XLE model whose $33,550 price included an 8-inch touchscreen, a nine-speaker JBL audio system, a power moonroof and a power liftgate.

The smallish crossover was initially made in Asia but is now being assembled in Alabama, with a 2.0-liter engine generating 169 horsepower and pushing mileage over 30 mpg. If you’re the kind of driver who’s been impressed with the size and experience of newer Corolla models, Corolla Cross is pretty much a crossover rendition of that. Nothing is too flashy, inside or out, but with AWD (or maybe even the standard FWD) and the vehicle’s 8 inches of clearance, it’ll perform winter duties more capably than a standard Corolla.

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