Off-road finesse keeps Toyota 4Runner’s spirit alive
Toyota’s venerable 4Runner nameplate, which dates back to the earliest days of SUVs, certainly does not look, feel or act like it did when the truck-based machine first debuted. Hell, this fifth generation machine doesn’t even look much like a five-year-old 4Runner, having been given a thoroughly modernized reprocessing for the 2014 model.
But for off-roady folks who feel that old-fashioned capability and expanded capacity outweighs the kind of things they could pull off with even the brand-new Tacoma truck — and are also perfectly fine with getting only 18 highway mpg in the process — the 4Runner is a nice middle ground. Looks nowadays are cubic zirconia, not particularly soft and round in any way, almost Hummer-like in their brutality.
It’s not gargantuan but not tiny, and certainly built to tackle actual challenging backroad conditions, across all of its various builds. Much more so, of course, in the very off-road oriented TRD Pro model.
I had a great opportunity to extensively test the 4×4 Trail version of the 4Runner in late summer, all part of a 910-mile trip that took me from the Front Range to Ouray, and then down to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Almost all of the first part of the journey was on paved highways — it was the FJ Cruiser Jamboree in the San Juans and people told me I’d face gridlock on trails like Engineer Pass — so I didn’t hit rugged off-road stuff until my return journey north.
The Trail version comes complete with a more advanced set of Toyota’s 4×4 technologies, in this case a ceiling-mounted set of knobs and switches offering crawl control (a speed-regulation system for intricate or extremely steep slopes, allowing you to concentrate on steering) and a variable terrain control system, plus a locking rear differential and traction control override.
That means a very poised and capable, full-blown off-road experience, with ample articulation over deep, deep ruts and a general nimbleness that belies its size. The deep, muddy holes and varied conditions I found driving a backcountry road through the Hayman Fire area — washouts and total erosion aplenty — indicated to me that 4Runner does indeed still thrive in challenging conditions.
But Trail rides on more tarmac-oriented tires and as the kind of vehicle that can go both ways but is more likely to be found on pavement, the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension system ($1,750) does help keep its truck-like ride and handling a little more fluid.
Off-road was, frankly, also a nicer way to use the 270 horsepower provided by a 4.0-liter V6, versus pushing the 4Runner what seemed to be awfully hard to keep up with 75 mph as I flew along I-70 near Grand Junction. And a very, very old-fashioned five-speed automatic transmission meant I needed to keep an exceptional amount of foot into the pedal on hills, though it was perfectly capable of checking my speed on downhill slopes. Toyota rates the highway numbers at just 18 mpg; I got something close to 22 on my entire trip, which is also a blast from the past, in a less than pleasant way.
The admittedly austere nature of the 4Runner’s interior (three giant AC knobs and a two-knob head unit for the audio system are the total extent of controls on the robot-faced center stack) also let you know that 4Runner is still built as a lightly civilized 4×4, not the Lexus-ized gloss and car-like features you’ll find inside updated oldtimers like the Grand Cherokee, Explorer or the Pathfinder.
It’s very simple inside, save for a tiny bit of piano black and faux aluminum plastic trim; the theme is black on black plastic, plain and simple. The old-styled j-gate for the shift lever, some seat heater controls and a switch for the equally old-school electric rear glass round out the look.
The Trail iteration came with large, ample leather seating with red accent trim — pretty comfortable during those long days on the road.
Drop the rugged and heavy rear liftgate and you’ll find a sliding cargo-loading plate, which was strong enough to hold my ample rear as I sat in the Monte Vista drive-in for a movie.
4Runner’s charms are, in a way, hidden a bit beneath the surface. Treat it gently as a round-town regular vehicle and it feels big and cumbersome, but get it off the road and it’s surprisingly capable and stable.
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