Toyota 4Runner — Breathing life into a classic

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

A combination of uncertain gas prices, the severe economic downturn, and a flood of competing crossovers sent the once wildly popular mid-sized Toyota 4Runner over a cliff.

Only 19,675 4Runners were sold in the U.S. in 2009, a far cry from four straight years of 100,000 sales or better earlier in the decade.

Once the SUV darling of the Toyota stable, it became almost an afterthought this past year upstaged by the second-generation car-based Toyota Highlander and the new Toyota Venza, which together sold more than 137,500 copies during the worst sales year in nearly two decades.

The 4Runner sport utility pioneer entered the scene in 1984 as a rugged go-anywhere SUV. Its popularity grew rapidly and it was transformed into a less rugged and more mainstream vehicle with the fourth generation beginning in 2003.

Toyota’s decision to soften the 4Runner and cater more to family transportation paid big dividends even as the more refined car-based crossover segment was starting to explode. Toyota sold more than 100,000 units per year from 2003 through 2006 with a record 114,000 leaving dealer showrooms in 2004.

The increasing popularity of the Highlander — introduced in 2001 — did more to undermine 4Runner sales than the economy or the competition. The Highlander gained traction with the second generation and sold nearly 130,000 copies in both 2006 and 2007 and more than 100,000 in 2008.

So it wouldn’t have been too far fetched to predict the demise of the 4Runner, which was in the seventh year of its fourth iteration in 2009. But wait; don’t go there yet.

Toyota has returned the 4Runner to its rugged truck-based off-road roots with the fifth generation. The new 2010 truck shares much of its underpinnings with the FJ Cruiser, Toyota’s minimally successful mid-decade answer to the Jeep Wrangler and Nissan Xterra which has now fallen on real hard times.

The 4Runner, however, for all its back-to-its-roots traits remains far more upscale than the Wrangler or Xterra with a host of amenities, a surprisingly compliant ride, a hushed interior environment, and a third-row seating option.

Those who purchase crossovers as replacement for the old family station wagon or out-of-favor minivans will probably not be sold on the 4Runner. And Toyota says fine, we have the very sophisticated Highlander and the new-breed Venza awaiting those buyers.
For this reason Toyota has set its 4Runner goals more conservatively than before seeking annual sales of about 35,000.

That being said, the new 4Runner comes close to matching the functionality of modern crossovers such as the Highlander, Chevrolet Equinox, Hyundai Veracruz and Honda Pilot. And it compares very favorably in everyday driving dynamics to the current traditional truck-based SUVs such as the Nissan Pathfinder, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer.

The 4Runner comes in three trim levels, SR5, Trail and the Limited, starting at $28,300 for the base 4-cylinder model. Toyota says the price of the popular SR5 four-wheel-drive model with V-6 remains the same as 2009 at $31,715 including destination charge. The 4Runner tops out at $40,600 for the Limited 4WD.

The V-8 engine has been dropped from the lineup, but the standard 4-liter V-6 mated to a five-speed automatic transmission is up to the task of moving the 4,500-pound SUV in a sprightly manner. Its 270 horses are 34 more than last year, and it has been clocked in the upper reaches of 7 seconds from 0-to-60. That’s on a par with last year’s 260-horsepower V-8 performance.

For the first time since 2002, Toyota offers a 4-cylinder engine, but frankly, we don’t think it’s big enough to adequately move the 4Runner. The only advantage we see is that it gives Toyota dealers an advertising hook at $1,600 less than the base V-6. Worse yet, it offers only 157 horsepower mated to a four-speed automatic. And it has only a one-mile-per-gallon advantage over the V-6 in city driving; and four-wheel drive is not available.

The Trail model comes only in four-wheel drive with high and low ranges and a full complement of off-road goodies as standard equipment. But even the SR5, which should be the sales volume leader, gets such things as downhill assist control, which holds the vehicle at a target speed, hill-start assist, and A-TRAC assist which delivers driving force to any one wheel in contact with the ground making slippery patches transparent to the driver.

The Trail, starting at $36,500, adds CRAWL, which can regulate a steady speed up to 3 mph without driver intervention while negotiating difficult terrain. One of the more noteworthy options is Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System. It allows the stabilizer bars to be disconnected for more axle travel and better suspension articulation on uneven terrain.

On first encounter, you won’t mistake the 4Runner for a crossover. It sits high with a solid SUV look with pronounced fender flares and squared-off grille.

Be prepared to climb up into the cab where you sit high in traditional SUV style with good sight lines. The dashboard has a standard SUV look, not the more stylistic appearance of some of the new crossovers.
We thought the performance adequate in all situations, and handling was excellent considering the 4Runner is a full-fledged body on frame SUV. The ride was particularly pleasing. Toyota says coil springs over gas shocks are used at all four corners creating comfortable ride and controlled handling.

To make the ride even more inviting, the Limited trim comes standard with an X-REAS suspension system that further improves performance, comfort and control. X-REAS automatically adjusts the damping force of shocks when driving over bumpy surfaces, or when cornering. We did not have the opportunity to drive the Limited.

For those who pull weekend toys, the 4Runner sets no new mid-sized standards, but offers a decent tow rating of 5,000 pounds.

The 4Runner is roomier than the previous edition offering decent space for five people with 46.3 cubic feet of luggage capacity behind the second row. Maximum cargo capacity is 89 cubic feet. We did not test the three-row seating model.

The SR5 comes with a wide range of standard equipment including full power (windows, doorlocks, etc.), cruise control, and tilt and telescoping steering wheel. The audio system comes with CD/MP3 player. Fog lights and air conditioning with rear ventilation are also included.

Our SR5 test vehicle came with $4,365 worth of options including leather interior, power moonroof and upgraded audio system for a bottom line of $36,080.

If you are in the market for a mid-sized truck based SUV and need true off-road performance, the new 4Runner, which is not involved in any of the recent Toyota recalls, may be just the ticket.


Base price: $28,300; as driven, $36,080
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6
Horsepower: 270 @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 278 foot-pounds @ 4,400 rpm
Drive: Four wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 109.8 inches
Length: 189.9 inches
Curb weight: 4,525 pounds
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
Luggage capacity: 46.3 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 89 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 24 gallons (regular)
EPA: 24 mpg highway; 17 mpg city
0-60: 7.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder

The Good:

• Extremely off-road capable
• Strong V-6 engine
• Pleasing on-road demeanor
• Not on the recall list

The Bad:

• Optional third row is cramped

The Ugly:

• What's the point of a 157-horsepower 4-cylinder engine?