Toyota 4Runner — An off-road warrior

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The 2015 Toyota 4Runner feels exactly like you would expect a body-on-frame truck to feel — very truck-like. In fact, the 4Runner is one of the few sport utility vehicles left that harkens back to the 1990s possessing loads of utility including considerable off-road prowess. The two other contemporary vehicles in direct competition with the 4Runner that come immediately to mind are the Jeep Wrangler and Nissan Xterra.

For the 2014 model year, Toyota reworked the front-end styling, and modernized the interior with a new instrument panel and a touchscreen audio interface via Toyota's Entune system. The revised exterior facelift includes a taller hood, a bigger grille, and an angular headlight design with projector beams rather than halogens. It comes in body color for the Trail edition, whereas the Limited gets chrome plating on the grille and bumper. But left in place are the same body-on-frame platform and 4.0-liter V-6 engine with five-speed automatic transmission used since introduction seven years ago on the 2009 model.
This is not to say that the 4Runner, even if used strictly on-road, doesn't have some winsome qualities including its comforting go-anywhere stance that includes large all-terrain tires not usually found on the standard crossover, rugged exterior styling and considerable cargo capacity measuring nearly 90 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded.

Despite the 4Runner's aging platform and rather anemic gas mileage (17 city/22 highway/18 combined for rear-wheel drive models), as well as its shortcomings as a family crossover, it has proven spectacularly popular. Sales in 2014 were 76,906, a whopping 49 percent increase over 2013 when 51,625 left dealer showrooms. And January 2015 sales of just fewer than 7,000 were nearly double those of January 2014. If this trend continues that portends 2015 sales of nearly 85,000.

If you are a dedicated — or even an occasional — off-roader then the 4Runner should be right up your alley with such standard equipment as skid plates, mud guards, hill-start assist, hill-descent control, and a dual-range transfer case. If you want additional standard off-road goodies opt for the Trail model that comes with a locking rear differential, selectable terrain modes, and crawl control. The Trail models are also eligible for the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System that automatically disconnects the stabilizer bars in low-speed off-road situations to improve suspension articulation over rocks and ruts.

Performance is adequate from the 270-horsepower V-6 engine measured at 7.6 seconds from 0-to-60 in four-wheel drive configuration. Like many trucks, hitting the throttle from a standstill brings almost more noise than motivation, but the engine gets the job done. Towing capacity is only adequate at best considering the 278 pound-feet of torque available, rated at 4,700 pounds in both rear- and four-wheel configurations.

We found the 4Runner's road manners acceptable for a big truck, with a willingness to proceed in a straight line, but with little feedback from the steering wheel. And as you might expect, don't get too frisky on the winding roads.

We heard more road noise intruding on the interior at highway speeds than we have come to expect in a 40 grand vehicle, but the cabin is comfortable, the controls well laid out and easy to use, and the gauges attractive and legible. We appreciated the large climate control knobs as well as the volume and tuning knobs for the radio, although pre-sets were embedded in the center screen. There are numerous storage cubbies, always a welcome feature.

Safety is well covered with a standard rearview camera, antilock brakes, stability and traction control and — on all four-wheel drive models — an off-road traction control system known as A-Trac that helps keep you moving on slippery terrain by redirecting torque to the wheels that have traction.

The 4Runner is offered in four trim levels — SR5, Trail, TRD Pro and Limited — starting at $34,095 including destination charge for the rear-wheel drive SR5. The top-of-the-line Limited goes out the door for $44,505. Add $1,500 for a set of automatic running boards that will keep you happy getting in and out.

Standard equipment on all models includes 17-inch alloy wheels, a wide array of off-road equipment as outlined earlier, roof rails, a power liftgate window, keyless entry, cruise control, air conditioning, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and an eight-speaker sound system with a 6.1-inch touchscreen voice controls and HD and satellite radio. A third-row seat is available as an option, but it's designed more for children than adults.

Our Trail Premium 4 X 4 test truck came with a handful of options including the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System for a bottom line of $40,880.

Base price: $34,095; as driven, $40,880
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6
Horsepower: 270 @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 278 foot-pounds @ 4,400 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Drive: 4-wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 109.8 inches
Length: 191.3 inches
Curb weight: 4,750 pounds
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Towing capacity: 4,700 pounds
Luggage capacity: 46.3 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 88.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 23 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 21 highway, 17 city, 18 combined
0-60: 7.5 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Nissan Xterra, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Wrangler

The Good
• Off-road capability
• Large cargo capacity
• Optional third-row seat

The Bad
• Low towing capacity for truck-like SUV

The Ugly
• Poor gas mileage