Author - John Kucek
Perhaps unfathomable when the 4Runner first debuted on our shores was the idea that thirty years later, the same rough and tumble body-on-frame SUV could still exist in very similar fashion, even after all the competition had eventually morphed into soft-roading, sedan-based shadows of their former selves. We’re happy that the 4Runner still exists, and even if you’re not in the market for one, you should too. Read on to find out why.
The 4Runner has been enjoying fantastic sales numbers so far in 2014, even at a time when the preponderance of car-based crossovers is at an all-time high. While it’s easy to speculate as to the cause, certainly some of it must be down to the fact that the 4Runner remains a good value proposition, especially when you factor running costs, reliability and resale value into the mix. But I doubt that’s all of it. There are probably buyers who would be better served by a more plebian car-based offering, even one within Toyota’s own portfolio, but are instead drawn to the 4Runner for its macho, go-anywhere cred. And who can blame them? It’s one of the few SUVs out there right now that can actually back up its looks with genuine off-road prowess.
Witness our Trail model’s two-speed 4WD transfer case, featuring an honest-to-god low range. Coupled with standard CRAWL control (meaning hill speed control that can be used both up AND down hills), a locking rear differential and a Multi-Terrain Select system that electronically optimizes traction in various conditions, like Sand/Mud, Rocks, and Moguls – my personal favorite. The term “mogul” on the 4Runner’s headliner-mounted control panel apparently refers to wandering, uneven terrain like washed-out ditches and ruts, rather than successful film or recording execs – good to know. A unique, cut-away front fascia on the Trail allows for a greater approach angle than standard 4Runners (33 degrees compared to 30) and ground clearance is a brawny 9.6 inches.
All of this kit, combined with our tester’s optional KDSS suspension (which allows for greater suspension articulation at rock-crawling speeds) makes the Trail a formidable force off-road. While it lacks the TRD Pro model’s (more on that later) knobby off-road tires, we’re guessing it’d take some pretty serious mud to sideline the Trail. An impromptu visit to a local vehicle-friendly beach allowed me to just barely scratch the surface of the Trail’s capabilities, thanks to some deep, washed-out ruts created by a heavy rain. They presented no challenge whatsoever, and while it would be nice to experience the Trail on some land that really allows its systems to be fully exploited, even our brief taste was enough to place us firmly in the believer camp.
Still, we’d be remiss not to mention the 4Runner’s on-road demeanor, since that’s where about 99% (or 100% in many cases) of these trucks’ miles will be accumulated. The ride is soft and some body lean is noticeable in corners, though you’d expect that in a vehicle set up to do what the Trail can off-road. The KDSS suspension system actually allows for much thicker sway bars front and rear, which are decoupled off-road but keep body roll from being prohibitive on the street. It’s a trick system, and well worth the extra $1,750 for those planning to four-wheel their 4Runners. The only handling gripe came in the form of a grabby brake pedal that proved tough to modulate.
This is a body-on-frame SUV, remember, so the durability of that setup also tends to impact the weight at the scales. As such, the 4.0-liter V6 and 5-speed automatic transmission have their work cut out for them to move the 4Runner around with gusto, but honestly, acceleration is good enough and in keeping with the truck’s mission. There’s plenty of torque on offer – enough to tow 4,700 pounds through the standard receiver hitch.
The interior hews closely to the rugged off-roader image struck by the body; all mod cons are present and accounted for, but the layout is more like an FJ Cruiser’s than a Highlander’s. That’s a purposeful reminder made by Toyota to ensure buyers know what they’re getting into – this isn’t meant to be a “mall-rated” crossover. After all, you’d be hard pressed to find a version of the Highlander like the even harder-core 4Runner TRD Pro model. Starting with the Trail, the TRD Pro adds special TRD front springs and Bilstein shocks (the rears have remote reservoirs), knobbier Nitto off-road tires wrapped around unique black TRD 17” alloys, a front skid plate, a unique front grille and bumper accents, and an exclusive available paint option in the form of an orangey Inferno hue. Starting at $41,995, the TRD Pro is $2,490 dearer than an optionless Trail Premium model, but if the goal was to take my 4Runner ‘wheeling now and then (and if you’re considering a 4Runner, you’d be a fool not to), it’d be easy to spring for the stouter TRD Pro Series hardware and take the badder-ass looks as a free side benefit. I mean, just look at the thing. Marty McFly would certainly approve, especially in black.
Besides the Wrangler and the now-defunct FJ Cruiser, the 4Runner represents a shrinking island in a sea of car-based SUVs - that of an attainable off-roader that will also comfortably seat four to five people and all of their gear. The 4Runner’s popularity as a result of this limited market is no surprise, but a warning to those whose itch this truck might scratch – act now, because SUVs of this ilk may not be around forever.
2015 Toyota 4Runner Trail Premium 4x4
Base price: $39,505
Price as tested: $40,855
Options on test car: Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System ($1,750), Sliding rear cargo floor ($350), 30th Anniversary discount (-$750)
Powertrain: 4.0-liter V6 engine, 5-speed automatic transmission, part time four-wheel-drive – 270 horsepower, 278 lb-ft torque
S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 18.2 mpg
Toyota provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.