Following a long line of Ford Broncos, GMC Jimmies, Jeep Wagoneers and the like, the Toyota 4Runner was by no means the first sport utility.
But it did usher in a segment that, when you consider its many offshoots, accounts for a huge percentage of vehicles you see on the road today. The 4Runner bowed in mid 1984 as a 1985 model, based on Toyota’s rugged four-wheel-drive compact pickup. It bore little resemblance to the big, leather-lined models you’ll see in showrooms today, having only two front seats and a removable fibreglass top covering the cargo area.
This SUV was powered by the company’s legendary 2.4-litre 22R inline four-cylinder, which was also found in the pickup—my first new ride—and I’ll attest that despite its small displacement, this engine still packed a punch, and as long as you changed the oil, was nearly indestructible.
Not so for the sheet metal. But that’s another story…
A turbo was soon added, and then dropped for a 3.0-litre V6 engine, and as the SUV genre evolved from enclosed pickup trucks into something more refined, Toyota dropped the removable fibreglass top and gradually made the 4Runner larger, more powerful and more luxurious.
The company, to its credit, never gave up on 4Runner’s off-road ability, but it did bend somewhat to market pressures that turned many SUVs into bloated, posh urban cruisers that spent more time ferrying kids to soccer practice than plying muddy trails and fording boulder-strewn river beds.
Prior to the launch of the current, fifth-generation model, Toyota took a survey of 4Runner owners that found many believed the vehicle lacked a rugged, purposeful look to match its true capabilities.
So they responded by bucking the trend towards a car-based, unibody design and embraced its truck-based ladder frame. This was clad in a body that was devoid of soft curves and ellipses, and instead wore pronounced, squared-off fender flares, wide shoulders, masculine grille and overall no-nonsense styling.
The company swapped its 4.7-litre V8 option and standard 3.5-litre V6 for a stronger yet more fuel efficient 4.0-litre six cylinder that now powers all 4Runners. It delivers 270 hp and 278 lb/ft of torque, up 34 hp and 12 lb/ft over the previous V6 and 10 hp over the available V8, while matching its 5,000 lb. towing capacity.
This is mated to a five-speed automatic with lock-up torque converter and transmission cooler.
But there’s more to off-road ability than a capable powertrain, and Toyota has equipped this vehicle—more or less depending on model—for the demands of the trail.
Standard on every 4Runner, beginning with the base SR5 (MSRP $37,990), are part-time 4WD, vehicle stability control (VSC), active traction control (A-TRAC), downhill assist control (DAC), hill-start assist control (HAC), automatic disconnecting differential, and protector plates for the gas tank and transfer case.
Suspension is double wishbone up front and four-link in rear (both with stabilizer bar), and you get a whopping 9.6 inches of ground clearance.
But for serious bush bashing, opt for the Trail Edition. This involves a hefty bump of $7,625 and for it you get some useful tech that includes Crawl Control (a kind of ‘cruise control’ for off-roading); multi-terrain select and the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS). Crawl Control negates any need for DAC.
With Crawl Control, you can dial in one of five speeds from 1.5-5 km/h, which are held regardless of terrain. All you do is steer while the system looks after throttle and braking.
Multi Terrain Select provides settings that deliver an appropriate level of wheel slip for a particular terrain. On loose surfaces, such as mud or sand, the system allows for more wheelspin, while on bumpy moguls or solid rock, it provides more traction and limits spin.
With the KDSS, both front and rear stabilizer bars are operational while on-road, and can be automatically disconnected in severe off-road situations. This allows for the full reach of the suspension when going through deep ruts, and over rocks and logs—when you need maximum tire contact.
I’ve driven the Trail Edition and found it on par with some of the best off-road vehicles in its class. My recent tester—the seven-passenger Limited—doesn’t get the above-mentioned goodies, but with its full-time 4WD system, limited-slip centre differential, steel skid plates and other standard technologies, it is no slouch off the grid.
To be sure, this $49,885 vehicle ($49,085 for the five-passenger model) may see little abuse initially, but a Toyota rep once reminded me that off-roading may not be typically done with a brand-new 4Runner, but that’s often where it ends up a few years out of the showroom.
In the meantime, I found the Limited very easy to live with in the urban jungle. Like all SUVs, it sits high for a commanding view of the road, and its reasonable turning circle, light steering and strong acceleration made it a pleasurable daily driver.
But if you think this sport utility provides the demure ride and hushed cabin common to many soft roaders, think again. The 4Runner is a beast, and I say this in praise.
The roar of its V6 powertrain, the sound of its big tires pawing at the asphalt and the mild bellow of exhaust all remind you that you’re driving a truck—not the family taxi. And the suspension, although forgiving enough, isn’t as smooth as what you’d expect from its Lexus siblings.
In snow and sloppy weather, the 4Runner is extremely sure-footed, with its three-mode switch set on 4WD High-Free (front/rear power split dependent on weather and traction) or better yet on 4WD High-Locked (power split equally between front and rear axles).
The 4WD-Low setting is for slow speed maneuvers, such as on the trail or when you’re stuck.
Inside, the 4Runner is as well-dressed as any SUV in its class, and despite the abundance of hard plastic, there’s still a nice mix of textures and materials, with soft-touch in the doors and other areas. The instrument panel and centre console include big buttons, large knobs and easy-to-read displays—ideal for gloved hands, and for aging boomers.
There’s loads of knee room in the second row, but precious little in the third if you opt for the seven-seater. There are some SUVs, like the Honda Pilot tested recently on these pages, which can seat full-size adults.
The 4Runner is not one of them.
This $800 option, however, will work for kids who don’t mind scrambling into small spaces.
The 4Runner may not be the ideal ride for those who never venture off the pavement, but for those who do, it blends an abundance of creature comforts with a level of go-anywhere off-road prowess that’s hard to find in its segment.
Toyota 4Runner Limited
Body Style: intermediate SUV
Drive Method: front-engine, four-wheel-drive
Engine: 4.0 litre DOHC 24-valve V6 (270 hp and 278 lb/ft of torque)
Cargo: 250 litres behind third row, 1,300 litres behind second row, 2,500 litres behind first row
Towing Capacity: 5,000 lbs
Fuel Economy: (Regular) 12.7/9.4/11.2L/100 km (city/highway/combined)
Price: base SR5 $37,990, upgrade package $44,420, Trail Edition $45,615, Limited $49,085, as tested with third row $49,885