On the Road Review: Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro

Consumers profess an attraction to off-roading. At least the marketing efforts of the automakers reflect this attitude, as even car-based crossovers are often advertised as mighty mouse off-road warriors.

As with much of today’s marketing, the opposite is often reality.

True off-road adventurers know that they have limited choices when it comes to finding vehicles that can hold up to the rigors at the end of the pavement, while performing reasonably well on the pavement. Hummer? Gone. Most of the former ladder-framed SUVs? Gone. Capitalizing on both the image and reality of real off-road use today are just a few products. Several wear Jeep badges, but Toyota has to be considered the practical alternative for many other drivers, with the Tacoma pickup and 4Runner SUV filling the need.

The 4Runner has been around for decades; indeed, it was one of the first midsize SUVs created by marrying a plastic cap to a Toyota compact pickup just as the Chevy S-10 Blazer was becoming popular. Ford followed years later with the Explorer, which blew past the Bronco II on the sales charts, and the SUV race was on. Toyota’s offering stayed competitive, but never reached the lofty sales levels of several competitors — unless of course you consider that the 4Runner is still available and several rivals have long since disappeared. Staying power is worth a lot.

Today’s 4Runner remains a truck-chassis based SUV, sharing the platform that underpins the Tacoma pickup and the recently departed FJ Cruiser, which was essentially a two-door version of the 4Runner. This means solid rear axle instead of the independent suspension found on all crossovers and most cars, which in turn has compromising impacts on ride and drive dynamics not evident on crossovers.

Countering the head-toss and body roll that is on display on less than perfect tarmac or heavily crowned rural roads, like those abundant in Maine, is the strength and solidity evident in a chassis that is built for the rigors of off-road. In TRD Pro trim, the 4Runner boasts of aluminum skid plates underneath, thick Bilstein shocks, oversized 17-inch off-road-oriented tires, Crawl control, Hill-descent control, TRAC multi-terrain programming, a locking differential, plus manual high and low range four-wheel drive.

Not unlike a Jeep Wrangler buyer, owners of 4Runners know what hardware they need, know what the truck is designed for, and generally pursue these capabilities despite looking like mall-warriors more often than a trail-warrior.

As with the Tacoma pickup, the 4Runner offers plenty of ground clearance for rock crawling, however, the high entry point and relatively low roofline mean access requires the same type of body contortions to enter. This is not a problem for those short of inseam, but awkward for those who are; head impacts are frequent.

Once inside, operators are greeted by a thick-rimmed steering wheel that feels right. Three huge climate control knobs are efficiently simple, while more large knobs and extra large buttons provide intuitive access to all other controls. This is how a dash should be; smart and simple. Oddly, many of the off-road traction controls are roof-mounted, which requires some familiarity before rubbernecking up to manipulate.

The console is also functional with workable pockets, plus seat heater controls as well as a button for the power rear window. Think back to your youth and how many station wagons had power rear windows — often to let our parents’ obnoxious smoking out of the car, I assumed — and now think of how many crossovers have a power window. Not many; most have a power liftgate which is helpful but not much of a suitable vent while driving.

The 4Runner’s rear window is a nice vent while driving — as well as a neat portal for loading items when you don’t need to operate the whole liftgate. On the highway, I found that the Toyota’s lowered rear window provided unending entertainment. Passing other traffic revealed different levels of aerodynamic roar; some big trucks were nearly silent, while other cars and some vehicles produce a jet-like roar as you creep past. It was an interesting phenomenon that cemented the importance of enhanced aerodynamics for not only noise levels but also fuel economy.

Like SUVs of the past, the 4Runner’s fuel economy lags behind today’s crossovers. Using the 270-hp 4.0-liter V-6 and 5-speed automatic from the previous generation Tacoma pickup, the 4Runner’s calculated economy did closely match the EPA ratings — 18.2 to 20.3 mpg against ratings of 17/21/18 mpg. And, like the previous Tacoma, the 4Runner struggled to maintain highway cruising momentum in the face of changing elevations, the transmission often downshifting to other gears with a sudden engine roar. Generally, the powertrain is more than adequate for the required chores and garnered no other attention. 4Runner’s can tow up to 4,700 pounds and both seven-pin and four-pin hookups are included.

While admiring, and appreciating, the relative simplicity of the 4Runner’s controls and packaging, this truck is not a throwback design void of amenities. Bluetooth access is included, as are USB ports and power sockets, plus heated seats and mirrors, keyless access and a full assortment of airbags. The rear seatback reclines and splits to fold 40/20/40 while the rear camera improves visibility around the rear of the truck.

Pricing starts at under $32,000 for rear drive SR5 models. Trim levels range up to Trail, Limited and new TRD Pro with our sample truck stickering for $42,450.

Tough looking, with a solid reputation and a gleaming track record for reliability, the 4Runner is a reasoned alternative to a Wrangler Unlimited. Pricing, ride dynamics, power, mileage, weight and off-roading capabilities are comparable, with the Toyota having a larger, more user-friendly interior. So the top no longer comes off, and the doors aren’t removable, but the 4Runner’s virtuous performance will still attract a fair amount of buyers.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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