Still a proper no-frills, no-nonsense SUV. But now there are more frills and nonsense than ever before.
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After being in production for over three decades, the 4Runner has proven itself. Time and again. It has nothing left to prove, to be honest. For those who want an honest, body-on-frame SUV, there really are not a lot of choices left.
Its recognizable rugged good looks remain intact although it has also evolved into something a little more funky. Toyota has done an awful number on the grille of the lower-trim SR5 and Trail models but thankfully the more premium-feeling Limited gets to hang on to the aggressive, muscular parts without looking nearly as overwrought. It also gets massive 20-inch rims with 245/60-sized rubber.
Let’s talk about first impressions once you’ve given the 4Runner a good once over from the outside. A true SUV sits high off the ground, and the 4Runner is no exception. It sits there, with its 9.6″ of clearance, challenging you. It’s a step up, to be sure, and that’s where running boards come in handy. But not these ones. This is, without a doubt, the worst application of running boards I have ever seen in my life. The 4Runner’s spec sheet calls them “unique running boards”. Well, they weren’t kidding. They are mounted directly beneath the edge of the 4Runner’s sides rather than being suspended, which means that there isn’t enough space between the vehicle’s body for your foot. It also means that half of the running boards’ width is hiding beneath the vehicle. So you can get maybe half of your shoe on there, and then you will invariably slip off of it if it’s wet or snowy. My passengers and I actually found them to be quite dangerous because you can’t help but use them, but there is no proper way to use them without slipping off. Terrible.
Once you’re in, the heated and cooled seats (in a rich brown “Redwood” leather) are exceptionally comfortable and offer outstanding bolstering – not so much for sporty on-road driving as for the off-roading this thing can handle.
The interior styling is a mixed bag of the cluttered Toyota of yesteryear and the new. The hard dash plastics are quite nice, with matte finishes, liquid metal plastics and interesting textures, while the door panels are beautifully upholstered. The splash of real wood trim across the dash is a nice touch too. I found the gauges are a bit hard to read with a quick glance. The fat-rimmed, grippy steering wheel is a delight to drive with, on road and in the rough stuff.
The dash houses Toyota’s 6.1-inch touchscreen system which handles the (15-speaker!) JBL audio system, as well as the navigation system, phone functions and vehicle settings. Comfort is handled through an automatic dual-zone climate control.
There are plenty of storage options scattered here and there throughout the interior – some of it useful, some of it too strangely shaped to be of much utility. Overhead is a sunroof and universal garage door openers. Driver assistance technology is limited to front and rear parking sensors and a rear view camera.
As you get into the back seats, you’ll find yourself sitting quite high, which presents a great view from the comfortable bench seating. The seats recline and offer acceptable head room – it was OK for me (at 5’10”) but taller passengers will balk. Leg room should be enough for most folks, and the middle seat is big enough to accommodate an adult.
Rear passengers get two 12V plugs and the middle seatback folds down to become a nice armrest with a couple of cupholders. Our three kids had plenty of space back there, and if you need to accommodate child seats, there are two sets of LATCH anchors.
How do you like our new top of the line Limited trim 4Runner so far? Want to see the cargo space? Sure, just let me pop that trunk open for you here… oh wait, I’ll have to do that by hand. Because this nearly-$50,000 SUV doesn’t have a power lift gate – it’s not even an option.
Not only is the tail gate manual, but it weighs more than any other I’ve had to open by hand. There’s a good reason for it though – what other SUV can boast about its power rear window? Yes, the 4Runner still has this feature. Activated by a rocker switch on the centre console, you can still slide that rear window down into the tail gate. And that’s cool.
The large 1300-litre trunk has a 12V and 120V household plug. The rear seat backs fold down, but first require you to tumble the cushions forward and flip down the headrests. Very old-school. Go through the motions and you have an almost-flat 2500 litre space. That’s a lot.
Under the Hood
Toyota gives the 4Runner a 4.0-litre V6. Its rated at 270 horsepower at 5600 RPM and 278 lb.ft of torque at 4400 RPM. Fuel economy has never been the 4Runner’s strong suit. It’s rated at 14.2 L/100 km (17 US mpg) city and 11.1 L/100 km (21 US mpg) highway. I averaged an unsurprising 15.9 L/100 km (15 US mpg) during my week in it. I was thankful for the ample 87 litre fuel tank.
The big V6 pairs well with the smooth five-speed automatic, providing ample torquey power to make this 2111 kg (4655 lb) beast jump off the line. Once you’re on your way and need to find some more power, you might find yourself frustrated with the transmission’s unwillingness to shift down quickly, and even its Sport mode doesn’t make things sporty. It’ll hold the revs longer, but that’s about it. I occasionally found myself wanting a little more get up and go – especially on the highway.
The ride is good on decent roads but it becomes a bit of a jiggly kidney-jostling adventure over anything irregular and ends up bordering on harsh when it’s something like a rutted back road. With that said, the 4Runner can take huge hits without breaking a sweat and of course, if you’re going off-road, that ability is going to be of equal importance as the vehicle’s on-road manners. Handling is very competent and predictable but there’s plenty of body lean into corners.
I found the brakes to be spongy at first, and then they’d grab with shocking ferocity. In addition, when you hit the brakes, the front end dives toward the pavement like a 1978 Lincoln Town Car. Parking the 4Runner in a tight spot is an adventure thanks to the huge 11.4 m (37.4′)turning circle – count on adding a couple of extra points to your turns.
Other than the loud, rushing sounds the V6 makes under throttle, the 4Runner is surprisingly quiet – there’s a bit of wind noise once you crack 100 km/h but the road noise is minimal, even on the highway. I did often find some granularity to the drive feel, which is very typical of true 4x4s. Nothing annoying, just a slight graininess in the drivetrain when you’re tooling around town.
Visibility from the driver’s seat is fantastic and that, paired with the high seating position, makes for an excellent experience on- and off-road. A couple of the bigger pillars in the back want to get in your way of shoulder checking, but it’s not bad at all.
Need to tow? The 4Runner can do that. Towing is rated up to 2268 kg (5000 lb) and they all come equipped with a hitch receiver, wiring harness and supplementary transmission oil cooler.
There is no doubt that the 4Runner’s off-road pedigree has been well-established and that hasn’t changed. It might come across as more refined (it is), but it can still run off the beaten path with the big dogs whenever you want it to.
Impressive specs such as the aforementioned nearly-10-inch ground clearance, 33 degree approach and 26 degree departure angles are no joke. But Toyota backs up the 4Runner’s impressive stats on paper with real-world performance. And this machine gets the hardware it needs to make that happen safely and reliably.
A full-time 4×4 system in the Limited trim lets you choose between two 4-Hi modes (splitting the power between front and rear either variably or equally), or a 4-Lo mode for low-speed maneuvers. Hill-descent and hill-start modes are standard, as is A-TRAC (Active Traction Control) which limits wheelspin and redistributes that force to the other wheels. It works very well in slippery conditions, on loose surfaces and uneven terrain.
Coils over gas shocks on all four corners and a rear suspension that cross-links those shock absorbers to enable flow of hydraulic fluid back and forth makes for a ton of suspension travel, absorption ability and helps limit diagonal pitching.
There’s no doubt that the 4Runner has been engineered from the ground up to be as capable off-road as it is on the road.
And therein lies the issue. Off-road capable vehicles built on a truck chassis call for compromises. While the 4Runner has become more refined than ever before, it can’t mitigate all of those compromises. And that’s what makes it a vehicle that’s not ideal for most of us.
The 4Runner is simply not the best urban vehicle. It stays true to its mission, and a big part of that mission is to let its driver go anywhere. As a package, there’s much about it that I loved without being able to put my finger on what it was that I liked so much. Maybe it was the vault-like build quality, or the knowledge that I could easily turn off the road onto any trail I wanted to explore.
WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was quite high. Although she thought it was pretty big, she liked the rugged looks and how much space it has, as well as how luxurious it felt inside. I was surprised that she wasn’t more put off by things like the ride and the turning circle.
Is the 4Runner the right vehicle for you? Chances are, it’s not. To answer that question, you’ll just need to decide what the 4Runner is to you – is it a no-compromise, off-road capable truck-based SUV or is it just an SUV mired down with a bunch of compromises? If you chose the first answer, saddle up that 4Runner and explore your world. Otherwise, walk across the showroom to the Highlander. Most people do.
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Toyota Canada.
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Pricing: 2015 Toyota 4Runner
Base price: $38,310
Options: $9,37o Limited Package 5-passenger
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $49,470