Thumbs Up: You can take five adults comfortably to the ends of the earth
Thumbs Down: It’s gotten awfully large over the years, no available V8
Buy This Car If: You want to travel where the busses don’t run and need more room than an FJ Cruiser
I’ve been a big fan of the 4Runner for years, although I have to admit my favorite was the second generation model, sold from 1989 to 1995. Even the third generation (1995 – 2002) was a great truck, but Toyota took a step backwards when they launched the fourth generation in 2003. What had begun life as a supremely-capable-but-bare-bones SUV had grown into a bloated parody of its former self, much like Elvis in his later years. It could still deliver the goods, but its appearance made you wonder where it all went wrong.
Toyota has tried to recapture the magic with the fifth generation 4Runner, launched in late 2009 as a 2010 model. It’s even bigger than the fourth generation version, but the conservative, let’s-not-offend-anyone looks have been replaced by edgier, more masculine styling. Soccer moms may still buy 4Runners, but their husbands won’t be donning sunglasses and baseball caps to drive fifth generation models. One thing hasn’t changed, and that’s the 4Runner’s ability to deliver the goods. If you need to get from point A to point B, and you need to haul more passengers and cargo than Toyota’s FJ Cruiser allows, the 4Runner is up to the task.
Unlike the more civilized SUVs in Toyota’s lineup (the RAV4 and Highlander), the 4Runner is still a body on frame truck. Like the FJ Cruiser, the 4Runner uses a shortened version of the Prado frame, originally developed for Toyota’s Land Cruiser. Also like the FJ Cruiser, the 4Runner is built by Hino for Toyota; in case you don’t know the name, Hino is Toyota’s affiliate that builds heavy-duty, commercial trucks. In other words, the 4Runner is designed for functionality over comfort, despite available features like leather seating and automatic climate control. A Highlander will get you to grandma’s home in the woods more comfortably, but a 4Runner will get you to grandma’s house in the woods even if the bridge is washed out and the road has been swallowed by a sinkhole. Whether the tradeoff in comfort is worth the gain in functionality is up to you.
On the outside, the older model’s gentle curves and subtle lines have been replaced by a scowling front end and chiseled lines on the fenders and front fascia. The fifth generation 4Runner looks like it means business, and the deeply flared fenders give the truck a muscular look. It’s still a box on box truck, but at least the 2010 4Runner looks as rugged as it actually is. The oversized 4Runner logo on the rear is a bit over-the-top, and the chrome trim is a little out of place, but otherwise the exterior styling is a huge improvement over the previous generation.
Inside, the 4Runner treats off-roaders to a healthy dose of civilized comfort. My tester had comfortable and well bolstered leather front seats, and the driver’s seat featured an inflatable lumbar cushion. It even had heated front seats, just the ticket when your off-road adventures call for a quick trip to Fairbanks, Alaska in the dead of winter.
The rear seats, also clad in leather, are roomy enough for two adults on long trips or even three adults for shorter excursions. Rear seat passengers get a dedicated HVAC vent, which is much appreciated in both hot and cold weather. As you’d expect from an SUV with generous cargo space, the rear seats fold flat to offer up even more room for hauling stuff to the middle of nowhere. Although my tester had only two rows of seats, 4Runners can be equipped with an optional third row seat if you really need to haul more passengers.
As if to remind you that the 4Runner is a truck, some of the controls are almost comically oversized. I’ve got huge hands, but I still felt like Tom Hanks in “Big” when I tried to wrap them around the steering wheel; it is literally the largest diameter steering wheel rim that I’ve ever encountered. Controls for the HVAC and radio are also on the large side, presumably so they can be operated with gloved hands. If you’re buying a 4Runner for your wife, you may want to make sure she can get comfortable behind the wheel.
The dash is laid out in a conventional manner, with the controls for the radio atop the controls for the HVAC system. Interior materials were reasonable in quality, with a high grade textured vinyl toping the dash, and hard plastic (in a contrasting color) forming the lower sections. Silver painted plastic or molded black plastic is used on most of the interior trim, and it works well enough.
Instruments are deep set in three separate pods, with a center speedometer, odometer and gear indicator taking up the largest chunk of real estate. The speedometer is flanked on the left by the tachometer and on the right by the temperature and fuel gauges. All instruments have a faux carbon fiber background: yes, this looks good, but it’s also strangely out of place on a truck with no sporting intentions.
Toyota’s venerable 4.0 liter V6 gets a freshening for the 2010 4Runner, and now puts out 270 horsepower and 278 ft lb of torque. That’s an increase of 34 horsepower and 12 ft lb of torque, which makes the 4Runner accelerate reasonable well for its bulk (nearly 4,700 pounds before you add passengers and cargo). I saw a combined fuel economy of 18.4 miles per gallon, which is within the EPA’s range of 17 mpg city, 22 mpg highway. The V6 engine is mated to Toyota’s five speed automatic, and buyers can opt for rear wheel drive on SR5 or Limited models; the off-road oriented Trail model is only available in 4wd. Towing capacity is limited to 5,000 pounds, and Toyota killed the V8 option on fifth generation models. Oddly enough, a 2.7 liter inline four, which makes 157 horsepower and 178 ft lb of torque, is now offered as the base engine on RWD SR5 models. Do I even need to tell you that this isn’t enough to move over two and a quarter tons of truck?
On the road, the 4Runner feels softly sprung and a bit under-damped. I understand this is necessary for off-road capability, but my shorter wheelbase FJ Cruiser feels more solid and planted on pavement. There’s a fair amount of body roll at turn in on the 4Runner, but you have to expect that on a capable SUV. Braking distance was reasonable, but you need to keep in mind that a 4Runner isn’t going to stop in the same amount of distance that a smaller SUV will. Plan accordingly and the 4Runner rewards you with zero drama.
Off-road, the 4Runner shines. You won’t be driving the Rubicon Trail in a stock 4Runner, but it will handle trips to the lodge or trips to the beach without complaint. When the going gets rough, 4wd 4Runners can be equipped with a locking rear differential and Toyota’s Active TRAC, which simulates locking front and rear differentials by using a computer to modulate the ABS. A terrain management system, similar to that used by Ford and Land Rover, can even be ordered on 4wd models. Bone stock, the 4Runner will get you just about anywhere you’d want to go in reasonable comfort, which is probably why Toyota sells so many of them.
My SR5 4×4 V6 tester had a base price of $31,715, including destination charge. Options on my tester included the $350 Sliding Rear Cargo Deck, the $1,050 Convenience Package (Moonroof, Front & Rear 110v Outlets), the $585 Audio Package (AM/FM/XM Radio, MP3 CD, 8 Speakers, iPod Connectivity, Bluetooth Phone, Bluetooth Audio Streaming), the $525 Backup Camera and the $2,205 Premium Package (Heated Leather Seats, Power Adjustable Seats, Leather Wrapped Steering Wheel and Gearshift, Courtesy Lights) for an as-tested price of $36,425. A comparably equipped Nissan Pathfinder LE would sticker at $40,050, a comparably equipped Jeep Grand Cherokee would run $39,120 and a comparably equipped (but discontinued) Ford Explorer would run $38,365, which makes the 2010 Toyota 4Runner a bargain among mid-size SUVs.
The 4Runner has come a long way from it’s simple truck roots, and I think the fifth generation model takes a step back in the right direction. Once again, it looks and acts like a truck, which is exactly what a 4Runner should be. Yes, it’s gotten bigger, but Toyota also offers the supremely capable FJ Cruiser for truck buyers who want an SUV closer in size to the original 4Runner. With choices like that, a buyer can’t lose.